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In Search of a Healthy Clean

For truly green spring cleaning, toss the chemical cleaners and get down to basics

by Ann Morrow on April 19, 2012

Scrubbing bubbles, or pulverized stone discarded from quartz mines? This isn’t a trick question. It’s a domestic question, as in: Would you rather get the ol’ porcelain facility clean with an array of potentially harmful chemicals like those contained in Scrubbing Bubbles, or would you prefer to get the job done with a sustainable scouring powder made from feldspar and limestone (with a dash of citric acid), the ingredients in Bon Ami? In the “clean green” movement, you find solutions in unlikely places.

Using a nontoxic scouring powder does not offer the instant gratification of billows of foam that change from blue to white. In fact, it works best if you let it soak for a bit. It does not foam. But nor does it fume. And c’mon, cleaning the bathtub, kitchen sink or linoleum flooring isn’t quite the Herculean task that most cleaning-product commercials make it out to be.

It’s important to realize this, because although most people are aware that certain household cleaning products can be hazardous, such as drain-clog dissolvers and oven cleaners, they may not realize the chemical concoctions that go into everyday items such as tile sprays, stain removers, air fresheners and furniture polish. Among the suspects are propellants, solubilizers, preservatives, surfactants (which provide immediate product-to-surface interaction), moisture repellents, fragrances, and dyes. For example, the “color power technology” in those playful-looking Scrubbing Bubbles is actually thymophthalein, a substance that’s on hazmat watch lists.

You don’t have to be a scientist to be concerned about the unknown effects of inhaling or absorbing the particulates that these products release. So, is that dreamily conceptualized air freshener, say, Magic Meadow by Glade, really worth the risk of breathing in the 100 to 200 chemicals required to mimic the scent of “fresh grass, morning dew and white jasmine”?

S.C. Johnson, the maker of Scrubbing Bubbles and Glade product lines (along with Pledge, Shout, Oust, and many more), states in its website that “even scientists sometimes disagree about how or where certain ingredients should be used.” It also admits to animal testing. And don’t be too reassured by those Greenlist labels that appear on Windex and Saran Wrap—S.C. Johnson owns Greenlist.

Then there is the environmental toll taken by the heavy plastic dispensers and packaging of these products. Still, Johnson is not the worst producer of home-use environmental contaminants. Clorox Company, for example, refutes studies—including those from the Silent Spring Institute—that indicate asthma-related and endocrine-disrupting effects from some of its dyes and other ingredients. So you may be justified in being wary of marked-up “natural cleaners” from Green Works, a Clorox subsidiary, and other riding-the-trend companies. Almost anything can qualify as “natural” including “green” labeled products that use chemicals to wick moisture from the inside of their recyclable containers.

For a long time, I used only scouring powders because of their cost effectiveness and low-impact containers—cardboard cylinders made from mostly recycled (which is better than “recyclable”) material. But that was before disinfectant mania—and my noticing that both Comet and Ajax now include a microbiocide derived from triazinetrione—an “acutely toxic” and “probably carcinogenic” ingredient. Of course, in microscopic amounts, what’s the harm? And what’s the harm to the water supply? What’s the harm in indoor-air accumulations during the winter? No one knows, though there’s evidence it’s being absorbed by aquatic organisms just like PCBs were.

So why even bother with debate when safer, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier solutions are readily at hand? You probably already know that lemon juice can be substituted for many uses of bleach, and is also a natural deodorizer. Then there are the two workhorses of green home cleaning: white vinegar and baking soda. One tried-and-tested technique that’s making a comeback is cleaning windows with vinegar and newspapers: apply the vinegar, rub off with newspaper. It’s streak-free and the paper is still recyclable.

Roxanne Storms, organizer of Discard Avant Garb, offers another old-fashioned tip: using rags made from 100-percent cotton instead of sponges, which breed bacteria. When the rags are dirty, they go in the wash. For really bad spills, say, pan drippings, they get tossed out. Storms says she acquired this good habit from her mother, who with six kids had a steady supply of worn-out T-shirts. Swiffer dry mops and other micro-fiber aids operate similarly, but be cautioned that not all of them are chemical-free, including Swiffer wet mops. Storms also prefers using a plastic paint scraper instead of scouring pads. Pads, like sponges, are treated with chemicals, breed bacteria, and tend to leave a residue of cellulose crumbs.

I was once surprised at how effective a carpet cleaner baking soda could be. Wanting to use the gentlest method I could think of for an antique oriental rug, I dusted it lightly with baking soda, misted it very lightly with water from a plant mister, let dry, and vacuumed. The only thing that remained was a bit of gum wad. Turpentine being out of the question, it’s still there, under a potted palm. Which brings us to the best air fresheners of all: houseplants. They actually do clean the air instead of just masking odors, by acting as living air filters. According to a study by NASA (who knows about enclosed living spaces) the most effective filter plants are also among the easiest to maintain, including spider and snake plants, English ivy, dracaena, weeping figs and peace lilies.

As for the clogged-drain remedy of baking soda and white vinegar followed by a quart of boiling water, I haven’t had much success with it, and like a lot of others, I don’t appreciate the smell of tossed salad in the shower. This is where the experts come in: Many organic stores and co-ops carry cruelty-free, sustainable cleaning products, such as clog-removers that utilize enzymes, and a variety of certified-organic cleansers such as nonchlorine bleaches and biodegradable dish soaps and laundry detergents. At first, these products do seem to cost more, but not if you factor in how concentrated they are, which also saves on energy costs involved in packaging and transporting. Kalista, who works in the Wellness department at Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, recommends Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds or Mrs. Myers Surface Scrub for an all-purpose cleaner for starters, saying “It’s a matter of health. What you clean your home with is as important as what you eat, because these are things that you breathe in and that touch your skin.” As it does with bulk foods, the co-op also sells cleaning products by portion: Just bring in a container and fill it by pump from a commercial-size receptacle.

And if you want to get really basic, or to go from low cost to no cost, then do a little reading on the topic and you’ll be surprised by how many items can be cleaned with just water, from worn paint on old furniture to many “dry-clean only” articles of clothing (at some cleaners it’s called “wet clean,” and you’ll pay through the nose for it).

Again, this is a relatively labor-intensive process, at least compared to pulling the trigger on a bottle of chemical bombardment. But the only other thing you’ll need is that most renewable resource of all: some elbow grease. And you’ll feel good about it inside and out, for what you’re doing for yourself and for the planet. Even the most divinely scented plug-in or lustrously shiny countertop can’t give you that.