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It’s August, and in Madison that means thousands of renters are on the move. Whether you are coming or going, the chances are pretty good that you will need to do a bit of cleaning at some point. If you count yourself among those settled for the longer term, you still need to practice the art of house cleaning often enough to prevent illness—or at least prevent the aversion of your friends and loved ones. But have you read the labels on all those potions under your kitchen sink lately? Do they use words like CAUTION, DANGER or POISON? Some of the most popular conventional cleaning products are scarier than what is growing in your bathroom sink, but there are ways to keep the homestead sparkling and keep your health too; some of them can even save you a little cash.

In 1998, an Environmental Protection Agency report identified 491 different chemicals that are commonly used in conventional household cleaning products. It is currently estimated that there may be up to 17,000 chemicals used; most are petroleum-based. Only thirty percent of those have ever been tested for toxicity. We regularly hear reports of increasing numbers of people with allergies and asthma; children seem to be especially at risk. The news tells us of lakes, rivers and wells contaminated with anti-bacterials and a myriad of other chemicals from soaps and other household products—clearly it is time to change the way we perform some of our basic tasks.

Most synthetic detergents and cleaning products are derived from petroleum. Kitchen degreasers often contain neurotoxins and ingredients that are known or suspected carcinogens. Sprays, foams and cakes sold to deodorize your bathroom bowl contain a host of ingredients including propane, butane, benzene, formaldehyde, and acetone to name just a few. Fabric softeners give off fumes that offend the nose and cause a host of health problems. We might think our homes and clothes smell clean and fresh, but at what cost?

True soaps are made from either animal or vegetable fats. Castile soap is always made from vegetable oils. These are pretty simple ingredients that give good results. Those results can be improved with the addition of common pantry staples like baking soda, and white vinegar and some safe additives such as borax and hydrogen peroxide. Other safe and effective products to use include beeswax, olive oil, Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap, and citrus cleaners. Be sure to choose citrus solvents that are made from citrus extracts, though; there are products on the market that are petroleum-based with citrus fragrance added. Pure essential oils are great for adding a fragrance to homemade cleaners, but they serve utilitarian purposes as well. Lavender essential oil is a powerful disinfectant, a moth and insect repellant and has calming properties. Rosemary is antibacterial and antifungal and repels some insects. Tea tree oil is another oil with strong antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has a rather intense herbal fragrance that some people dislike, but when used in cleaning the scent does dissipate after several hours. All these oils can be found in our Health and Wellness department.

Remove toxic cleaners
The first step in greening your cleaning is to remove toxic cleaners from your home. Pouring these products down the drain or tossing them into the trash is probably not the best way to get rid of them, though. Read the disposal instructions on each label—if your products require special handling, take them to Dane County Clean Sweep’s household hazardous waste disposal facility on Fish Hatchery Road through October 31. For more information check out their website: www.danecountycleansweep.com/ho_main.aspx.

Let’s examine some of the common household product lines that might present a problem as well as alternatives you can trust. A source of information on the specific products you might have can be found at: http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov/index.htm. This site will allow you to search by product name or type and gives information on ingredients and potential dangerous effects.

Product labels
Products that may do the most harm to their users or the environment are required by the federal government to be labeled in certain ways. According to Annie Berthold-Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home, these terms denote things you may want to be certain to avoid:

  • POISON or DANGER: These are the most toxic products. Be very careful if you use them because sometimes only a few drops can be lethal.
  • WARNING: This is the signal that a product is moderately toxic; it might take a teaspoonful to kill you.
  • CAUTION: These products are less toxic; you could consume between an ounce and a cup before suffering irreparable harm—but don’t!
  • STRONG SENSITIZER: This label means that a product is capable of causing multiple allergies.

Cleaning the kitchen
Statistically, kitchens are the source of more bacteria than any other room in the average house. Our kitchen sinks are dirtier than our toilet seats; we use them for scrubbing everything from fresh produce to litter boxes, from bathing babies to washing dishes. Scouring powders containing chlorine bleach, or straight liquid bleach, are often used to sanitize sinks and other surfaces in the kitchen, but this common cleanser is highly toxic. Never use bleach in combination with any other product! Chlorine can cause dangerous fumes if it is mixed with ammonia, acids or other chemicals. When it is combined with organic materials in the environment, numerous chlorinated compounds can form and are a danger to waterways and aquatic life. Some product labels do not use the word “bleach,” but simply refer to the chemical name of sodium hypochlorite. Likewise, ammonia and cleaners containing it are caustic and can cause irritation or damage to the eyes, throat and lungs when inhaled. Oven cleaners are extremely corrosive.

