Eco-Experts: Hazards of Vinyl Siding, Finding Lamp Oil Alternatives, Smoothtop Range Cleaners and Natural Fibers

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Decorative olive oil lamps are paraffin alternatives that have lit homes for more than 2,000 years. Eco Choices
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Tencel, a cellulosic fiber made from wood, is an environmentally friendly alternative to natural fibers.
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Exterior siding made of river-recovered cypress is a beautiful, earth friendly option. Goodwin Heart Pine Company

House siding

I’m contemplating vinyl siding for the exterior of my home. It has a sleek, new look–the neighborhood standard for home exteriors (and return on my remodeling dollar)–and it never needs painting. What are the hazards of vinyl siding, and do you think they outweigh practical reasons for choosing it?

Gary L. McClelland, Fort Wayne, IN

We need to do something with the exterior walls of our hundred-year-old house. We don’t know which is the best environmental alternative. Should we paint, which means an annual event, or install siding? Our choices for siding seem to be vinyl plastic or aluminum that is coated in enamel or PVC paint. Are there other alternatives?

Sharon Zayac, Riverton, IL

There are more types of siding than most of us know. Here is a summary from the Better Business Bureau, augmented with a few discoveries of my own.

Vinyl siding is made from 100 percent polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a toxic plastic. The color is uniform through­out, so scratches are not a problem, and it will last forever because it is not biodegradable.

Wood siding is the most widely used residential siding. Wood is renewable and biodegradable, but it must be maintained with paints or finishes that are generally toxic. Look for plant-based paints, which are safer than most (see page 60). I used natural paint on exterior wood siding in 1990, and it still looks good. Because wood is a porous, organic material that absorbs and gives off moisture, it may deteriorate over time if not properly maintained.

Wood siding comes in many forms. For information on siding made from old barn wood, visit Aged Woods or Singing Saw Woodworks. For salvaged wood try Goodwin Heart Pine.

Shingle siding is another wood choice. Cedar shingles are not meant to be painted, though they do benefit from periodic stains or sealants, and they last for years.

Engineered siding products are extremely durable and fireproof. Some are just wood, others are a mix of wood fibers, silica, and cement. Many have excellent warranties and superior long-term performance. Hardiplank is a newer fiber- cement exterior plank siding, which has the look of natural wood siding yet resists damage from extended exposure to humidity, rain, snow, salt air, and termites.

The primary advantages of aluminum siding are longevity and relatively low maintenance. Sidings with factory- applied enamel finishes are nontoxic. Aluminum siding contains some portion of recycled aluminum and can be recycled again after use as siding.

Steel siding is popular where major hailstorms are prevalent. It is also made with some recycled content, and, like aluminum and vinyl, it is available in different colors and is extremely durable.

Personally, I would stay away from vinyl siding because of its toxicity. I don’t recommend aluminum and steel as choices for the same reason I don’t recommend steel framing–wrapping your home with metal sets up a Faraday cage through which electromagnetic fields (EMFs) cannot pass. While this may protect you from manmade EMFs, it also blocks nature’s EMFs, to which our bodies attune. In addition, metal framing and siding may trap EMFs generated inside the home, preventing them from being dispelled.

Olive oil lamps

In light of your statements about fumes from paraffin (November/December 1999), do you know of any lamp oil alternative (for hurricane lamps and the like) that is clean-burning enough to use indoors?

Mark Grennan, via e-mail

Standard paraffin lamp oil, a petroleum product, is carcinogenic when combusted and toxic when ingested (in February 2001, the Center for Disease Control issued an official warning that lamp oil poses a serious poisoning risk for children), so you are smart to search for alternatives. Olive oil is a good option, because it starts burning easier and burns cleaner than other vegetable oils, though any vegetable oil or pharmaceutical grade mineral oil will work. In fact, olive oil was the fuel for the first oil lamps used in the ancient Middle East. Reproductions of these simple lamps are available today from various natural products suppliers such as This company claims that its olive oil lamps won’t smoke or smell, and one wick lasts twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

For another safe alternative, look for candlemaking supply companies that sell floating wicks meant for turning various containers–such as your favorite glasses, bowls, or bottles– into vegetable oil lamps. One source is

Cleaning smoothtop ranges

I just purchased a smoothtop range and am searching for a natural alternative cleanser. I emailed the manufacturer of a product called Cerama Brite, which is specifically formulated for smoothtops, and received this list of ingredients: water, citric acid, feldspar, surfactants, lemon fragrance, glycol ether, and thickening ingredients. What do you think? My stove manual states that smoothtop cleansers contain silicone. How toxic is that, and is it listed under some other name in this ingredient list?

Also, is there a method for cleaning the smoothtop that doesn’t require paper towels, which the manufacturer recommends?

Nancy Meier, via e-mail

The product you mention uses feldspar as an abrasive, in place of silicone. The only item of concern on the ingredient list is glycol ether, which is toxic. But it seems as though this cleaning product is basically a detergent and an abrasive, with fragrance. Bon Ami in the square box (sold in hardware stores) is made from soap and feldspar, the same abrasive they use. So why not use Bon Ami? I imagine that you could clean your smoothtop with any substance that cleans glass, so try vinegar or even plain soap and water and a sponge.

The range manufacturer objects to cleaning the smoothtop with a cloth towel because any remaining lint might ignite. I would suggest using “lint-free” towels (made from linen) such as those used for drying crystal glasses. If you can’t find these, a quarter yard of unbleached, undyed linen fabric should do fine.

Rayon and tencel

In the July/August 2000 issue, there was a question about ramie that included rayon in a list of natural fibers. Aren’t cotton, linen, wool, ramie, hemp, and Tencel the only natural fabrics?

Laurie Tamm, Boulder, CO

You are partially correct. Rayon is not a fiber in its natural state. It’s made from cellulose taken from cotton linters, old cotton rags, paper, and wood pulp. While these fibers could be viewed as “recycled,” the process of making the yarn requires a lot of petrochemicals to break down the cellulose and reform it into a fiber. Still, it’s a better choice than synthetic fibers made from petrochemicals.

In the same way, Tencel is not a natural fiber either. Tencel is the brand name for lyocell, a cellulosic fiber made from wood through a proprietary production process. It was specifically designed with respect for the environment. The process recycles the chemicals used and is energy efficient as well as economical in its use of resources.

DEBRA LYNN DADD is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).

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