Make it a green sweep this spring
It's a whole new world of non-toxic clean for this gone-eco reporter
By Barbara Mahany
Tribune staff reporter
April 15, 2007
Excuse me while I finish something here -- gurgle, slurp, kerplunk. That noise in the background? The sound of me dumping out my old toxic cleaning caddy.
I am here to tell you, I am born again. At least at the well-scrubbed altar of cleaning green, I am.
Now waking up to parsley scent in my salle de bain. Rubbing windows shiny with eau de vinegar, or, perhaps, purified H2O laced with essential lavender oil. Rinsing toilet bowl, should you care to peek in there, with coconut-derived surfactant in natural cedar scent.
But not a toxin do I own.
Not anymore anyways, and not anywhere in the vicinity of my cleaning shelf. I am, I swear on a stack of holy books, deeply steeped in keeping my clean green.
I once was in the dark, but now I've seen the streak-free, smudge-proof, dust-swiped light.
I once had wronged, but now I'm free. Free of 2-butoxyethanol, free of n-Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, free of hydrocarbon propellant, for crying out loud.
There's a maxim in the world of cleaning green, and it is this: If you can't pronounce what's in it, toss it out.
So toss I did.
At first, this was just another story, this cleaning green. And I'll be honest, not long after I started, my head was spinning. You quickly come to find out that in the world of so-called eco-cleaning, there's a whole slew of terms that frankly are more than somewhat slippery. What really defines green? Or natural?
Is it biodegradable? Plant-based? Sustainable? Organic?
Turns out, there's no one keeping watch on how these words are being used. Unlike organic food, which now comes under the certification of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no federal or industry standards for household cleaning products claiming to be "green." Rather than muddy the waters, and slinging dirt on companies who contend they're doing the right thing, I will simply fill you in on the cleaners I now count on, to get the job done, get it done sparklingly, and to preserve the planet while doing so. (We'll save what to do about laundry another day, another story.)
What you were afraid to ask
Before we turn to my reborn cleaning ways, I need to let you in on a few spine-chilling facts I turned up in talking to chemists and environmental engineers, some of whom are independent academic researchers, others in-house eco-gurus at respected green-cleaner firms.
The bottom line, before we get into details, is that you have every reason to be worried about the toxins you bring into your home, via your cleaning caddy.
William Nazaroff, professor of environmental engineering at the University of , , led a four-year, $400,000 study looking at what he calls "the pollution sources right under our nose."
Considered the first, most comprehensive study to measure emissions and primary and secondary toxic compounds under typical indoor-use conditions, the analysis, published just last May, found two serious causes for concern.
Looking at 17 cleaning products and four air fresheners, the researchers found that, under normal conditions, six of the cleaning products emitted a toxic compound, ethyl-based glycols, at levels up to three times higher than what the U.S. would allow for outdoor pollution standards. Glycol ethers, widely used as solvents, are considered by the EPA to be "hazardous air pollutants."
And 12 of the tested cleaning products contain a class of chemicals known as terpenes -- again often used as solvents, but more frequently as the citrus-based scent in so many cleaning products -- that rapidly reacts with ozone, producing harmful byproducts such as formaldehyde and small-particle pollutants that no lungs need inhale. Nazaroff points out that ozone can seep into buildings through ventilation, or even just an open window.
The worst scenario, explained Nazaroff in a recent telephone interview, is when you clean a large surface in a small, say, bathroom, and spend up to 15 minutes scrubbing, say, scale off the shower walls. It is particularly troublesome for anyone who cleans four houses a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, he adds. That means that if you employ a cleaning service, the ones who scour your shower might be inhaling truly hazardous fumes, at three times the amount that would be allowed to spew from a factory.
The damage wrought by the cans and bottles that hide in the underbelly of your kitchen sink might be anything from nausea to kidney, liver or blood dysfunction to pediatric cancer to diminished sperm count, said Nazaroff, who is not an epidemiologist but thoroughly reviewed published studies linking toxic compounds to a host of health concerns.
A 15-year study in , presented at a recent National Center for Health Statistics conference, looked at death rates from cancer in women who worked in the home versus women who left their homes for work each day. Researchers found a 54 percent higher death rate from cancer in the women who stayed home; the study strongly suggested household cleaning toxins as key culprits.
Anecdotally, it seems that every week I hear news of someone else with cancer -- often someones who don't smoke, and try to live a healthy life. I find myself scratching my head, wondering what unknown substance is wreaking all this hell. And, as if I needed further motivation to clean up my cleaning act, I already have one son with asthma and I fear for the other.
But how does green clean?
I'm telling you I dove into my spring cleaning with a vengeance. The burning selfish question, the one most everybody asks: What's the point of cleaning green if my house no longer sparkles?
I am here to tell you, my house is sparkling. To tell the truth, the window panes are sighing, so worn out from all the rubbing.
I spent weeks collecting cleaners claiming to be green. I checked what's called Material Safety Data Sheets -- MSDS, for short -- on most of the products, which is really the only way to know what's in the stuff you spray, you squirt, you pour.
I followed the green-clean maxim: If my tongue got twisted trying to read ingredients, I tossed.
And, yes, I started out as kitchen chemist. Gathered vinegar and lemons, baking soda, Borax and pitchers full of water. I stood there with my funnel and my measuring cups. I poured, I spilled, I read the teeny half-cup marker lines. And then, not long after, I surrendered.
You might get your kicks stirring your own stuff. Dropping essential oil to make it smell all yummy. Indeed, if you care to mix it up, there are many Web sites rife with recipes. One you might check out is www.biggreenpurse. com (see a few of their recipes in an accompanying story).
But I'm a low-grade cleaner, I suppose. I've been seduced and I've succumbed. I go for nifty premixed bottles by companies I truly think I can trust.
One fascinating wrinkle in all this cleaning whirl, is that the good folks at seem to be among the toughest in setting green-clean standards. If it's on their shelf, you can safely assume they've done the dirty work already and consider it mighty green.
"That's what our cleaning aisle is all about," says Will Betts, ' Midwest regional grocery coordinator. "You don't need to do the legwork to do your housecleaning. Our standards are certainly stricter than the standards at all the conventional markets."
Biodegradability, he says, is standard No. 1.
But even that, counters environmental engineer Nazaroff, is a claim with not much meaning. "It tells me that it won't be there for 100 years. It's not going to be bio-accumulating in fields in the Arctic, but it really doesn't tell us anything."
What's needed in this country, he says, is a complete U-turn in how we look at how we clean. "The rule in the U.S. is that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Europeans have flipped that. The idea there is that before [a chemical] can be introduced, it has to be demonstrated safe."
Not one to wait, I read my labels, called around with laundry lists of questions, cleaned like crazy and, at last, restocked my caddy.
The price of green
Oh, one other thing, one thing you really might be wondering: cost. What's the wallop on your wallet? Depending where you shop, you might spend anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent more on cleaning green, per bottle. But here's my take: On the one hand, toxins that lead to God only knows what dangers; on the other hand, a few bucks.
I'm no clean freak, and I'm no slouch. I'd say I'd buy two, maybe three, bottles of all-purpose cleaner per year, the way it lasts. So, for the price of some grande triple mocha something, I can save the Earth and make my counter sparkle. A deal I am proud to call my own.
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My personal comments:
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Thanks for reading!