How to live healthfully in your house-Cleaning
One month after moving into her new home, Liz decides she really must give her home a good cleaning. Especially now that she’s hired a lady to professionally clean the house each week, starting on Monday. “I can’t have her thinking we’re dirty people,” Liz thinks to herself, as she heads upstairs with her arms full of cleaning products.
In the master bedroom Liz selects a favorite CD from her kick-boxing exercise class. She cranks up the volume and joins in singing, “I’ve got the power!” with attitude, as she squirts some glass cleaner at the mirror.
In a flurry of squirts, the mirror and several glass surfaces are cleaned. Liz sneezes three times in a row. “Oh for goodness sake … now I’m allergic to cleaning!” she yells above the music. “Looks like I hired Edith just in the nick of time.”
As she walks into the ensuite bathroom she looks at the glass cleaner bottle. “What’s in this stuff anyway? Ammonia. Is that it, pure ammonia?” Liz turns the bottle over looking for more information. “Oh, that’s clever! Put the writing on the back of the label facing inside the bottle. What are you supposed to do, empty the contents of the bottle out so you can read what it is they have to say? I bet that was a man’s idea!”
Liz selects another product from her arsenal and climbs into the shower cubicle to clean the glass shower panels from the inside. “I’m every woman, it’s all in meeeee,” she sings with enthusiasm in another flurry of squirts. Suddenly she is short of breath and grabs for the handle of the shower door to steady herself. “Now what?” She carefully climbs out of the shower and staggers over to the window, opening it and sticking her head outside gasping for air. Her chest feels weird and constricted. After a few minutes her breathing returns to normal. Still clutching the spray bottle in her hand, she turns it over.
“What’s in this product?” She reads the front of the bottle: “’All purpose cleaner,’ that’s good. ‘Natural lemon scent,’ that’s good. ‘Kills 99.9% bacteria,’ that’s good. Ingredients, ‘dimethyl … benzyl … ammoni … um … chloride,’ what the heck is that? Honestly, they should be advertising ‘free chemical dictionary with purchase,’ and look at that, 99.5% inert ingredients, but there’s no mention of what they are. So is this stuff good for me or bad for me?” Turning it over Liz reads the back of the bottle: “’Caution, causes eye irritation. Do not get in eyes, on skin or clothing.’ What’s the point of cleaning your shower with something you’re not supposed to get on your skin? ‘Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Avoid contact with foods,’ but I clean my kitchen counter tops all the time with this stuff! Oh this is hopeless, what’s a woman supposed to do?” Liz fumes.
“I wonder what Steph cleans her healthy house with? I think I’ll call her.”
Liz sits on the edge of her bathtub, waiting while the dial tone rings. She absently chews on the acrylic nail she just broke picking the phone up. “Hello Steph, it’s Liz. What kind of cleaning products do you use?”
“Let’s see, I mostly use regular kitchen stuff,” Steph begins.
“You mean like ‘Windex’ and ’409′,” Liz says, feeling hopeful.
“Gosh no, that stuff drives my allergies nuts.”
“Oh,” Liz says, crestfallen, and continues apprehensively, “did they ever make you sneeze or short of breath?”
“Yes, on both counts. I haven’t used that stuff in years. When I say kitchen stuff I mean things like vinegar and baking soda.”
“Really, but those are things you eat or cook with. How can they clean your house?” Liz asks incredulously.
“That’s what our grandmothers used years ago and it still works great today,” comes Steph’s simple reply.
Feeling the first stabs of a headache Liz’s exasperation gets the better of her, “Then what’s the point of all these cleaning products I’ve got, with all these chemicals I can’t even pronounce?”
“That’s exactly the point,” Steph replies “there is no point!”
Cleaning your home is a vital part of maintaining a healthy indoor environment, so a whole article has been dedicated to this subject. For those of you that flat-out hate housework, please don’t skip article. And for those of you who have a cleaning service that comes into your home to clean for you, the following information may be an eye-opener that generates some new curiosity and ideas about taking care of your home.
Cleanliness is part of good health, everyone knows that much. The days of the bubonic plague have long passed (thank goodness!) mostly because of the massive improvements made in sanitation. But the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another. Today, in our attempts to sanitize our homes we have become ensnared between our lack of time and the use of toxic cleaning products that allow us to wipe this or spray that, and get the job done quickly. As a result, these chemical concoctions are creating a new kind of plague, one that robs us of our energy and ability to think clearly, one that makes our joints ache or gives us headaches, one that makes our children hyperactive or have problems breathing. I call it the all-new “chemical convenience plague”.
