to the Basics
it or not, you can keep the house clean without harsh chemicals
Two years ago, instead of restocking the common household
cleaning products as I used them up, I simply stopped buying
them. In the months that followed, the plastic jugs and
shakable cans with the bright labels disappeared from the
broom closet, the laundry room and the storage space under
the bathroom vanity. No more Comet, bleach, laundry soap
or dishwasher detergent.
this is what I’ve come to realize about the household cleaning
industry: The folks who brought the White Tornado, Glade
and Mr. Clean into our homes were marketing geniuses who
brilliantly played on the American phobia about germs and
odors. The dirty little secret about household cleaning
products? All you really need to clean your home is a box
of baking soda, a gallon of plain vinegar, mild soap and
The advent of “green” cleaning products and a closer examination
of the chemicals we use in everyday life, while inspirational,
did not motivate my decision. Nor can I credit my 1960s
upbringing, because my family reflected the common values
of that era: a combined fear of dirt and a casual reliance
on some decidedly questionable cleaning products. I cringe
when I remember how often in my teen years I dabbed at a
spot on my clothing with a sponge-tipped applicator of volatile-smelling
solvent. I forget the name of that product, which I have
not seen in stores in a very long time, but it was something
like “Dry Cleaner in a Bottle.”
But as I moved into my 40s, I suddenly seemed to be sensitive
to things I couldn’t even always pinpoint. I had three trips
to the emergency room when my hands became wildly inflamed,
or the skin around my mouth started to swell. Tests for
common food allergies proved negative, and the incidents
continued. I developed an allergy to latex. An air freshener
that a friend sprayed in her home before I arrived for dinner
triggered an asthma attack so severe I nearly ended up in
Out of this, I decided to rid the house of as many cleaning
products as possible, on the theory that I should reduce
my overall exposure to chemicals. (My doctor’s take: It
couldn’t hurt.) The heavy hitters—laundry detergent and
dishwasher powder—went first, replaced by baking soda. I
had long ago grown leery of oven cleaner, so I didn’t have
that on hand. Hot water, soap and baking soda did a surprisingly
good job of cleaning the oven.
haven’t rid the house of everything—we still have items
such as shoe polish and traditionally formulated shampoos—but
our chemical inventory is considerably smaller. My grandmother,
who was raised on a farm in Missouri and who swore by baking
soda for everything from biscuit dough to brushing your
teeth, undoubtedly would approve.
Household cleaning products are safe when used as directed,
says Dr. Heather Long, director of medical toxicology at
Albany Medical Center.
used as directed, sensitivity issues aside, they don’t cause
toxicity,” Long says. And supposedly “green” substitutes
can have their own problems, she notes: Some people are
sensitive to vinegar. But substitute cleaning agents, such
as vinegar and baking soda, are effective for homes more
concerned about the increased presence of antibacterial
agents in hand soaps, hand lotions and cleaning products,
which have the potential to produce resistant strains of
some suggestions that using antibacterial formulations in
a household setting may do more harm than good,” Long says.
And the introduction of antibacterial agents and household
chemical formulations into groundwater and streams, she
notes, “can completely alter ecosystems.”
Environmentalists and consumer groups have also expressed
concern about the proliferation of what scientists call
“emerging contaminants” —fire retardants and antimicrobial
agents such as triclosan in consumer products. Earlier this
month, the Food and Drug Administration announced it is
reviewing triclosan—which, the agency notes, is not known
to be hazardous to humans, but which has been shown to alter
hormone regulation in animals. The review is expected to
last a year.
Two leading trade groups—the Personal Care Products Council
and the Soap and Detergent Association—assert that triclosan
is both safe and essential in the fight against infectious
strongly believe consumers should continue to have access
to these beneficial products,” the Soap and Detergent Association’s
statement reads. “We should be wary of over-interpreting
FDA’s announcement and unrealistically linking the detection
of minute traces of ingredients with concerns for ingredient
and product safety. Additionally, it’s worth repeating that
numerous scientific reviews have shown there is no real
world evidence linking the use of antibacterial products
to antibiotic resistance.”
This debate is likely to continue. As for my own findings:
I’d like to say that I never had another mystery reaction
since reducing our household chemicals, but I’ve had several
in the last two years. I can say that they have been far
less frequent and less severe. That may have nothing to
do with the elimination of the household cleaning products,
but even if I’m gaining no health benefits—and I happen
to believe that I am—I’m sending fewer chemicals into the
water system. And if nothing else, I am reminded of this
every time I walk down the grocery store aisle for cleaning
products: In the last two years, I’ve saved hundreds of
dollars in our household budget.
it comes to environmentally friendly travel options, it’s
easier than you might think to vacation by train
By Josh Potter
you do it be- cause it’s trendy, it saves you money, or
it puts your soul at ease, “greening” one’s lifestyle is
becoming ever easier the more our culture, government and
economy understand that environmental consciousness is in
everyone’s best interest. Environmentalism is an ethical
umbrella under which virtually every material concern may
be considered, so, while some of our daily habits can be
readily greened—turning off lights, reusing shopping bags,
buying local organic food, etc.—other systemic considerations
like energy sourcing and travel practices may require more
effort on the part of the individual.
