Eco Experts: What You Need to Know About Natural Light and Cleaning With Vinegar

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Natural light in the winter

During the winter I spend so much time indoors that I don’t get much exposure to natural light. Is this bad for my health?

–Helga Svenstrom, via e-mail

While you may not suffer specifically from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this malady typically comes on as the dark days of winter approach, accompanied by symptoms such as depression, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, carbohydrate cravings, sleep disturbances, and social withdrawal. When less light passes through the eyes during the fall and winter months, the brain releases too little serotonin and too much melatonin, and depressive symptoms may result. SAD is generally treated with phototherapy–exposure to a specific form of intense light.

Whether or not you suffer from SAD, you’re right about getting outside: Exposure to natural light is important at all times of year. Even with the danger of sunburn and skin cancer from harmful rays penetrating the thinning ozone layer, it’s important to keep in mind that some sunshine is vital to good health. The interaction of sunlight with skin produces vitamin D, a vital nutrient that is not found in foods common in our modern diet. Vitamin D does occur naturally in egg yolks, liver, yeast, shrimp, salmon, tuna, and fish liver oils, and it is added to fortified milk and enriched bread. However, sunlight is needed to help the body synthesize vitamin D from these sources. Since ancient times, sunbathing has been recommended as a restorative for health. Modern studies have shown that exposure to the sun can increase energy levels, lower blood pressure, enhance the immune system, and have other good effects, so it’s not surprising that lack of sunshine during the winter months would have the opposite effect.

Even if you can’t get bright sunshine, it’s beneficial to expose your eyes to natural daylight rather than artificial light. It is important for our bodies to be exposed to natural light on a daily basis–just as important as getting proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise–so spend as much time outdoors as you can. Make a point to go for a walk every day. Take up some winter sports. If the weather is bad, even time beneath a protective covered porch will do you good.

Protecting outdoor furniture

We have a teak outdoor bench from Bali, and we’ve been told to treat it with teak oil or linseed oil. Upon examining the labels, we found that both are highly toxic. We thought the linseed oil would be more natural than the teak oil, but it has the same warnings about toxic exposure as any other chemical product, including warnings that it contains substances known to cause cancer! Are there any 100 percent natural oils that can be used to protect wood from drying out, fading, and cracking? What about olive oil or jojoba oil? We are not willing to oil the bench with toxic chemicals because we have a two-year-old child.

–Karen Diedrich, via e-mail

I’m not sure why you were told to treat your teak bench with teak oil or linseed oil. Teak is considered to be the premier wood for garden furniture because it is heavy, durable, rot-resistant, maintenance-free, does not splinter, and does not have to be sealed, stained, oiled, or finished. It can be left outdoors untreated, and after a couple of seasons in the sun teak will weather from a honey-brown to a silvery-gray. Treating your bench with oil will retain the original color, but otherwise it is not needed.

Formaldehyde finishes

I understand that formaldehyde is the additive that creates “wrinkle-free” fabrics. I just bought 100 percent cotton, 275-thread-count white sheets from Royal Velvet. There is nothing on the label to indicate that they are wrinkle-free or easy care. I called Fieldcrest, the manufacturer, and the representative said these sheets do have formaldehyde on them. What a surprise! Will washing the sheets in hot water remove the formaldehyde, or at least weaken it to a safe level?

–Ann Studnicka, via e-mail

During manufacturing, formaldehyde is applied as a resin in such a way that it becomes a permanent and irremovable part of the fabric. The resin continues to release formaldehyde fumes for the life of the fabric. Newly processed textile products often release formaldehyde fumes at levels of 800 to 1,000 parts per million.

Symptoms of formaldehyde exposure can include tiredness and insomnia as well as headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash, and asthma attacks. Formaldehyde is also a known human carcinogen, and bacteriological studies have related it to genetic changes and birth defects.

It’s always a good idea to wash any textile product before use to remove any sizing or finishes. Washing can lower the level of formaldehyde emissions from nearly 1,000 parts per million to around 100 parts per million. Low levels of formaldehyde will continue to be released, however, as the resin breaks down through washing, ironing, and wear, so it is best to avoid formaldehyde altogether, if possible.

Vinegar as disinfectant

I’ve been using vinegar to clean both my kitchen and bathroom. Is it an effective disinfectant?

–Penny Davis, via e-mail

By itself, vinegar is not a disinfectant, but when used with hydrogen peroxide, it kills bacteria more effectively than any commercial cleaner.

Susan Sumner, a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI) in Blacksburg, Virginia, published the following formula in Science News. Purchase a bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and a bottle of plain white or apple cider vinegar. Pour each liquid into its own spray bottle. Spritz the item to be disinfected with both the vinegar and the hydrogen peroxide, then rinse with water.

Using one mist right after the other is ten times more effective than using either spray by itself and more effective than mixing the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in one spray bottle. Tests at VPI found the two sprays used together killed virtually all Salmonella, Shigella, or E. coli bacteria on heavily contaminated food and surfaces; this spray combination is more effective than chlorine bleach.

It doesn’t matter if you spray with the vinegar first, then the hydrogen peroxide, or vice versa. There is no lingering taste of vinegar or hydrogen peroxide, and neither is toxic if any residue remains. This combination works exceptionally well for sanitizing counters and other food preparation surfaces, including wood cutting boards.

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