Building Biology Perspective
Let’s go back to the idea that your home is its own living organism. Like us, to stay healthy homes need fresh air, sunlight, and regular cleaning to remove the daily accumulations of dirt and debris,. It’s really a simple formula. So how has something so simple become so complex and dangerous? Let’s take a closer look.
What exactly is “clean”?
I had to smile when I looked up “clean” in the dictionary; it said, “free from dirt, marks and stains.” It sounded so calm, civilized, and straightforward. Given the strength and toxic nature of so many of the cleaning products commonly used in homes today it would seem more appropriate to see a description that says “annihilate, destroy, and kill at all costs.”
Cleaning is really just about lifting the dirt, debris, and microbes generated as a result of daily living, and removing them. In most situations, heavy-duty chemicals are really not necessary. But here’s an important consideration. It’s so simple, but most people don’t recognize the consequences. Do you clean a little each day and take care of spills when they happen; do you wait and do things later, all at one time; or do you let your cleaning person deal with it?
Daily cleaning and taking care of accidents when they happen is actually less time-consuming and requires less effort. When everyday grime is allowed to accumulate, when stains are not thoroughly removed, and when food is allowed to harden onto surfaces over several days, what results is the need for harsher and more caustic products to do the job. A classic example is the oven. If you wipe it down after each use or sprinkle a little baking soda onto any spills, it comes clean in minutes. If you don’t do this and let it go for weeks on end, like many people do, then you may turn to some of the most toxic chemical cleaning products on the market to prize away partially incinerated food and layers of grease. It’s not that we need more professional strength cleaners; we just need to change our cleaning habits.
Another benefit of small, daily cleanings is that they allow you to keep an eye on your home, as you do with the rest of the family. A mother is always the first to notice when her child has started to sniffle or run a temperature. Bestowing this watchful eye on your home will help ward off many of the problems that usually stem from neglect. Noticing the first visible signs of mold growth can lead to discovering a slow water leak. Caring for your home this way builds a relationship that leaves you feeling empowered and with the peace of mind that comes with knowing your family is safe.
Cleaning the air in your healthy home is rather like making sure your lungs are working properly. The clean, fresh air goes in and the stale, used air goes out. Opening windows each day is a simple way to create this exchange. One of the simplest improvements Liz could make to her home and her health would be to always open windows when cleaning, to let additional fresh air in and any polluted air out. If you live in an area where outdoor air quality is poor or fluctuates you will need to do a little detective work to discover the least polluted periods of time to have your windows open. If you absolutely can’t find any, then seriously consider moving to a better location.
There are also two mechanical ways to provide clean, fresh air. One is to install an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) that will bring in fresh air and vent stale, concentrated air out on a timed cycle whether you are home or not. These systems are very convenient for people who are away at work for long hours of the day. The other method is to have an upright, mobile air purifier that can be placed wherever it’s needed in your home. These machines mostly “polish” the air and can remove certain contaminants but are not a complete replacement for fresh air coming in from the outdoors. Remember, the EPA says that indoor air can be many times more polluted than outdoor air.
Natural sunlight is also important for a clean, healthy home. Sunlight is made up of many different rays and contains large amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There has been a lot of debate in the last few decades about UV light. Is it good or bad for us? To avoid generalities, it’s helpful to look at the individual effects associated with the three components of UV light. UV-A is responsible for the tanning effect in humans, UV-B seems to activate the synthesis of vitamin D and the absorption of calcium and other minerals, and UV-C which is mostly filtered out by the Earth’s ozone layer, is germicidal, killing bacteria, viruses, and other infectious agents.1
Dr. John Ott, in his book Health and Light, offers clarifying insight, saying that UV light in large amounts is harmful, but that in trace amounts, as found in natural sunlight, it acts as a “life-supporting nutrient.” Bacteria, viruses, and mold can proliferate in homes where natural sunlight is blocked out by curtains, blinds, shutters, or furniture. People and pets who live in homes like these can develop the medical condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) resulting in depression, mood swings, and lethargy.
Simply allowing natural sunlight into your home and supplementing with full spectrum lighting in darker rooms is equivalent to giving your home a tonic.