Travel may be one of the most problematic considerations
for someone committed to greening their lifestyle, as the
benefits of visiting foreign cultures and natural areas
(experiences that contribute to the very notion of a small,
interconnected world) can be directly compromised by the
environmental cost of getting there. Indeed, some consider
the idea of “green travel” an oxymoron and shun unnecessary
trips on principle, but rather than dismissing what for
many (most?) people has become a necessary component of
recreation and mental health, it’s most useful to view travel
options on a spectrum of environmental impact.
The most critical variable in determining the environmental
impact of your travel plan is, of course, carbon expenditure.
And, because of this, one harsh truth becomes evident: It’s
nearly impossible to consider any trip that depends on a
car, bus, airplane or other fossil-fuel-consuming vehicle
as authentically “green.” Now, personal impact is a very
imprecise thing to quantify, so a strong case can be made
that purchasing carbon offsets and making certain travel
choices as pertain to diet and accommodations could justify
a road trip or overseas flight. (But don’t try to argue
that since the flight is already scheduled you don’t share
responsibility for that plane’s impact; there is this thing
called supply and demand . . .). For those so inclined,
sites like Atmosfair.de and Nativeenergy.com allow you to
calculate precisely how much carbon you are emitting on
your flight to Cancun. But, the best thing you can do to
travel lightly is to select a mode of transportation that
doesn’t burn a lot of gas.
Which, at this point in history, leaves us in the Capital
Region with very few options. Actually, for those of you
to whom the idea of long-distance bicycling doesn’t sound
like “vacation,” there’s really only one.
Until the transportation gods bless us with our long-awaited
light-rail system, train travel will only serve a handful
of spontaneous day trips, but if the mountains, the coast,
or the city is your vacation destination, Amtrak is the
greenest way to go. According to the Bureau of Transportation,
Amtrak trains are 30 to 40 percent more energy-efficient
than automobiles and commercial airlines, and regenerative
braking in the electrified trains of Amtrak’s Northeast
Corridor can actually feed energy back into the grid. The
drawback is that Amtrak trains do take longer than other
fuel-consumptive modes and can be more expensive, but there
are probably more options for train-powered vacations than
you’d initially expect.
As far as trips to the city go, New York City might be the
easiest. On Amtrak’s Empire Service line, the trip will
take around two and a half hours from the Albany-Rensselaer
station, and for approximately $35 one way, the cost is
comparable to what you’d pay in gas (depending on what you’re
driving, and how many people are in the car). From New York,
you can connect to pretty much every major city on the Eastern
seaboard, as well as the New Jersey shore. Traveling west
by train from Albany, you can reach the Niagara Falls area
in six and a half hours, Toronto in nine. In that direction,
however, your best bet is probably the Lake Shore Limited,
which connects to Chicago overnight and features a “Viewliner”
train that skirts the Great Lakes—or what they’re calling
the “Third Coast.” While train travel can be time-consuming,
the views and leisurely pace are certainly selling points.
Going East, you’ll hit Boston in just a few hours, with
the possibility of connections to Providence and Mystic,
Conn. Montreal, however, might be one of the cooler city
trips. The Adirondack line will take you there in eight
hours (including the prolonged border crossing), but in
just over three hours, stops in the Eastern Adirondacks
offer bus connections to Lake Placid and Burlington, Vt.
It’s actually much easier to access the mountains by train
than one might think. The Ethan Allen Express was designed
for this purpose. In three hours, you can get to Rutland,
Vt., with bus service to nearby ski areas Okemo and Killington.
In the fall, this line is a great way to view the foliage.
It’s likely that the travel times will deter many travelers
from considering a train trip, as airplanes have created
a destination-oriented view of vacation, and if you’ve only
got a week to enjoy a trip to Seattle, only the very greenest
among us will commit to the three-day train ride it takes
to get there. But, beyond environmental impact, train travel
can be a vacation unto itself. With peak oil looming, the
age of the road trip—that all-American pastime—might be
close to over, but reconsider that three-day trip to Seattle.
