California Teens Expose the Chemicals in Household Cleaners That Are Putting Their Community at Risk

Their research aims to inform Latinas—who make up a significant proportion of the domestic workforce—about how to choose safer cleaning products.

LUCIR youth researchers and research team members outside the CHAMACOS Youth Council building in Salinas, California

Credit: Courtesy CHAMACOS Study

When Giselle Lazaro met with study subjects for a scientific research project she was conducting, she found herself on familiar territory—in households that resembled her own Mexican American home in Salinas, a working-class city in central California. Lazaro and 14 other students from Salinas high schools were conducting a study to identify health hazards from traditional cleaning products and raise awareness about how to avoid them.

"Scientists are often portrayed in the media in white lab coats, away from people. We were teens conducting science and also giving back to the community," says Lazaro, who is now 21. For three years, her team conducted the LUCIR study, which stands for “Lifting Up Communities by Intervening with Research.” (Lucir also means "to shine" and "to show" in Spanish.) The study was supported by the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health (CERCH). Toxic chemicals contained in popular cleaning products have been linked to asthma, cancer, and reproductive harm, and disproportionately impact domestic workers in the United States, more than half of whom are women of color. In the Golden State, Latinas make up 81 percent of professional home cleaners, according to the California Breast Cancer Research program, which funded the study.

Lazaro and the other researchers enlisted 50 participants, all Latinas. “Every time I went to a [participant's] home, I easily connected to them. I would speak to them in Spanish, and I'd treat them with the same respect as if they're my mom." She and the other teens asked the recruits to wear air-monitoring backpacks as they cleaned, first with traditional cleaning products and then, a week later, with low-chemical alternatives.

Scientific air sampling backpacks given out to study participants
Credit: Lucia Calderon

The study’s results showed significant reductions in chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer when the women switched to the "green" products, notes James Earl Schier Nolan, community science manager at CERCH. "This is the first study where researchers have gone into people's homes to measure the difference of what goes into the air," he says. Specifically, their data show decreases in exposure levels of 17 carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. For instance, when using greener products, acetaldehyde exposures decreased by 38 percent, 1,4-dioxane fell by 46 percent, and chloroform went down by 86 percent.

The study also notes that not all products marketed as eco-friendly are harmless; many are laced with fragrances that may increase the risk of potential health effects and some may also contain phthalates. (“We recommend choosing unscented and green cleaning products or making your own products at home!” write the students in their report.)

Credit: The LUCIR study found that green cleaning products contain 38 percent less acetaldehyde in items like fabric softeners; 49 percent less 1,4-dioxane in products like soaps and foaming cleansers; and 86 percent less chloroform in products like bleach and spot removers.

While the students had planned to share their findings at community events or other public venues, by the time they completed their research last spring, the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, in order to get the word out safely, they opted to create video PSAs in Spanish and English instead. The UC Berkeley School of Public Health and supporters such as the Environmental Working Group are now aiming to amplify the videos, by sharing them with affinity organizations and local TV stations. Nolan and his colleagues also gave a presentation about the findings with stakeholders at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Safer Consumer Products program, among others.

California has already been leading the way for consumer safety around cleaning products, thanks to another member of the Latino community. A few years ago, then–California senator Ricardo Lara wrote a bill, cosponsored by NRDC, that later became state law, the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017. Lara was inspired by his mother, who would return from work as a house cleaner feeling sick and without access to information on the chemicals she came into contact with on the job. As a result of the law, manufacturers of cleaning products sold in California had to start posting all ingredients online last year and must do so on product labels by the end of 2021. The cleaning products industry partnered with NRDC and other advocacy groups in shaping the law's transparency requirements.

“There's been some really great organizing efforts among folks in cleaning occupations to address multiple issues with working conditions," says NRDC senior scientist Veena Singla. But federal worker protections do not extend to domestic house cleaners. Singla notes the exclusion of domestic cleaners under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which means many don’t get sick time, health insurance, or other benefits. In California, however, Latinas have been at the forefront of the push for reforms, such as rallying Governor Gavin Newsom to support the Health and Safety for All Workers Act. “That's really what we want to see—communities at the table and part of the decision-making process," Singla says.

As the LUCIR researchers discovered, one of the barriers to improving conditions is a simple lack of awareness.

A group of LUCIR youth researchers, with Giselle Lazaro (far left) and Stephanie (far right) processing study samples
Credit: James Earl Schier Nolan

Lazaro says her mom, a farmworker, and dad, a former construction worker, at first resisted the idea of using the unfamiliar green products, whereas her 29-year-old sister was more open to it. With Lazaro’s continued encouragement, the entire family began to use environmentally friendly products or natural ingredients like white vinegar to clean their homes. For Lazaro, it was rewarding to see both her family and the larger community make healthier, more informed choices. She notes that many of the study participants described positive changes in their households after switching to greener products.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to conduct research in my community,” Lazaro says. Now in her fourth year at University of California, Davis, concentrating on political science and Chicana/o studies, she hopes to eventually pursue a master's degree in public health.

Avinash Kar, NRDC senior attorney and director of state health policy, sees the CERCH project as proof that safer cleaning products can be affordable and accessible to all, whether they are made at home from easily found natural ingredients like baking soda or lemon juice or purchased as cleaning products at the store. In addition, he says, "younger folks are more attuned to these issues and they'll have higher buying power in the future." And companies working to remove chemicals of concern and replacing them with safer options could command more loyalty from these customers down the road, he notes. Kar also emphasizes the significant role the Salinas teens may play in influencing change in their own hometown. “The fact that kids from these communities did the research speaks to their awareness of their community.”

Like many of the student researchers, 17-year-old Stephanie Mayo-Burgos received school credit and a summertime income for her participation. However, she notes that spending the last three years working on this study had longer-term benefits too: It inspired her to major in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she recently began her freshman year.

"I've learned a lot of valuable skills like leadership and how to budget my time. When I started out, I was a very shy person. Thanks to this study, I feel like I've gotten good at presenting," says Mayo-Burgos. She adds that she’d like to become a policymaker one day because "that's where the real change happens." But as she and her peers helped prove, change can often start right at home.

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