The many ways to clean
Keeping your home in good health requires a variety of different cleaning techniques and products.
If you are building a new house I recommend installing a central vacuum system. It’s the cleanest way to remove dirt and debris completely out of the house. If this is not an option, then a HEPA vacuum cleaner is essential. Before I got my first HEPA vacuum cleaner I could never stand the smell generated while vacuuming, it was always so stale and would often make me sneeze. Not surprising, really, when you consider that regular vacuum cleaners generally regurgitate about 70 percent of the dust they collect, back into your home.
If, like Liz, you have a cleaning person do your vacuuming, make sure they use your vacuum. Otherwise their vacuum will spew out dust and particles collected from other people’s homes, exposing you to possible pet dander and other unknown contaminants.
Ideally, high traffic areas in a carpeted home should be vacuumed daily. The rest should be vacuumed twice a week, especially in bedrooms. In order to properly clean any section of carpet I have read that anything from six to eight passes back and forth is needed to clean down to the deeper layers. Vacuuming alone will not remove pesticide residues or other chemicals embedded in the carpet. Hard surfaced floors still benefit from regular vacuuming to remove debris before wiping them down. Modern vacuums also have an assortment of attachments that make it easy to vacuum furniture, drapes, and in tight spaces such as under box spring beds that tend to harbor a lot of dust.
There are many fancy new products available to dust with, including impregnated sheets, pieces of fabric that can grab dust, and mitts that fit your hand. Of course good old-fashioned versions such as pieces of retired cotton clothing and feather dusters still work great too.
I have been quite impressed with the dusters that can grab dust and even get grime off glass because they allow you to clean without any solutions at all. These dusters are made of a synthetic material called microfiber and rely on their own innate static-electric charge to attract and hold onto dust, grime, chemical residues, and most bacteria. Household cleaners can leave a residue that traps bacteria and dirt, actually leaving the surface more contaminated over time. With repeated use, microfiber cloths supposedly can remove 99 percent of this bacteria-filled residue. They can be used dry for dusting or wet for tougher jobs.
For me, mopping conjures up childhood memories of my mother down on her hands and knees cleaning the kitchen floor. Today we use cellulose sponges and cotton strands on long sticks. No kneeling required! When cleaning with these kinds of mops, be careful not to use too much water, otherwise it can slip into cracks and under joints where the floor surface meets a cabinet or baseboard, creating conditions for mold growth. If you are using a 100 percent cotton dust mop you need only lightly mist it with water. Cellulose sponge mops usually need to be wet through to activate their gripping qualities and so will need to be squeezed out thoroughly before using.
Other cleaning accessories
Other cleaning accessories most people have in their homes include hand size sponges and waterproof gloves to protect hands while cleaning. It’s interesting to note that both of these items now commonly contain added antimicrobial chemicals. Antimicrobials are pesticides, added to protect the life of the product, not the health of the user!
Look instead for natural cellulose sponges which can be found in health food stores and some kitchen accessories stores. When new, these sponges are compressed flat and expand to their full size when water is applied. Remember to replace sponges regularly as bacteria and mold can grow in them. Cotton cloths work just as well as sponges and are easily cleaned; just throw them in the laundry at the end of each day.
As for waterproof gloves, your choice will depend on whether you have a latex sensitivity or not. If you are not latex-sensitive choose latex gloves without antimicrobials. If you are sensitive, try some of the other alternative synthetic products such as neoprene. Like latex, synthetic gloves can still cause allergic reactions because they may contain chemical additives similar to those found in latex. Some people find using thin cotton glove liners inside latex gloves helpful.
How and what you clean your home with can make the difference between a healthy and not-so-healthy home. The average household contains anywhere from 3-25 gallons of toxic materials, most of which are in cleaners. Some of the worst offenders are drain cleaners, oven cleaners, furniture and floor polish, and glass cleaners with ammonia. No law requires manufacturers of cleaning products to list ingredients on their labels or to test their products for safety. That leaves the responsibility with us to make sure our homes are not only clean, but non-toxic and safe for our families.
In our earlier story, Liz has some very obvious reactions to the cleaning products she uses: sneezing, breathing problems, and headaches. But she still wants to believe that these products are safe; after all she bought them off the store shelf. Liz does not know that federal laws require only that products carry warnings if they are immediately harmful or fatal if swallowed or inhaled. No warnings are required on products that can affect your health more slowly, over time. No one really knows the long term health effects of exposures to all these chemicals, but what you can do is decide whether you and your family want to participate in these experiments or not.
