We all grew up thinking chemical smells like bleach and ammonia signaled "clean." But as Deirdre Imus reveals, some of the chemicals we use to maintain our homes are doing us and our families much more harm than good. In Greening Your Cleaning, the first in her Green This! series, Deirdre shows how cleaning house the environmentally responsible way can be as effective and often cheaper than the more traditional, toxic, means. This volume includes:
- Simple, efficient cleaning methods for every room of the house
- Spotlights on everyday products (all purpose cleaner, glass/window cleaner, laundry detergent) and the toxic ingredients you should be wary of
- Summaries of the latest research on the toxic effects of ordinary chemicals
- Resource lists of widely available "green cleaning" products and retailers
Filled with tips and testimonials, Greening Your Cleaning will show you how to streamline your cleaning products and practices, and how easy it is to make "living green" your way of life.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A New Meaning of Clean
Our Most Precious Natural Resource
We all want the best for our children the best schools, the best doctors, the best foods. But often, we give little thought to the environment where our children live, and the quality of the air they breathe. Some of us smoke with our children sitting right next to us. We bring home dinner from a fast food restaurant because it's cheap, or zap leftover lasagna in the microwave because it's convenient. We spray pesticides on the lawns where our children play, and set off roach bombs in the rooms where they sleep. We use chlorine bleach, and ammonia, and dozens of other toxic chemicals to clean the clothes our children wear, and the plates they eat off, and the carpets they lounge on to watch TV.
We make these compromises every day, not because we don't care about our children on the contrary. More than anything, we want our homes to be clean and sanitary, safe havens where our children can thrive. We compromise because we're busy and exhausted and overcommitted. Taking constant shortcuts seems the only way to manage our hectic lives.
But the time has come to slow down and start paying more attention our children's futures depend on it. We live in a world polluted by toxins. We're exposed to pesticides and carcinogens in the foods we eat and the clothes we wear; in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the substances we use to clean our houses. The deadly chemical cocktail building up in our bodies is causing us great harm, manifesting itself in everything from asthma to cancer. Toxins are ravaging our lives and even more so the lives of our children. Because they are smaller and still developing, they are far more vulnerable than we are to toxic exposures, yet they are assaulted at identical levels.
Now, as a result, their health is suffering. In the United States, childhood cancers, now the leading cause of death by disease for children between the ages of one and nineteen, increased by approximately 21 percent between 1975 and 1998. Certain other cancers brain tumors, leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and central nervous system malignancies are growing even faster, at rates of about 30 percent over the last two decades. The National Cancer Institute estimates that these rates will continue to grow an additional one percent every year. And that's just the beginning. Over the past decade, we've seen a sixfold increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). An appalling American diet has produced an obesity epidemic, and diabetes is at nearly epidemic proportions as well. Childhood asthma is the leading cause of emergency room visits and absenteeism in schools. Rates of autism are rising fast, and rheumatoid arthritis has become the third-most-common chronic childhood disorder. Premature births, problems conceiving, and birth defects are all on the rise.
It's no secret that environmental factors contribute to many of these extremely serious health issues. But even as our bodies rebel against toxins, we continue exposing ourselves to them recklessly, without pausing to consider how our snap decisions might affect our health, or the health of future generations. Most of us feel helpless when confronted with these terrifying realities. We shrug off the health crisis our kids are facing as beyond our individual control.
I'm here to tell you that we can take action to improve this situation, and it's much easier than you might think. As consumers, we have the power to control the level of toxins that enter our homes. With a little knowledge, we can give our families a much healthier life.
Rethinking how we clean our homes is, to me, the most logical place to begin this process. After all, unlike so many other modern conveniences, we don't use chemical cleaning products to save time or money. We use them because our mothers used them because, quite simply, we don't know any better.
Throughout the book, I've tried to identify ingredients that may be harmful to you and your family. Some of my assertions might be controversial; the manufacturers of these products will insist that they have been tested and are safe when used as directed. But I don't think that should be the end of the inquiry. Even if the products I discuss are not necessarily toxic to all people in all circumstances, they do all contain potentially dangerous substances. Obviously, the hazards depend on many factors, including how concentrated the chemicals are, and how long we're exposed to them, but can we really afford to take risks with our children's health? Even if the phenol in a single squirt of air freshener isn't immediately harmful, the amount in a bottle is likely to be toxic if your child ingests it. And kids love to sample everything they can get their hands on.
