I grew up in a house where my mom bragged you could eat off the floors. I, at one point, seemed to have inherited those same traits, once demonstrating to a boyfriend that my floors were clean enough to eat on by licking them. Now, I’m finding dust bunnies that rival the size of real ones, and have acquired a pesky habit of holding on to stuff I no longer want or need. I’m determined to do things differently.

Don’t get me wrong. I am cluttered, but my place is pretty clean. It’s just clean in a different way than what I grew up with and many folks are used to. My parents’ house was wiped down with bleach and other harsh chemicals, while mine is cleaned with eco-friendly products.

We’ve been somewhat indoctrinated to think that the acrid smell of bleach is the smell of “clean,” but the chemical found in bleach (sodium hypochlorite) and other household products, including mildew remover and toilet cleaner, can burn our skin, cause a host of respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and may even be fatal.

My father, the most brilliant of scientists, will tell you that what matters are the amount, strength, and method of exposure to household chemicals. He’s right. Sodium hypochlorite is used to purify our drinking water (which, to me, seems dreadful and I wonder why we can’t just keep our water cleaner to begin with—but that’s for another post) and is a mighty powerful disinfectant. But what we must also consider are the toxic cocktails we’re whipping up when we mix bleach with, say, an ammonia-based cleaner. That causes the release of chloramines, generates hazardous fumes, and is part of the reason why the Environmental Protection Agency has found indoor air to be twice as polluted as outdoor air (a stat I have repeatedly recited).

Furthermore, we all have different tolerance levels. My sister is violently allergic to cats and pollen while I can’t even really conceive of what an allergy looks or feels like. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require companies to divulge the contents of their products or the concentrations with which they are used. This means the most vulnerable among us are exposed to potentially harmful substances that sit on our floors and countertops, cling in our air, and wash down our drains and toilets into our water supplies. (Just think about your pets or babies crawling around on floors cleaned with questionable contents, and then sticking their little hands and feet in their mouths.)

The Household Product Labeling Act, introduced into the House of Representatives this past summer, would require that household cleaning products and similar products bear full and accurate ingredient labels so we’d finally known the full contents of the products we use in our homes. Please contact your reps and let them know you support this effort. It’s ever more urgent now that a 2008 study published in Environmental Science & Technology by Dr. Mustafa Odabasi indicated (for the first time) that sodium hypochlorite and the cleaning agents (known as surfactants) and fragrances contained in several household cleaning products react within the product to create chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  The study says these chlorinated compounds are released when we clean, that most of them are toxic and probable carcinogens, and that the indoor air concentrations increase anywhere from eight to 1,170 times while using products that contain bleach. The increase in chlorinated VOCs was lowest for plain bleach and highest for thick liquids and gels.

Simran Sethi_1
8/9/2010 9:55:21 AM

Great ideas. Glad to hear this.

8/6/2010 6:16:35 PM

I've cleaning with vinegar, lemon juice , baking soda and essential oils for quite a number of years now. I've actually taken a lemon, cut it in half, sprinkled baking soda on my shower floor and used the lemon as my scrubber! Wonderful!My concession also,is I use a plastic spray bottle but if I can get glass ones I prefer those. (I put my essential oil sprays in those).

8/6/2010 12:26:47 PM

I've just recently started cleaning with vinegar. I mix it with water (in a plastic spray bottle, alas) and clean just about everything with it. I love knowing what is in my cleaner and like the fact that the vinegar smell doesn't linger as long as most commercial cleaners do. I'm working up to the lemon juice and baking soda...

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