Hopefully you will choose health over possible harm. There are many safer alternative cleaning products to choose from today. You can choose from common ingredients found in your kitchen such as vinegar and lemon juice, or you can choose from some of the ready made preparations found at some natural food stores and supermarkets. Making the change need not be difficult. It just requires a little basic information followed by some detective work and non-toxic experimentation.
As a side benefit you will also be saving money. Homemade products are usually cheaper to make than buying a commercial product. But let’s consider other costs you will be saving, even when comparing a store bought product that is healthy to one that contains toxic chemicals. What is it worth to have one less headache or one less asthma attack for your child? What is it worth to have your child consistently healthy with no absenteeism from school? What is it worth to be productive and not hampered by general feelings of fatigue or irritability? What is it worth to reduce your family’s impact on the planet’s resources? What is it worth to you to protect your family’s and future grandchildren’s health and well being? These are the total costs to keep in mind next time you need a cleaning product.
Here’s a list of some of the most common hazardous chemicals found in household cleaning products. Avoid these:
- Alcohols such as ethanol, methanol and isopropyl alcohol
- Butyl cellosolve
- Chlorine bleach or sodium hypochlorite
- Hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, phosphoric and sulfuric acids
- Hydrocarbons or petroleum distillates
- Lye or sodium hydroxide
- Paradichlorobenzenes (PDCB’s)
- Perchloroethylene (PERC)
- Phenol or carbolic acid
- Propellants such as butane, propane and CFC’s
- Synthetic fragrance
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
Now it’s time to walk through your house again and retrieve all your cleaning products and read their labels. As you know by now this is just the first disqualifying round. Set to one side all obvious hazardous products with labels that say “Warning,” “Danger,” or “Poison.” Next, look for any of the ingredients on our list. Any products containing these are the next to go. Of the remaining products, how many do you absolutely know are non-hazardous? Set those aside in a separate area from the rest. These products you can keep. Any products in the twilight zone can be further qualified by looking in The Safe Shoppers Bible by David Steinman and Samuel Epstein, M.D., which lists many of the commercially available products and their associated hazards.
Contact your local Household Hazardous Waste facility for guidance in disposing of the toxic products you have identified. Do not empty them down the drain or put them in the garbage. If you need to store hazardous products until they can be collected or disposed of, make sure all are sealed tightly, kept in their original containers, and locked away somewhere where children and pets will have no access to them. Poisoning is a preventable cause of harm.
With the toxic stuff out of the way, it’s now time to decide whether you want to try your hand at following some basic recipes to make your own non-toxic household cleaners, or whether you need to buy some ready-made products, or a combination of both. Whatever you decide, the place to begin is identifying what your cleaning needs are. Many people keep far more cleaning products around than they ever use.
If you decide to go for ready-made products, arrange for some free time to visit your local health food store or supermarket without hungry children swinging on your arms or when you’re rushing to get somewhere else. Invite a friend to join you to make it more fun. Take this book, a pen, and some paper, or take a clipboard if you really want to get the store employees’ attention. I don’t know what it is about clipboards, I guess they look official, but carrying one will often get you that special attention from the shop assistant and even a visit from the manager, if you’re lucky. It’s a great way to make your concerns known, to make requests, or ask for additional information from your captivated, and usually somewhat nervous audience. All this because you used a clipboard!
You can also shop through certain mail order catalogues and the Internet if your local resources are not very good.
Look for products that fulfill the following criteria:
- They use natural, non-toxic ingredients.
- They use non-petroleum-based surfactants that are chlorine and phosphate free.
- They use no synthetic fragrance.
- They claim to be non-toxic and biodegradable.
- They list all their ingredients on the label.
A note of caution: some cleaners may advertise that they are “environmentally sound” but fail to provide a full list of ingredients. As a general rule, the manufacturer that gives you the most information about its product is usually the manufacturer you can trust.
Learning to clean from scratch by making your own homemade recipes is a wonderful way to know exactly what you are using, rather like knowing what you are eating by cooking from scratch instead of buying a TV dinner. Many of the common kitchen cupboard ingredients used in these recipes are generally regarded as safe (GRAS), because they have been around and used by people for many years without causing harm. That cannot be said of many commercial synthetic ingredients.