I am also concerned that there has not been sufficient testing to determine the harm to the environment or the long-term ill-health effects of exposure to commercial cleaning products. What little we do know is frightening, so instead of gambling with our children's future, I really recommend using nontoxic alternatives whenever they're available.
Did you know that the ingredients in many common household cleaners laundry and dishwashing detergents, glass and tile cleaners, air fresheners, furniture polish, carpet shampoo have been linked to a number of serious childhood health disorders, everything from asthma to cancer? If not, it's not your fault: The manufacturers of these familiar items never tell us that their products are packed with potential carcinogens, neurotoxins, mutagens, teratogens, and endocrine and hormone disrupters. Misleading or incomplete labels can fool even the most conscientious moms.
These companies have no incentive to enlighten us. Think about it. If more of us knew that the cleaning products we depend on every day contained potentially dangerous chemicals, we'd surely stop buying them immediately. And if we did that, these hugely powerful corporations would be forced to change their business practices, or start losing money fast. But what's more important in the end these companies' profits, or our children's futures?
As a culture, I think we're all looking for ways to live healthier and get closer to nature, whether consciously or not. We desperately want to lower our toxic burden, not add to it every time we do the dishes or disinfect the toilet. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we're doing every time we clean our homes with chemicals.
The good news is that there is a safer way to keep your homes germ and dirt free without sacrificing quality, or investing any extra time or money. There's no reason to lower your standards or empty your wallet to protect your children's health. No reason, either, to feel stressed by the changes I'm proposing you make. I know from experience that stress paralyzes people, and I can't emphasize enough that real change occurs slowly, one tweak at a time.
I repeat: This doesn't have to be a big project. I'm not asking you to put your life on hold, or do weeks of research, or overhaul your entire household. I've written this book to demystify the process for you, to give you realistic steps that will empower you to make the first small changes.
The more you learn, the more you'll understand how much common sense my whole approach makes. You'll begin to ask: If nontoxic products exist that work as effectively as and sometimes even more effectively than the synthetic cleaners I grew up with, why would I knowingly expose my children to harmful toxins? Why not eliminate all traces of chemicals that might make my kids sick or harm the environment?
As parents, we have a responsibility to start asking these questions and to start demanding answers. We need to equip ourselves with this information so that we can make the right choices for our kids. Children are our most precious natural resource. They don't have a voice of their own. It's time we spoke up on their behalf. For their sake, I encourage you to make the commitment to a healthier life today.
Going Off Autopilot
Cleaning is a necessity, a basic fact of life. Whether you're a single mom, or a student, or a bachelor, whether you do your own cleaning or pay someone else to do it for you, sooner or later you have no choice in the matter.
How you clean, on the other hand, is entirely up to you. With a few simple actions, you can decide if, when cleaning your house, you are going to nurture or pollute your family. You can choose whether the cleaning products you bring home will be a primary source of good or of bad, of safety or contamination.
But what does "clean" really mean? What does clean even smell like?
Sadly, most of us have never given these basic questions much thought. If you're like me, you probably grew up associating "clean" with the chemical stench of your mother's tried-and-true cleaning products. If our bathroom reeked of ammonia or pine or chlorine bleach, then I assumed that it was clean, germ free, sanitized. To me, clean equaled chemical.
This is a common, but dangerous, mistake. When I got to college, I had already made a commitment to healthy living. As a competitive runner, I paid close attention to the foods that I put into my body. But it hadn't yet occurred to me that there might also be a connection between my performance on the track and the products I used to clean my living space.
So when I walked down that mysterious aisle of the grocery store for the first time, I went right on autopilot, reaching for the same brands that I remembered my mother and grandmother buying year after year. Like most people, I confused familiarity with safety.