White vinegar and baking soda
Two good, basic cleaners for your kitchen are white vinegar and baking soda. White vinegar is a potent disinfectant and can effectively replace chlorine bleach to kill bacteria in the kitchen. The distinctive vinegar scent dissipates quickly and, as a side benefit, deodorizes the air at the same time. Vinegar is also a good degreasing agent and window cleaner, and can be safely used to clean the surface of fruits, vegetables, and meat. Wash cutting boards with full-strength vinegar and let them air dry to kill bacteria. Got a slow kitchen drain? Pour one-half cup of baking soda into the drain, followed by one cup of white vinegar. This mixture will fizz like crazy! When the fizzing stops pour in a teakettle of boiling water and your drain should be back in good working order and will smell good too.

Baking soda is a good non-abrasive cleanser and can also be used to freshen refrigerators—just sprinkle on a damp dishcloth and scrub, or dissolve a quarter-cup of baking soda in a gallon of hot water and wash down the walls, drawers and shelves of the fridge, rinse with clear water and dry with a clean kitchen towel. Clean your kitchen trashcan and recycling bins the same way. Baking soda is the safest oven cleaner too—sprinkle it evenly over the bottom of your dirty oven and thoroughly dampen using water in a spray bottle. Let it stand for several hours or overnight (you can spritz it again once or twice if you think of it). In the morning, wipe the baking soda out of the oven, taking the grime and grease along with it. Rinse with a clean cloth and clear water and you’re done.

Another versatile natural cleaning agent is borax. You might recognize the name 20 Mule Team Borax—it’s been around for more than 100 years and can be found with the other cleaning products in aisle five here at the Co-op. Borax is mined from naturally occurring deposits that are abundant in the Death Valley area of California and other areas of the Southwest. It is also found in the Andes, Turkey and Tibet. Borax disinfects, acts as a mild bleach and as a water softener. It is also often used as an insect repellant in the house and garden. Borax can be used as a sprinkle-on cleanser or dissolve two teaspoons borax with one teaspoon liquid soap and two cups hot water in bucket or spray bottle for a good all-purpose cleaning solution and it will keep indefinitely in the spray bottle.

Dish soap
Remember that dish soap is designed to cut grease. It can be used on cupboards and countertops as well as dishes. Avoid dish soaps and other products that have antibacterial agents added to them. Studies show that cleaning with hot soapy water is often more effective than using a product enhanced with antibacterial additives whether the surface is human skin or a household surface. A study released by the American Medical Association shows increasing numbers of bacteria developing resistance to the antibiotics that are used in dish soaps, detergents and personal care products, including toothpaste and body soaps and lotions. Triclosan is the mostly commonly added antibacterial agent and it is now found in surface waters across the U.S. Triclosan is degraded by ultra-violet light and becomes dioxin, one of the most persistent environmental toxins.

Floors, surfaces and walls can be thoroughly cleaned using a solution of one tablespoon liquid castile soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s or LifeTree’s liquid soap), one-quarter cup of white vinegar and one-gallon of warm water. This mixture works throughout the house, but if you want extra cleaning power in the bathroom, for example, you can add a few drops of tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is antiseptic and also kills mold and mildew.

Cleaning the bathroom
Commercial toilet bowl cleaners are very corrosive. A safer way to clean the bowl is to pour in a cup of borax, scrub thoroughly, then let this stand a few hours or even overnight before flushing to rinse. White vinegar can also be used to clean the toilet bowl. Pour in half a cup, scrub and flush. Use full strength vinegar to wash the rim and seat of the toilet. If you need to remove mineral deposits from water faucets, soak in vinegar for a few minutes and the deposits should soften and easily wash away. To make a deodorizing spray for the bathroom or anywhere, pour a cup of water into a spray bottle and add an equal amount of vinegar or one teaspoon pure lavender essential oil, shake well to mix and spray away. These air fresheners will keep indefinitely.

Synthetic laundry products contain a wide assortment of ingredients that are damaging to human and environmental health. Detergents are usually petroleum-based and contain surfactants to dissolve oil and grease, builders to soften water and help them work better, bleaches for stain removal, optical brighteners to make colors look bright, enzymes to digest organic stains and solids, and solvents to dissolve dirt and grease.

Some of the worst additives are alkyphenol ethoxylates or APE’s. APE’s are highly persistent in the environment and mimic the hormone estrogen in aquatic systems. They are thought to be causing reproductive problems in a variety of fish. In lab experiments, APE’s speed the growth of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells in test tubes. APE’s have been detected in 69% of waterways in this country.

