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Back to the Basics

Believe it or not, you can keep the house clean without harsh chemicals

By Darryl McGrath

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.

And 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 hot water.

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 the hospital.

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.

I 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.

“When 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 bacteria.

“There’s 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 diseases.

“We 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.

Going Green

When it comes to environmentally friendly travel options, it’s easier than you might think to vacation by train

By Josh Potter

Whether 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 and 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.

Under the Tucson Sun

Scientists at the University of Arizona work on technology that could make Tucson a world leader in solar-energy research and development

By Will Ferguson

 Editor’s 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.

In 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 solar cells.

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.

“This 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.

“Optical microscopes, electron microscopes—and here, we have a real graduate student, by the way,” says Armstrong, introducing Gordon McDonald.

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.

“And life around here has changed forever as a result of that,” says Armstrong.

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.

“During 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 into energy.

But the oil embargo would soon be over. The cost of gasoline went down to a quarter per gallon, and funding for solar energy dwindled.

“The 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.

“In 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.

“We 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 stores.

“Current 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.

“You 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.

“We 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.

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