For many families the spring cleaning tradition has been around for generations and nothing has changed. They break out the cleaning products, immerse themselves in a world of disinfectants and bleach, and enjoy the sanitized fruits of their labor. While a clean house is a worthy end, the means might need some tweaking.
By Julianne Hale
Chemicals found in products used most often for spring cleaning may do more than sanitize the house. Many are words we don’t recognize, such as phosphates, alkylphenol ethoxylates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and unfortunately, we need to be aware of the dangers they represent. VOCs, for example, are present in aerosol sprays, cleansers, air fresheners and disinfectants, to name a few, and have been linked to many adverse health effects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.gov), these can include, “eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney and central nervous systems.” Some VOCs have been linked to cancer in animals.
The EPA is quick to point out that, “As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed.” Even if the risk of exposure to the average household member is relatively low, avoiding them when possible is probably a good plan.
Avoiding household chemicals does not mean letting the dust bunnies take over your home and living in squalor. It’s just another aspect of life where going green makes sense. Not only does it make good sense for your family’s health and wellbeing, it also has a positive impact on the environment.
According to the EPA, “Choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g.: biodegradability, low toxicity, low VOC content, reduced packaging) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers and building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution while also ensuring the effectiveness of cleaning in removing biological and other contaminants from the building’s interior.” Environmentally friendly cleaners not only reduce exposure to chemicals within the household, they also reduce overall pollution to the earth.
Still, many people are skeptical of the effectiveness of “green” cleaners. As a society we tend to associate clean with the smell of bleach, but this is a misconception. The smell of clean is actually the absence of odor, not the presence of a synthetic odor. And, with the advent of a nationwide green “movement,” green cleaners are available in every supermarket in the country, in the same aisle and for a comparable price as traditional cleaners.
At first glance, this appears to be a clear victory for the quest to reduce the number of household chemicals our families are exposed to. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case. There is a trend looming in the marketplace called, “greenwashing.”
Greenwashing refers to the efforts corporations make to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to sell their products. These claims are not always true. Walk down any cleaning aisle in the grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with terms like, “natural,” “nontoxic,” “environmentally friendly” and “biodegradable.” While these terms carry a great deal of weight in the environmental community, they are not necessarily completely accurate when they appear on consumer product labels. There are no government regulations for these types of claims and corporations are not required to have claims independently verified.
Fortunately for consumers, there is a resource available online called, GreenerChoices.org, “a web-based initiative to inform, engage and empower consumers about environmentally friendly products and practices. It offers an accessible, reliable and practical source of information on buying greener products that have minimal environmental impact and meet personal needs.” GreenerChoices.org was started by the Consumers Union, the non-profit publishers of Consumer Reports and exists solely to provide a reliable resource for consumers.
When it comes to environmental buzz words, Greenerchoices.org has some practical advice, “Don’t assume that all environmental and health claims are true. In most cases, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor regulated.”
Many consumers might be tempted, upon learning this little nugget of information, to throw their hands in the air and some bleach in their grocery cart, but don’t give up yet. There is hope. GreenerChoices.org has a user friendly application that allows consumers to look up specific products on their Web site to determine if they are actually green. It also has an extensive list of safe and effective product recommendations.
If you really want to control your family’s exposure to common household chemicals, you might consider making your own cleaning products. This is not as difficult as it sounds. You don’t need a lab or obscure products available only at specialty stores. You just need a few key ingredients available at most supermarkets to create effective and safe cleaners for your home.
Healthy Child Healthy World, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children from harmful chemicals, is another good resource for people looking to go green when cleaning. It offers a variety of homemade cleaning recipes on the Web site, HealthyChild.org.
Some of the key ingredients needed for homemade cleaners are castile soap (available at most natural food stores and grocery store chains), distilled white vinegar, washing soda and borax (both available in the laundry aisle of most grocery stores), baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. Here are a few recipes you might want to try:
• Kitchen: mix together baking soda and liquid soap until you get an abrasive scrub. Use it to clean off your countertops.
• Bathroom: mix 2 teaspoons of borax, 4 tablespoons of vinegar and 3-4 cups of hot water in a spray bottle. This works great as an all-purpose cleaner. For an extra cleaning boost, add ¼ teaspoon of liquid soap.
• Living room: mix equal parts olive oil and vinegar together and use as a furniture polish with a soft cloth.
These are just a few of the many recipes available at HealthyChild.org. They are simple and effective cleaning solutions that not only leave your home clean and chemical free but they save you money. Homemade cleaning products are significantly cheaper than traditional storebought ones.
Dousing your house in Lysol® and bleach once a year isn’t going to condemn your family to chronic bad health, but if you can take a few simple steps to rid your home of potentially hazardous chemicals while giving the environment a boost, why not give it a chance? Strap on your rubber gloves, whip out the borax and washing soda, and give your house the spring cleaning it deserves with a little dash of green!
Julianne Hale and her family reside in Cleveland. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Illinois State University and then an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Julianne is a member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, is married and has three children.