What’s the Bother with Borax?
Is Borax safe or not?
Borax is one of those ‘natural’ cleaning products that can divide a room.
The ‘CAUTION Keep Out of Reach of Children’ notification on the container, teamed with the child-proof lid that even the man of the house struggles to open only adds to the ‘It must be nasty, nasty stuff’ worry passing through any concerning mum’s mind.
But is it toxic and on the ‘no-go’ list or can it hold its head up high in your green cleaning toolkit?
To answer this question it pays to take a look first at what Borax is and where it comes from….
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What is Borax?
Borax is the common name given to the mineral compounds sodium borate, sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate. It is prevalent in nature as an evaporation product from seasonal lakes (where water-soluble mineral sediments concentrate and crystallize by evaporation). It is also produced commercially from boron compounds.
Borax is not to be confused with Boric Acid, which is poisonous if taken internally or inhaled in large quantities. Boric Acid is produced commercially when Borax is mixed with an acid such as Hydrochloric Acid. It is also found in nature in volcanic settings, sea water and fruits.
Borax in its raw form is commonly used to clean and deodorise areas around the home without leaving strong scents. It is readily available and is economical. Borax is also a common ingredient in commercial laundry, pest control and even personal care products such as tooth bleaches.
Is Borax Safe?
Borax has been widely used since the early 1900’s and is reported to not be acutely toxic.
Its LD50 (median lethal dose) score is tested at 2.66 g/kg in rats. This means that a significant dose of the chemical is needed to cause severe symptoms or death in rats. This lethal dose is not necessarily the same for humans (source).
Borax has however had its reputation impacted by various organisations disagreeing on its toxicity status. This doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in the short term.
Borax was first registered by the EPA as an insecticide with restrictions in 1946, however these restrictions were removed in 1986.
A re-evaluation in 2006 by the EPA again studied the toxicity due to overexposure. It found that the inhalation risks to the handler were not of concern, however cited the possibility of an irritation risk to children if inhaled (note it mentioned this risk for when it’s used as a powder to clean rugs, supposedly due to the risk associated with children playing on the floor and having hand to mouth transfers) (source).
This report also noted that Borax showed low acute oral and dermal (skin) toxicity in the study. However of more concern, it stated that some testicular atrophy and reduction in sperm production were observed in rats and mice. No notable risk was reported for the female reproductive tract, however increased foetal susceptibility were observed at doses that did not cause maternal toxicity.
Since these findings were published, Borax was added to the Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) candidate list in 2010 based on the revised classification of Borax as being potentially toxic for reproduction. This list is part of EU Regulations on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals 2006 (REACH). Borax is currently being assessed for addition to the REACH Annex XIV. If accepted all imports and uses of Borax in the EU will have to be authorized by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and carry the warnings “May damage fertility” and “May damage the unborn child”. The addition is still under review and many submissions against its inclusion have been received.
It should be noted that both boric acid and sodium borate salts are classified as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” under the current (2005) Agency Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment. Long-term dietary studies in the rat and the mouse did not show evidence of treatment-related increases in tumours and the available genotoxicity data do not indicate mutagenic potential (source).
So what does this mean in everyday speak apart from letting men and pregnant women off the hook with housework?
Basically there’s still some debate out there, not to mention the need for more toxicology studies, to clarify the risks of Borax, particularly on the reproductive system.
If you don’t want to wait until revised findings are published (who knows when that will be) you can choose to either practice the precautionary principal (basically err on the conservative side and avoid Borax until any potential risks are further clarified by toxicology studies). Alternatively, you can continue to use Borax, exercising caution to minimise any risks of exposure.
My Take on Borax
There is no denying that Borax is a very effective cleaner and insecticide. It is much less toxic than many commercial alternatives.
While I use many homemade cleaning and pest control products that don’t contain Borax throughout my home, there are a couple of applications where I’ve yet to find a ‘natural’ product that outperforms Borax.
In particular, I find Borax fantastic for getting stains out of active young boys’ clothing and for killing ant infestations.
When I do very occasionally handle Borax for these purposes, I wear gloves and refrain from breathing in any dust (yep, I hold my breath for the couple of seconds while I transfer the Borax into the container I’m using). I also do this when my children are out of the house or in another room.
I also make sure at all times that my container of Borax is stored out of reach of children (even though I can’t break the child-proof seal, I don’t want to risk my clever Master 6 opening the container and having a snow storm). If I do have a small dish out to take care of ants, I also keep this away from small inquisitive hands.
As for carpets, I use the friendlier sodium bicarbonate (Bi-Carb Soda / Baking Soda) as a deodorizer so there’s no exposure risk to my children.
If you’re still unsure whether or not to use Borax in your home I’d recommend in the very least to avoid its use while pregnant (due to the potential risk to the foetus) and invest in some decent ant-proof containers.
If you’re keen to create a healthier home without the nasty toxins, discover my 10 Must-Have Natural Products for cleaning your home without harsh chemicals here.
PS – Borax didn’t make the list!
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