WITH TODAY’S TOXIC HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS, CLEANING HOUSE CAN FOUL YOUR WORLD AND YOUR HEALTH.
If you are losing your hair, there is a good chance it’s clogging your shower drain. But if the pipes plug up — hair often accumulates on residuals of soaps and conditioners — do you reach for a chemical to clear it out? And if standing water left a tub ring, is that a call for a chlorine- or ammonia-based cleaner?
Western civilization, the United States in particular, is obsessed with cleanliness. There may be reality television shows that dissect the lives and psychoses of compulsive hoarders (Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC, and Hoarders on A&E), but the reason we watch is probably because those people live so differently from the rest of us.
After all, our culture is imprinted by generations of soap opera television dramas that preceded these programs by 50 years. It was there that our mothers learned to banish ring around the collar, to dust within 15 minutes of the bridge club’s arrival and to make sure last night’s fish and dad’s cigar smoke didn’t linger in the living room days later.
Suellen Hoy, author of Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford University Press, 1996), traces the history of hygiene in the United States, from the squalid days of the Civil War (including how germs killed more people than bullets) through class differences that elevated clean and propelled household cleaning products to become a multibillion dollar industry today. She notes that Americans’ fear of dirt and odor has become no less than an obsession.
As the children of überclean hausfraus, we assume that brighter brights and whiter whites are required elements of respectable living. And don’t ask us to apply elbow grease to get rid of kitchen grease. We want the soaps that clean like a white tornado — where all you have to do is spray and wipe. Isn’t there a more satisfying smell when Pine-Sol has done its magic?
Except, the Pine-Sol brand is a line of household cleaners some of which contain no pine oil at all. Even the original formulation, which contains 8-10 percent pine oil, also contains isopropyl, which when entered into the human body (through respiration and skin exposure) is then oxidized into acetone. Too much exposure can lead to flushing, dizziness, headache, nausea/vomiting, anesthesia, central nervous system depression and, in extreme cases, coma. Pets, cats in particular, can experience extreme symptoms.
Pine-Sol is merely the tip of the household chemical iceberg. In his book The New Good Life, Living Better than Ever in an Age of Less (Ballantine Books, 2010), author John Robbins devotes an entire chapter to questioning the wisdom of household cleaning. Its origins were to stop the spread of disease, but in fact we are given “the toxic paradox,” he says. “Instead of supporting health, many of these products undermine it.”
To support his case against common and usually mass-marketed consumer household cleaning and personal hygiene products, Robbins cites a study by the American Red Cross conducted in 2005. There, blood taken from the umbilical cords of newborns found that infants and mothers were contaminated by more than 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants.
The premise of Robbins’ book is simply that we are individually and collectively burdened with too many things in life. Those things require us to work harder and longer hours to purchase them, and what we end up with is a lesser, not greater, existence. The book covers the recent buildup to the housing bubble — easily illustrated with McMansions that consumed too large a portion of household incomes — the time we spend in traffic, the manufactured foods we eat in excess quantities and the basic questions of where money does and does not create happiness.
An entire chapter of The New Good Life, titled “Safe, Clean, and Natural,” discusses our delusion over bacteria and the perceived need to eradicate it. Basic biological science tells us that much of the microfauna (bacteria, viruses, parasites) and fungi are actually beneficial, even essential to our health. So the unmitigated instinct to blast them out of our lives is fundamentally wrong.
Robbins breaks down the worrisome household cleaners and deodorizers as follows:
Bleach- and ammonia-based cleaners
What to avoid: Never mix cleaners that contain both ammonia and chlorine (the mixture can actually explode, or the chloramines and chlorine gases can cause permanent lung damage). Both are very hazardous when children or pets accidentally ingest them.
Alternatives: liquid castile soap when flu or cold viruses are present in the home, and Bon Ami as a safer alternative to Comet or Ajax. Castile soaps are made from vegetable ingredients; however, some manufacturers are “greenwashing” their castile soap products by hiding the fact that chemicals are still added. Robbins recommends the Dr. Bronner’s brand (made from olive and coconut oils).
Carpet cleaners and spot removers containing perc or TCE
What to avoid: perchlorethylene (or perc) and trichloroethylene (TCE).
Alternatives: To clean carpets and fabrics, try hot water extraction or steam cleaning, or baking soda allowed to sit on carpeting for a few hours then vacuumed away. Castile soap and white vinegar can dissolve stains and neutralize odors.
Antimicrobial soaps and dish liquids
What to avoid: triclocarban (TCC) and triclosan (TCS). Robbins summarily dismisses all liquids, bar soaps, toothpastes and hand lotions claiming to be antibacterial, as well as sponges that claim to resist or kill odors.
Alternatives: Castile soaps, in any form (liquid or bar), and cellulose sponges that you can boil in hot water for about five minutes to periodically disinfect (most dishwashers aren’t hot enough to disinfect, despite the popularity of this method).
What to avoid: sodium hydroxide
Alternatives: Line the floor of your oven with aluminum foil, to catch the majority of drippings (in some gas stoves a cookie sheet would work better). A soap alternative is to mix 2 tablespoons of liquid castile soap with 2 tablespoons of borax and 2 cups of hot water. Mix in a spray bottle, shake vigorously and then spray throughout the oven and allow it to soak in for 20 minutes before scrubbing and wiping dry. To increase the strength of this mixture, add 1 tablespoon of washing soda.
What to avoid: sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid
Alternatives: Plungers, plumber snakes — and prevention. Kitchen grease should be scraped into the garbage before scrubbing the pot or pan. Regarding bathroom drains, the only two things to go down a toilet are toilet paper and human waste. Minimize bar soap remnants that go down shower-tub drains and use a hair catcher (particularly if you are losing yours).
Fabric softeners or dryer sheets
What to avoid: phthalates, toluene, styrene, alpha-terpinol, benzyl acetate, camphor, benzyl alcohol, limonene, ethyl acetate, pentane, chloroform
Alternatives: Use a mixture of half a cup of white vinegar and half a cup of water in the rinse cycle of the wash to soften fabrics and rinse residual soap.
What to avoid: phthalates
Alternatives: The areca palm is one of the best houseplants that naturally filter out pollutants (ammonia, formaldehyde, benzene) in the air. To eliminate temporary odors — aside from throwing open some windows — sprinkle baking soda on the carpet, then vacuum it, or douse cotton balls in an essential oil and place in various locations around the house. Examples of essential oils include bergamot, citronella, ginger, hyssop, lemongrass, peppermint and rose.
Air purifiers and electronic air cleaners that produce ozone
What to avoid: Ozone generators might call it “pure air” or “energized oxygen,” but in fact it can damage the lungs.
Alternatives: See “Air fresheners” above. And open windows.
So in fact, clean and fresh are still possible. They just require a willingness to shake off what you’ve learned from mass marketing, and mom, and rethink how it can be done.