Back then, I had no idea that I was breathing in potentially toxic fumes whenever I mopped, or scrubbed my toilet, or cleaned my oven. I didn't realize that most commercial dishwasher powders contain some bleach, which combines with hot water to emit chlorine vapors that can be absorbed right into our skin and lungs. Or that some upholstery shampoos can damage the nerves, liver, and kidneys. I definitely didn't know that the ingredients in many air fresheners might cause cancer.
Most of you don't consider these hazards every time you dart into the store to grab a new box of laundry detergent. You're probably like I was: Because you have a million other things on your mind, you default to buying the exact same products or maybe the new-and-improved version of those exact same products that your mothers relied on when you were growing up. What worked for them will work for you right?
But there's a major problem with this whole scenario. Over the last two decades, we've learned a lot of disturbing information about the chemicals in these cleaning products. We know that, despite the proven hazards of their main ingredients, very few conventional household cleaners have ever been evaluated for their long-term impact on human and particularly children's health. Untested combinations of chemicals hit the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores with no interference from the government.
Why, when they're hurting us like this, do we insist on sticking to the same old toxic cleaning products? It defies common sense. These substances are making us sick. They're making our kids sick, our pets sick, and our environment sick.
Given the state of our children's health, we can no longer afford to ignore these dangers. Each and every one of us needs to start asking, as I did almost twenty years ago: Does the fact that my mom used this product prove that it's good for me? What do I know about this product's ingredients, and the impact those ingredients will have on my family? And why is it so hard to get answers? Why would I buy a product when I turn it over to read the list of ingredients and can't even find out what's in it?
As I said earlier, that's all I want you to do at this stage just start asking the questions. For me, this is the single most important step of the whole greening process: becoming aware of the problem. Once you understand how these environmental toxins affect you, the rest will fall into place.
Over time, you'll come to realize that the way your mother cleaned might not have been the best or the safest or even the most sanitary way to clean. In fact, the old way of cleaning might actually be dirty.
Now, I love my mother dearly, and to her credit, over the years she has been 100 percent right about almost everything. She's also incredibly open to new ideas, which is one reason I admire her so much. As soon as I educated her about the dangers of toxic cleaning products, she wasted no time in going green. I'll bet your moms will do the same, and not because they're tree huggers or radical environmentalists. They'll make the switch because nontoxic products work better, and they make you feel better, too: no more unpleasant odors and allergies, no more watery eyes and rashes every time you reach for the scouring sponge. We've come to assume that cleaning our houses should make us cough and sneeze and tear that it's somehow a form of physical punishment.
A woman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recently wrote me about the unpleasant side effects she experienced whenever she cleaned her house: "I'd always assumed that housecleaning was supposed to make my eyes water and my skin break out into a nasty rash. I was used to coughing and sneezing whenever I cleaned I thought it was all part of the process. But now that I'm using nontoxic products, I'm happy to report that I can breathe easily as I clean and my hands no longer get red and irritated. My whole relationship with housecleaning has changed completely."
It can all change for you, too but only if you switch off the autopilot. Quit sleepwalking through your daily chores. Green cleaning isn't just healthy it can also be pretty fun. Who knows? Once you get rid of all that nasty-smelling toxic stuff, you might start to enjoy yourself.
Less Is More
Once you learn the facts about chemical cleaning products, you have a responsibility to change how you clean. At the same time, it's important that you implement these changes at your own pace, one at a time. Real, long-term changes aren't the product of dramatic resolutions, but of gradual, barely perceptible adjustments in attitude and lifestyle made over the years.
Think about all the fad diets out there. Do any of them actually work? Yes, if you eat only cabbage soup for a month, you'll probably lose weight. But what happens when the month is over? Chances are you'll go back to the same old eating habits that inspired you to go on a diet in the first place. Wouldn't it make more sense to educate yourself about good nutrition and exercise, and try to live healthier?
In this and everything else, the most extreme measures tend to be the shortest-lived, while the most enduring changes are the ones we hardly even notice at first.
So take it slow. Our lives are complicated enough as it is; no need to go overboard. I know from my own experience and from talking to my mom and sister and close friends that most mothers are too busy to sit down for five minutes at a stretch, much less completely revamp their households overnight.
