Building A Sustainable Home (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018), by Melissa Rappaport Schifman, is a guide to sustainable materials and design options on the market for making an energy-efficient, green home. Schifman founded Green Intention LLC and is an Editor at Rise. She lives in a LEED Gold Certified home and works to establish LEED certification in residential and commercial buildings. The following excerpt discusses how you can establish a clean home that is both healthy and environmentally friendly.
Nobody actually goes into a store and asks for the most toxic cleaning product on the shelf — we just want to get the job done. Tough chemicals do the job of cleaning pretty well; that is how they are marketed. So, what is wrong with household cleaners? The big picture answer is that there are at least 83,000 chemicals on the market today, and they are not well regulated. Exposure to chemicals is linked to health problems such as cancer, birth defects, asthma, allergies, skin reactions, and reproductive disorders. Sometimes illnesses stem from overexposure (acute), which is an immediate one-time reaction that can trigger chronic illness; sometimes illnesses come from long-term exposure that builds up over time.
The problem is, we do not know! Why? First, ingredients often are not disclosed. Unlike packaged food, cosmetics, and personal care products, manufacturers of cleaning supplies are not required to list the chemical ingredients on consumer product labels (though many do). Second, even if we do know the ingredients, it would be very difficult to conduct a controlled experiment, because there are too many uncontrolled variables (we aren’t just exposed to one chemical in our lifetime), and we do not typically conduct experiments on humans. The US Congress enacted legislation to regulate the safety of chemicals with the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, which has been governing chemical policy since then through the EPA. The EPA itself recognizes that current chemicals management law needs to be strengthened.32 In a nutshell, the EPA can only restrict chemical usage if it is proven to be unsafe — and that takes time, money, and data that is difficult to obtain. Many people argue that the EPA should not allow chemicals to be included in household products unless and unti they are proven to be safe. That’s an example of the precautionary principle, and how the European Union manages chemicals. But that’s not how it is in our country.
So, we need to take it upon ourselves to understand what products are safe and which ones to avoid. With the overwhelming number of choices on the shelf, how? One resource I have relied upon in the past is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) online Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Their guide provides information and safety assessments for over 2,500 products, 197 brands, and more than 1,000 ingredients across the categories of all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, dishwashing, floor care, and bathroom, kitchen, and furniture cleaners. EWG translates final product scores into letter grades familiar to most readers. An “A” indicates very low toxicity to health and the environment and extensive ingredient disclosure. An “F” means the product is highly toxic or makes little to no ingredient disclosure. A “C” indicates an average cleaner that poses no overt hazards and provides some disclosure of ingredients. The EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning published the results of their tests on 513 all-purpose cleaners. What is disturbing is that over 60 percent scored a D or F, and only 22 percent scored a B or A. (Note that EWG does not test or score for the effectiveness of the cleaners.)
So, what can we do? One solution is to make our own cleaners. The all-purpose cleaner I like to make and use at home requires the following:
- A clean 16-oz. trigger spray bottle (or 32-oz. and double the recipe)
- 1 teaspoon of borax
- 2 tablespoons of vinegar
- 1/4 cup of home soap or Dr. Bronner’s soap
- Essential oil of lemon, tea tree, or lavender (optional)
- Hot water (enough to fill bottle)
- Mix the vinegar and borax in the spray bottle.
- Fill the bottle about half full with water and shake to dissolve the borax.
- Add soap.
- Optional: add 5–10 drops of essential oil (I like lavender).
- Fill bottle with water and gently shake.
Making your own cleaner ensures you know what ingredients went into it, but another benefit is that it will save you money. While the up-front purchase of all the ingredients can cost in the $20 range, you will not need to buy another $4.99 bottle of multipurpose cleaner for years. Here’s my math:
- Spray bottle = $1.83 online
- Borax = $3.99 for 12 oz. at Target
- Vinegar = $1.64 for 32 oz. of Heinz vinegar at Walmart
- Soap = $11.99 for 32 oz. of Dr. Bronner’s soap at Whole Foods
With these ingredients, you can make sixteen spray bottles full and still have a lot of leftover borax and vinegar! That's only $1.21 per bottle, and the cost will continue to go down as you reuse the same bottle, helping to reduce waste as well. For other types of cleaners, the American Lung Association Health House suggestions include the following:
- Make your own furniture and floor polish by mixing one-part lemon juice with two parts vegetable oil.