Phosphates are a familiar term to most of us—many products now like to advertise themselves as being phosphate-free. In laundry products, phosphates act as builders or water softeners; cleaning agents work best in soft water. In the environment, phosphates leach into surface water and over-fertilize algae, leading to dead aquatic life due to lack of oxygen.

As mentioned earlier, sodium hypochlorite or chlorine bleach is caustic and toxic, especially when it is combined with other chemicals in the environment. Environmentalists recommend avoiding the use of chlorine bleach.

Fabric softeners can give off fumes containing narcotics, benzene, nervous system depressants, and carcinogens. They can be responsible for respiratory damage, liver and kidney damage, and reproductive damage resulting in birth defects.

Fragrances are added to laundry products in abundance. Most of these aggravate respiratory and skin allergies and are one of the factors blamed for the increase in asthma.
The Co-op sells laundry detergents that are free of these synthetic ingredients. Look for products made by Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly, Planet and Mrs. Meyer’s. They utilize ingredients like hydrogen peroxide to brighten; propylene glycol ethers, which are considered safe solvents; betaine esters as surfactants; and borax for water softening, stain removal and deodorizing.

If you feel the need for additional bleaching, choose chlorine-free bleach in liquid or powdered form. These are made from hydrogen peroxide or ozone. One of the best ways to bleach and disinfect your laundry is to hang it to dry in the sun—it’s free and the fresh fragrance is another bonus. Borax is a time-honored laundry aid; a half-cup added to a load will act as a mild bleach and deodorize clothes as well. White vinegar can also be used as a safe disinfectant and mild bleach by adding a cup to the wash cycle. It also prevents detergent build-up on clothing.
Adding 25 drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a washer load of bedding will kill dust mites. If you want to give your laundry a natural fragrance add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice.

There are safe commercial fabric softeners available from Seventh Generation, Ecover and Mrs. Meyer’s. If you want an easy homemade version, white vinegar will come to the rescue again! A cup of vinegar added to the rinse cycle prevents static cling and softens clothing. The vinegar scent will be gone when your laundry is dry. When you are purchasing clothing remember that natural fibers do not generate static, but synthetics such as polyester and acrylic do.

Dusting and vacuuming
When it’s time to dust and vacuum, reach for the vinegar and baking soda duo again. Sprinkle upholstered furniture, carpets and rugs with baking soda and let stand for half an hour before vacuuming to deodorize. To make a safe dusting product for wood furniture, combine one-quarter cup vinegar, one-teaspoon olive oil and a few drops of your favorite essential oil in a glass jar or spray bottle. Shake well to mix and then use with a clean, lint-free dusting cloth. This mixture will keep for several weeks.

Green furnishings
If you are in the market for new furnishings for your home, give some thought to “greenness” in this area too. Generally the simpler and more natural a product is the safer it is for you and the environment. According to the EPA, the air in the typical American home is between two and ten times more polluted than the air right outside that home’s front door; in some cases it may be up to 100 times as bad. Cleaning products, particleboard furnishings, synthetic carpets and upholstery, vinyl flooring and other plastics, adhesives, electronic equipment, and toiletries all reduce indoor air quality. In addition to out-gassing chemical substances, including formaldehyde, for years, most of these products are also highly flammable. Try to purchase real wood furniture and floor and window coverings made of wool, cotton, hemp or silk. If you need to buy furniture made of particleboard, vinyl or plastic, try to buy older, used things. Let new furnishings made of synthetics air out in a garage, or preferably outdoors, for a week or more if possible before using. Check out thrift stores or the classifieds for good buys on natural wood and fiber furnishings. Open your windows regularly to exchange the air in your home; stoves and furnaces that burn gas or heating oil can compound bad air problems. Ventilation is essential if your appliances have pilot lights.

Other gear
There aren’t too many other things you need to have a really clean house. In addition to a bucket and a few spray bottles, it’s helpful to keep a supply of clean, soft rags-my favorites are old cloth diapers and T-shirts. You can use these for everything from cleaning windows or floors, to dusting or washing walls. When you have dirtied one, throw it in the laundry hamper and grab another. A few old toothbrushes can be handy to have. Use them for scrubbing small items and tiny crevices. You may want a bigger scrub brush as well. Consider buying a small squeegee; it is useful for cleaning windows and shower walls. Our book department carries a selection of books on non-toxic cleaning if you want more ideas or “recipes.” And don’t forget the vinegar!