What better way to see the breadth of the country than from
a quiet, low-emissions Viewliner? Green travel doesn’t have
to be about self-denial; it can be just as much about the
joys of getting there.
the Tucson Sun
at the University of Arizona work on technology that could
make Tucson a world leader in solar-energy research and
note: At deadline, we lost a staff-produced, locally sourced
solar-power story to a computer glitch. We will reconstruct
that story and publish it in an upcoming issue.
the bowels of the University of Arizona Chemical Sciences
Building, a solar-energy revolution is brewing.Solar
research at the UA could soon redefine how Americans power
their homes, cars, personal computers and iPods. How? UA
chemist Neal Armstrong envisions rooftops, cars and clothing
covered with a light, flexible plastic infused with microscopic
In the basement of the Chemical Sciences Building, the doors
of a large steel service elevator open to reveal a dim corridor
lined with state-of-the-art clean rooms and multimillion-
dollar imaging equipment.
is where the juicy toys are at,” says Armstrong, head of
the UA Energy Frontier Research Center. Armstrong opens
the door of a small lab that’s full of electron microscopes,
purchased as part of a $15 million U.S. Department of Energy
grant supporting his project.
microscopes, electron microscopes—and here, we have a real
graduate student, by the way,” says Armstrong, introducing
McDonald is using an atomic force microscope to determine
the precise alignment of tiny light-producing particles.
The particles are so tiny—one ten-thousandth the thickness
of a human hair—that it would be comparable to a mouse looking
up at the Empire State Building. By working on aligning
these particles at the microscopic level, Armstrong and
his team hope to create a more efficient solar cell.
Armstrong’s research center is one of 46 centers nationwide
funded by a $777 million grant from the U.S. Department
of Energy that was announced in April 2009.
life around here has changed forever as a result of that,”
His nearly 40-year career in solar-energy research has been
marked by energy concerns that motivated the U.S. government
to open its checkbook.
the Arab oil embargo from 1971 to 1974, there was a panic.
People were lined up at the gas stations,” Armstrong says.
“We got a directive from the government to go and start
looking at research areas looking at energy. So I did that.”
He came to UA in 1978 and was involved in an early version
of solar-photovoltaic research, working in a field that
uses light-conducting particles to convert sunlight directly
But the oil embargo would soon be over. The cost of gasoline
went down to a quarter per gallon, and funding for solar
money went away, but my interest did not subside,” he says.
In 2000, the Bush administration named solar-energy research
as one of the “Grand Challenges” to achieve energy sufficiency
by the middle part of the 21st century.
2005, it became clear that we were going to have an energy
renaissance,” says Armstrong. “You can say that my entire
career has been building up for what we are doing now.”
Armstrong hands over an individual solar cell developed
in his lab—a 1-inch-square piece of glass containing a light-conducting
liquid material. On top of this sits a thin film, like the
coating on the screen of an iPod or laptop.
Armstrong says most of the technology his team uses now
didn’t exist when he started out 40 years ago. Advances
in technology, coupled with a maelstrom of solar legislation
and funding, have provided fuel for the furnace of solar
research in southern Arizona.
In fact, Tucson is aiming to become the solar research and
production capital of the world, said U.S. Congresswoman
Gabrielle Giffords at the end of a daylong tour of Tucson’s
leading solar facilities on April 1.
Armstrong’s solar-research effort is one of several projects
that could help put Tucson at the forefront of solar power.
In another project, UA astronomer Roger Angel, founder of
the Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory, is perfecting
the use of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto an array
of highly efficient photovoltaic cells. Concentrating mirrors
could lower the production costs of solar panels substantially.
In addition to the research, the Arizona Corporation Commission
recently approved two new solar-power systems that will
produce enough energy to power more than 6,000 Tucson homes.
The package includes a 25-megawatt array northwest of Tucson,
and a 5-megawatt concentrating solar power plant at the
UA Science and Technology Park. Both are scheduled for completion
in January 2012.
are at the point where we are taking a big idea and making
it into a commercial reality,” says Tucson Electric Power
CEO Paul Bonavia.
While the gears of solar development are definitely turning,
there are still some kinks to be worked out before technology
like Armstrong’s photovoltaic cells hit the shelves of hardware
solar photovoltaic technology can produce a watt of electricity
for between 30 cents to a dollar,” said Armstrong. “Our
goal is to develop a technology that gets close to the cost
of coal, which is 4 cents per watt.”
By reducing solar photovoltaic costs, Armstrong hopes to
make his technology commercially viable. More important,
he said, he hopes it will become part of the solution for
the world’s growing energy needs. By the middle of the century,
the amount of energy used by the world’s people is projected
to double, he says.
guys are going to need every available energy conversion
technology to work at peak performance by the middle of
the century,” says Armstrong, referring to young, college-age
Americans. “And you are probably going to want to mitigate
global climate change at the same time.”
Armstrong says it is theoretically possible for solar energy
to displace fossil fuels, but it is highly unlikely. In
the meantime, do we have time to sit around and debate the
virtues of a solar-powered world? Armstrong says no.
have got to get busy,” he says. “And we have got to get
busy on every energy source you guys are going to use.”
Will Ferguson is a contributor to Tucson Weekly, where this
story first appeared.