But do these homemade cleaners really work? Yes and no. Some recipes such as vinegar and water to clean windows, work equally as well as their chemical counterparts, whereas for others, it can be very hard to match the hyperdissolving power of toxic chemicals. For instance, when it comes to cleaning an oven that has been left to burn on grease and food debris for several months, it may take longer and require a little more elbow grease to get the results you are looking for, but at least elbow grease is non-toxic.
All you need to get started are some basic ingredients, many of which you will probably already have in your kitchen, and some containers. Here’s a shopping list of items you will need to make the suggested recipes that follow:
- Baking soda
- Organic essential oils (optional, if you like some natural scent)
- Filtered water
- Liquid Castile soap
- White distilled vinegar
- Four 16 ounce clean, empty squirt bottles
- One 22 ounce squirt bottle
- One shaker container (plastic or stainless steel)
- A couple of natural cellulose sponges
- Some cotton cleaning rags
- A cotton mop
- A squeegee
- A measuring cup and measuring spoons
- A glass or ceramic bowl
I personally prefer larger size containers to mix and store recipes in because they don’t need to be refilled as often. You can use smaller containers if you like. I also don’t recommend reusing older containers if they previously contained a product with toxic chemicals in it. Sometimes residues remain in the plastic that can then pollute your new, non-toxic recipe.
If you decide you want your cleaning products to have an aroma, then pure essential oils are the best way to achieve this. All essential oils however, are not equal. When choosing essential oils, look for brands that don’t use harsh solvents in their extraction process. Organic and wildcrafted varieties are best. Though these purer varieties cost a little extra, essential oils last a long time. Lavender, lemon, and peppermint oil will be the most versatile to begin with.
It’s also important to understand a tiny bit of chemistry before you start mixing your own cleaners. Even mixing non-toxic ingredients should be treated with care. All chemicals have what’s called a “pH” that identifies whether a substance is acid, alkali, or neutral. A pH of 1 is highly acidic, a pH of 14 is highly alkaline, a pH of 7 is in the middle and called neutral. Neutral is usually considered safe whereas the extremes of acid and alkali can cause serious harm from burning or their ability to dissolve matter. Drain cleaners can be as corrosive as pH 14, a toilet bowl cleaner can be as acidic as pH 2, and a mild soap can have a pH of 8.
When mixing different substances it’s important to know their pH value so you can anticipate the results. When an acid is mixed with an alkali they react and neutralize each other, developing a more neutral pH of seven. A good example is mixing baking soda, which is mildly alkaline, with vinegar, which is mildly acidic. These two neutralize each other forming carbon dioxide gas and water with a neutral pH of seven. This is a safe combination and their combined properties help to clean and remove dirt from surfaces, brighten glass and metal, unblock drains, and so on.
To ensure your safety, here are some general guidelines to follow when making your own cleaners:
- Label all products you make on the actual container. List everything.
- Follow recipes closely. Don’t substitute ingredients. Use common sense.
- Never mix commercial products with homemade products. You don’t know what you could create.
- Keep products away from your eyes. Liquid soap, detergent, and vinegar are all irritants if they get in your eyes. Also avoid breathing in powders like baking soda. Any particulate can be an irritant to sensitive lungs.
- I prefer squirt bottles rather than spray bottles. Spraying aerosolizes products into the air we breathe. An alternative method is to pour solutions directly onto a cloth and wipe.
- Add “Mr. Yuk” stickers to your containers and explain to children that they are not food or drink. Store them in locked cupboards away from where children and pets can get into them.
The following recipes have been chosen for their simplicity and because they take next to no time to mix. They are a good place to begin your non-toxic cleaning endeavors:
Essential oil (optional)
Half fill a plastic flip-top or stainless steel shaker with baking soda. Add 15-20 drops essential oil (try lemon). Stir. Fill the shaker almost to the top with more baking soda. Put the lid on tightly and shake to mix.
To use: sprinkle on kitchen counters or sink, then wipe with a damp rag or cellulose sponge. Rinse well. Don’t use too much or you will need to keep rinsing and wiping. There is a great little book called Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun and Frugal Uses You’ve Probably Never Thought Of by Vicki Lansky that will give you lots more ideas.
White distilled vinegar Essential oil (optional)
Fill a clean 16 ounce squirt bottle with equal amounts of white vinegar and filtered water. Add 15-20 drops essential oil (try peppermint). Shake to mix.
