Cleaning Products

By Tom Roebuck

October 2, 2009 5 min read

Mention air pollution and most people automatically think of belching smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant or a line of cars spewing exhaust into the air. Less likely culprits would be the products we use to clean our homes, but many of them contain chemicals that can make indoor air even more polluted than outdoor air.

In fact, several studies have found that household cleaning products are major contributors to the smog that plagues big cities. Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a brand of cleaning products, says studies conducted in California, Colorado and Maryland found that cleaners were among the top five contributors to air pollution. They were listed at No. 2 in Los Angeles, behind vehicle exhaust.

If many of these products are loaded with dangerous chemicals, it would seem logical to read the labels and avoid the ones that have those chemicals as listed ingredients. However, companies are not required to include lists of what's in packages, and many don't, so the consumer often is left woefully uninformed.

"They can include chemicals that represent a risk that the company may be willing to let you take but that you personally may not be willing to take," Wolf says. "And by not making that information available, you don't know you're taking that risk."

A growing number of companies are responding to requests to list their ingredients, including SC Johnson, whose products include Windex, Pledge and Glade. However, the lists most likely resemble bowls of alphabet soup, with chemicals that most people can't even pronounce. Wolf advises avoiding any products with ingredients that include the words glycol or glycol ethers, butoxyethanol and nonylphenoxy ethoxylate, or NPE. They are all effective grease cutters and very inexpensive but are volatile and linked to a host of health problems.

However, it would be nearly impossible to learn all of the dangerous chemicals that manufacturers use when making these products. Homemakers can turn to brands, such as Seventh Generation, that are environmentally friendly or, even better, make their own cleaners out of things that can be found in the kitchen, such as olive oil, baking soda and vinegar, which has been used as a disinfectant for generations.

Ali Solomon -- director of communications for Women's Voices for the Earth, an organization that works to reduce environmental pollutants -- recommends a simple recipe for an all-purpose cleaner that works on most surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom: 2 cups of vinegar, 2 cups of water and 20 to 30 drops of an essential oil to mask the vinegar smell. Oils made from thyme, oregano, rosemary and eucalyptus add extra antibacterial properties. This mixture is not only effective and safe but also very inexpensive.

"It's approximately 30 cents for a 32-ounce bottle for your homemade all-purpose spray versus $4 at the store," Solomon says.

Another popular homemade cleaner, with a little more grit for tubs and sinks, is a soft scrub made from 2 cups of baking soda, 1/2 cup of liquid Castile soap, 4 teaspoons of vegetable glycerin, which will preserve the mixture for 2 years, and 4 or 5 drops of essential oil, mixed together. Store in a sealed glass jar.

Solomon says the soft-scrub mixture has an added benefit that takes some people by surprise: "We've had people tell us that it feels so good on their hands that afterward, it felt like they were moisturizing their skin as they were using it, which is something I don't think the conventional cleaning products companies can say about their products."

For the dreaded toilet bowl, add 1/4 cup of borax and a few drops of pine oil, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Swish the water around with a brush, and then scrub the bowl. To clear a clogged drain, pour in 1/2 cup of baking soda, followed by 1/2 cup of vinegar, and then cover it and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then flush the drain with boiling water.

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