- Clean your oven in a healthy way by using a solution of baking soda dissolved in water.
- Use baking soda for rug and carpet odor removal.
- For a toilet bowl cleaner, pour in one cup of vinegar and leave overnight. Brush the next day.
But let’s face it: many of us do not really have the time or inclination to make our own cleaners. So now what can we do? Many cleaning products have “green” label certifications.
Green Seal and the Environmental Choice program's Ecologo are two of the more well-known certifications in the commercial cleaning industry and have the most stringent requirements for our health and the environment. Green Seal is robust with its product certification: it only certifies products that fully comply with their standards, covering all environmental and health attributes of a product.
In addition to its high standards for health, Green Seal looks at energy and water efficiency of the manufacturing process, the recycled content of the packaging materials, product marketing and labeling, and — this is key — demonstration that the product performs equally or better than a comparable non-green product in the same category. Unfortunately, not many household products carry the Green Seal.
For both household and industrial cleaners, the EPA developed a certification program in the mid-2000s based on its own Standard for Safe Products. Formerly referred to as Design for the Environment (DfE), this labeling program became the Safer Choice label in 2015. The Safer Choice label requires annual audits, so you can count on it being up to date.
While each of these is noteworthy and has its own online database to search for products, it is still time-consuming and difficult, and unfortunately, many household cleaning products do not have any certification. So, since the certifications are not that helpful in the aisles of Target and Walmart, the choices are overwhelming, and EWG’s database might be tough to access, I’ve done a little of my own research on brands that typically get As and Bs (to buy) as well as those that get Ds and Fs (to avoid) for most of their products.
EWG’s best scoring all-purpose cleaner brands (mostly As and Bs) include Biokleen, Bon Ami, Ecover, Green Shield, Ballard Organics, Dr. Bronner’s, Whole Foods, Arm & Hammer, and Seventh Generation. EWG’s worst scoring all-purpose cleaner brands (mostly Ds and Fs) include Clorox/Formula 409, Method, Green Works, Mr. Clean, Windex, Up & Up, Fabuloso, Pine Sol (which received top ratings from Consumer Reports for effectiveness), Soft Scrub, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Spic and Span.
What about Simple Green, a name that implies a safe product? Simple Green’s All Purpose Cleaner scored an F, while at the same time earning the EPA’s Safer Choice label. How could this be? Digging a little deeper, I found that EWG gave Simple Green’s All Purpose Cleaner such a low score due to its ingredients — primarily 2-butoxyethanol, a harmful chemical. But, Simple Green’s website did not list 2-butoxyethanol as an ingredient, nor was it listed as an ingredient on its Safety Data Sheet (SDS).
I contacted Simple Green directly, and Carol Chapin, the Vice President of Research and Development, confirmed that their formulation changed in 2012. Due to California law, they have not used 2-butoxyehtanol for six years, and Simple Green earned the EPA Safer Choice labelin 2016. So, I contacted EWG to let them know their database has been incorrect since 2012. Their response was that while they do their best to update products, I should defer to the company website for the most recent list of ingredients. This leads me to believe that there may be more inaccuracies in the EWG database — formulations often change as companies improve their products to meet consumer demand and comply with legislation.
Who can stay on top of all of this? Not being able to rely on what you read on the Internet, we have to be our own self-advocates. This is a confusing subject, so I’ll try to bottom-line it. First, read the label. If it is has an EPA number, then it is classified as a pesticide, so be cautious. Be careful if it says “hazard” or “danger!” Second, try to avoid chemically dangerous products. About 80 to 90 percent of household cleaning chores can be done without chemicals.
Sometimes we need a tough cleaner for really dirty jobs. When we do, only buy and use what you need, store it where children cannot access it, do not use it around our pets, and follow the guidelines for proper disposal. Finally, trust your nose, and try to go for fragrance-free. If it smells bad, it probably is bad. If sniffing it makes your eyes water or your skin itch, do yourself a favor and do not bring it into your home.
Thankfully, California enacted the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act in October 2017, making California the first state to require ingredient labeling (online by 2020 and on product labels by 2021) for all cleaning products. Because California is such a populous state, this law will drive changes in manufacturing and ingredient disclosure across the entire United States. Will this make it easier for consumers to choose healthier household cleaners? We can only hope.
Excerpted with permission from Building a Sustainable Home by Melissa Rappaport Schifman. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.