To use: squirt directly onto the floor and wipe with a clean rag or cotton mop. This cleaner can be used on wood, tile, or linoleum floors. For extra cleaning power on smudges and scuff marks, add a little baking soda from your kitchen cleaner recipe and rub. Follow with your vinegar floor cleaner. It may fizz a little, but that’s fine, it will just help to lift the dirt off. Wipe over with a rag or mop.
All purpose cleaner
2 tbsp white vinegar 16 ounces hot, filtered water
1 tsp borax 1/4 cup liquid soap
10-15 drops of essential oil such as lavender or lemon (optional)
First, mix the vinegar with the borax in a 16 ounce clean squirt bottle. Fill with hot, filtered water and shake until all the borax has dissolved. Next add the liquid soap, followed by the essential oil. Shake again to mix.
To use: squirt and wipe, the same as you would any other all-purpose cleaner
All purpose glass cleaner
If you are changing from commercial window cleaners to non-toxic homemade recipes use this recipe first. The added soap helps remove the wax residues left behind by commercial brands. Otherwise windows will dry streaky.
1/4 cup white vinegar 2 cups filtered water
1/2 tsp liquid soap 5 drops essential oil (optional)
In a 16 ounce clean squirt bottle, add the soap to the water. Mix. Then add the vinegar and optional essential oil. Shake well.
To use: squirt on your window and either squeegee off or use a paper towel. I no longer recommend newspaper because of all the chemicals contained in the inks. Once you have cleaned your windows a couple of times with this formula you can switch to one half cup of vinegar in two cups of water alone to do the job.
Tub and tile cleaner
1 2/3 cups baking soda 1/2 cup filtered water
1/2 cup liquid soap 2 tbsp white vinegar
Mix the baking soda and liquid soap in a bowl. Dilute with one half cup of water. Add the vinegar last. Mix with a fork until any lumps are gone. It should have a pourable consistency; if not, add more water. Pour into a 16 ounce squeeze container (the kind with a squirt flip-top cap). Keep the cap on, as this mixture will dry out easily. Shake well before using. Add more water if it dries out.
To use: squirt onto tile, tub, sink, or toilet bowl and scrub. Rinse well. If any baking soda residue remains (which will look like powder), use a little vinegar and water to rinse, and next time use less baking soda in the recipe.
Researchers from Tufts New England Medical Center now think that disinfectants are not effective in the first place, and that they simply lead to the development of more resistant strains of bacteria. Here is a great non-toxic and very effective way to rid your bathroom (or any room) of germs.
1 cup filtered water 1 tsp pure essential oil of lavender
Place water in a 16 ounce clean squirt bottle, add lavender oil, and shake vigorously to mix.
To use: squirt on surfaces and allow to stand for at least 15 minutes, or don’t rinse at all.
This makes one cup of solution. To make larger batches, simply double the quantities. This recipe keeps indefinitely. Use on toilet seats, countertops, doorknobs, cutting boards — anywhere germs like to lurk. Lavender is more antiseptic than phenol, which is the industry standard.
Specialized cleaning situations
If you get the non-toxic cleaning bug and decide you want recipes for more specialized jobs I highly recommend Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond and Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan. Both books are full of every conceivable solution for household cleaning challenges.
If you use a cleaning company or an independent person to clean your home have them provide you with a list of all the products they use and their Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). Take some time to look over this list and highlight any products that are hazardous to health. If you can find any non-toxic products on their list, specify that these are the ones to be used in your home. If you find you are left with nothing to chose from, request that they do some research and provide healthier, alternative products. You would think that companies or individuals that provide such a personal service would take great care to ensure that the products and equipment they use do no harm to their client’s health. Unfortunately many of them still do not realize the impact toxic chemicals have on health or what they are being exposed to themselves each day by using hazardous products. There is a huge market for anyone that can provide healthy house cleaning services.
You may need to educate your cleaning person a little to help them get started with their research. A good place to begin is with how to read labels. As you know by now, when a product says it’s “non-toxic,” it does not mean the product contains no hazardous ingredients whatsoever or that it is safe if ingested. By law, some toxic substances don’t have to be listed at all in the ingredients if they are in small enough quantities or considered by the manufacturer to be proprietary (trade secret) information. Washington Toxics Coalition has an informative article entitled Researching Household Products that can be downloaded at <www.watoxics.org> or by phoning them.