Trust me, that's not what I'm asking you to do. You don't have to toss out every product under your kitchen sink and start over from zero that would be completely impractical and beside the point. I don't expect you to give up paper towels or make all your own cleaning products from scratch who has time for that? I'm not demanding that you become a children's health expert or read a bunch of books about healthy living. I'm just suggesting that you pay a little more attention to the world around you. Question your old assumptions. Look closer at labels what they do and don't say. Learn not to be deceived by flashy marketing and packaging. Educate yourself about all the healthy options out there already.
As you read through this book, you'll pick up many simple practices that will make your home a healthier, more truly clean place. But remember please don't attempt to adopt them all in one swoop. If you do, you'll get overwhelmed, and as soon as that happens, it's all over.
Once you green one aspect of your life, I can guarantee that you'll want to continue. Going green is a constantly evolving process that all follows from that first tiny step. Just as small, everyday exposures to toxic chemicals can severely damage your health over the long term, small, everyday improvements can yield powerful long-term benefits. If you make just one simple change for example, trading your usual glass cleaner for a nontoxic one you'll notice a difference in your environment right away.
From there, you might feel ready to move on to the next small change. Maybe the next time you run out of your favorite automatic dishwasher detergent, you'll decide to replace it with a nontoxic, phosphate- and bleach-free product. Maybe you'll feel good knowing that the consequences of this choice will extend way beyond your immediate physical environment. You won't just be exposing your kids to fewer toxins. You'll also be saving gallons and gallons of water every day from contamination.
You may also come to appreciate how green cleaning simplifies your life. We've gotten into the habit of buying two, three, or even four separate products to perform the same job. Why? Because we're not exactly sure what's in these products, or what they're supposed to do. Our cleaning has gotten out of control, it's not good for us overcleaning is one of the main reasons we have so many allergies. This overkill is hurting our children and our planet, and adding more complications to our already crazy lives. We need to stop loading up on identical products that serve no beneficial purpose.
Eventually, you may discover that going green involves more than making concrete changes. Pretty soon, your whole mind-set will be transformed for the better. Everything fits together into a web here: Before you know it, you'll have significantly improved your health and overall quality of life. But I can't emphasize enough that green cleaning is just a tool. If you follow my simple suggestions, you'll already be leading a healthier life and providing your kids with a better future. I promise you it's the easiest thing in the world. And it all starts with redefining what clean really means.
Copyright © 2007 by Git'R Green, Inc.
Table of Contents
one: why green?
1 A NEW MEANING OF CLEAN
Our Most Precious Natural Resource
Going Off Autopilot
Less Is More
2 MY COMMITMENT
The Web of Life
The Imus Ranch
Greening Hackensack and Beyond
Expanding the Mission
Toxic Interruption: Chlorine/Chlorine Bleach/Chlorine By-products
3 THE FACTS
Knowing the Dangers
Breaking It Down
Protecting Our Children
Health Problems Associated with Environmental Toxins in the Home
Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
The Science of Housekeeping
Different Shades of Green
Toxic Interruption: Petroleum Distillates
two: one change at a time
4 THE HOME
Some Cautionary Notes
Improving Your Indoor Air Quality
Back to the Basics
Toxic Interruption: Dioxin and Triclosan
5 THE KITCHEN
The Kitchen Sink
Doing the Dishes
Other Kitchen Essentials
Toxic Interruption: Ammonia
6 THE BATHROOM
Cleaning Tubs and Showers
Toxic Interruption: Phthalates
Cleaning and Deodorizing Toilets
Bathroom Floors and Mirrors
Toxic Interruption: Formaldehyde
7 THE BEDROOM
Vacuuming and Dusting
Cleaning and Deodorizing Carpets
Bedding and Linens
Toxic Interruption: Phenols
8 LIVING AREAS
Home Sweet Home: Deodorizing Naturally
Cleaning Drapes and Upholstery
Toxic Interruption: Butyl Cellosolve
Keeping Your Pets Clean and Healthy
9 THE LAUNDRY ROOM
The Art of Laundry
The Basics: Washing and Drying
Stain and Spot Removal
Ironing and Starching
Toxic Interruption: Alkylphenolics
10 THE GREEN REVOLUTION
GENERAL TERMS USED IN
GLOSSARY OF CHEMICALS
A NOTE ON SOURCES