Another approach is to have your cleaning person use only your own cleaning supplies, vacuum, dusters, etc. This way you can exert the most control over what happens in your home.
The 2002 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers states that on average, U.S. poison centers handle one poison exposure every 13 seconds. Of the reported poison exposures, 39.1 percent are children younger than three years of age, and 51.6 percent occurred in children younger than six years.
As household cleaning products account for a high percentage of accidental poisonings in children, let’s go over some of the most important points. The most dangerous poisons for children include the following common household items:
- Cleaning products that cause chemical burns: these can be just as bad as burns from fire. Products that cause chemical burns include drain openers, toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers, and oven cleaners.
- Nail glue remover and nail primer: some products used for artificial nails can be poisonous in surprising ways. Some nail glue removers have caused cyanide poisoning when swallowed by children. Some nail primers have caused burns to the skin and mouth of children who tried to drink them.
- Hydrocarbons: this is a broad category that includes gasoline, kerosene, lamp oil, motor oil, lighter fluid, furniture polish, and paint thinner. These liquids are easy to choke on if someone tries to swallow them. They can go down the wrong way, into the lungs instead of the stomach. If they get into someone’s lungs, they make it hard to breathe. They can also cause lung inflammation (like pneumonia). Hydrocarbons are among the leading causes of poisoning death in children.
- Pesticides: chemicals to kill bugs and other pests can harm humans too. Many pesticides can be absorbed through the skin. Many can also enter the body through breathing in fumes. Some can affect the nervous system and make it hard to breathe.
- Windshield washer solution and antifreeze: small amounts of these liquids are poisonous to humans and pets. Windshield washer solution can cause blindness and death if swallowed. Antifreeze can cause kidney failure and death if swallowed.
The best way to address the possibility of household poisonings is to take a preventative approach. Contact your regional poison control center and request their poison prevention package. They will often have “Mr. Yuk” stickers or their own equivalent that you can stick on any products at home that pose a poisoning threat. Sit down with your children and discuss what these stickers mean and what poisons are. Post the phone number for your regional poison control center or the national hotline number 1 800-222-1222 prominently near all phones.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) has a specific website you can visit to read, print, or download helpful information such as the Babysitter Phone Sheet and Poison Prevention Tips; go to <www.1-800-222-1222.info/poisonHelp.asp>.
Some general guidelines include:
- Lock up medicines and household products and store them where children cannot see or reach them.
- Store poisons in their original containers. Should you need to go to hospital with someone who has been poisoned, always take the poison’s container.
- Use child-resistant packaging. But remember _ nothing is childproof.
- Teach children to ask first. Poisons can look like food or drink. Teach children to ask an adult before eating or drinking anything
- If you have a poisoning emergency call 1-800-222-1222, available 24 hours, 7 days a week. If the person has collapsed or is not breathing call 911.
Making a difference
Cleaning your home with non-toxic products is one of the single most important changes to make in creating a healthy home. You now have enough basic information to get started. Whether you throw yourself in and make these change quickly, or you pace yourself and do it over time, the rewards are instant when it comes to your family’s health. My basic philosophy is, if you can’t change everything all at once, then at least work on changing something each day. Every toxic chemical you eliminate is one less drop in everyone’s barrel, pets included. May you never know what you have prevented!
Most immediate gains
- Open windows daily to let fresh air in and pollutants out; especially when cleaning your house.
- Allow the health promoting qualities of natural sunlight into your home, at least for a few hours each day.
- Purchase a HEPA vacuum cleaner and if you have a cleaning person come into your home, make sure they use your vacuum.
- Try some microfiber cleaning cloths and see if you can reduce the amount of cleaning products you need to use in your home.
- Avoid sponges, waterproof gloves, and any other cleaning accessories that are treated with antimicrobial chemicals.
- Take an inventory of all your current cleaning products. Use this article’s guidelines to eliminate those that are hazardous to your health.
- Dispose of hazardous products properly.
- Replace toxic products with either store-bought healthy alternatives or try making the recipes suggested to get started.
- Always clearly label any product you make and what it contains.
- Store all cleaning products, including non-toxic ones, in a locked cupboard out of the reach of young children and pets.
- Educate your cleaning person and ensure they use only non-toxic products in your home.
- Request a poison prevention package from your regional poison control center. Post the national hotline number, 1- 800-222-1222, next to each phone in the house.