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The tipping point of green cleaning

Did you look at the labels on your cleaning products? Maybe you’d prefer not to focus on it, but if you have children, you or your partner is pregnant or concerned about your health or the environment, you should pay attention to a few things before sterilizing.

It’s not that cleaning products are everywhere (this sounds like a typical beginning of an article: “the x products are everywhere”; a weak prefabricated beginning, maybe as toxic as the VOCs which we discuss in this article).

In fact, adults have so much fear of cleaning products that we use in our home that, when there are children in the house, we don’t hesitate to follow the advice on the label: we put them out of reach of little ones.

We are conscious of their danger, even if we haven’t bothered- until now- to ask if we can substitute the most dangerous cleaning products for innocuous alternatives. They exist and they are easy to find.

Even the prefabricated beginning to this article (“cleaning products are everywhere”) applies in more ways than one: significant residues from the toxic substances in cleaning products remain on plates and dishes, counters and tabletops, clothes, floors, windows, glass and mirrors, carpets, furniture and, yes, in the air in the form of suspended particulates (which can damage our mucous membranes, for example). “Cleaning products are everywhere”, even when we don’t have much time and we can’t- or we don’t want to- thoroughly clean our home.

Smog in the house

A house and all that it implies (personal space, a source of energy, the component materials) is as important for its effect on the environment as on our personal state.

At times, with talk about a “sustainable” or “green” home, the emphasis is on energy consumption, passive characteristics of the space, etcetera, and we forget the equally important aspects like the use of cleaning products and detergents that push the levels of toxic contamination in our homes above those outside it.

In our daily war- however more or less intensive- against dirty and germs (this sounds like a seventies television advertisement), we often change things for the worse. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using studies testing for VOCs (volatile organic compounds, “some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects”), found that levels of some VOCs “average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.”

From the European Commission to the U.S. EPA, governments and health agencies have targeted cleaning products as a source of VOCs. More studies are being released on the result of prolonged exposure to products and their VOCs, like that of the Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Project which found that “each year about six out of every hundred professional janitors are injured by the chemicals that they use”. They cited the chemicals in glass, carpet and toilet cleaners as well as in degreasers as the most risky.

Conventional cleaning products contain the highest levels of potentially dangerous chemical substances- for personal health and the environment- that one can find in the home; given this, the European Union, as well as the EU member states, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, regulate the level of these substances.

  • They recommend not inhaling the vapors emitted by cleaning products. There are two substances, in particular, which merit extra caution: bleach and ammonia. Small quantities inhaled will irritate mucous membranes. In larger quantities, it can seriously damage lung tissue. When both agents are combined in one product –chloramine– its inhalation liberates into the lungs chloric acid, ammonia and free radicals. These three components are more damaging to health. They are contaminating to the environment as well.
  • Conventional detergents are composed of many chemical compounds, mainly derived from petroleum (tensioactives, polishes, perfumes), that don’t disappear once used and are harmful to our environment.
  • Phosphates, another common ingredient, cause an increase in certain algaes that cause an increased mortality among fish.

Cleaning without sterilizing

Instead of opting for cleaning products that literally wipe out every substance or bacterial flora that exists in our home (something that isn’t always good, as shown by the increase in allergies and respiratory infections in recent generations), there are several methods and natural products that can keep our homes clean and fresh (once again it sounds like a television ad) without secondary toxic effects.

The experts agree that the environmentally friendly cleaning products can help keep a home healthy- something that can indirectly improve our quality of life- and, at the same time, avoid contaminating our environment. There are paints, putties, glues, cleaning products, etcetera, made free from VOCs. The absence of VOCs avoids the emission of dangerous gasses.

Volatile organic compounds, phosphates, benzene, chlorine and the particulates EDTA and NTA, are substances that any person concerned with their health of the future of the environment should banish from their home.

Even if these are products that we buy once in awhile and keep- “for security”- out of reach of children, no European or American needs to buy products with these substances.

Advice to avoid substances “non gratas”

Not so long ago, the following advice on the use of home cleaning products could be found only in women’s magazines or the websites of consumer watchdog agencies, but recently, it seems that this consciousness-raising has made housecleaning a weightier and more universal topic. At faircompanies, we have collected the advice of public agencies who have begun to provide this information to residents.

The EPA recommends:

  • Choose biodegradable products which don’t harm people or aquatic life.
  • Use products with VOC concentrations lower than 10%.
  • Choose products that are neutral pH.
  • Avoid the use of products that are derived from petroleum. Use alternatives derived from vegetable and pine oil.
  • Avoid products that contain EDTA and NTA; there are non-toxic alternatives, such as sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium citrate, and sodium silicate.
  • Avoid phosphates; choose, instead, products with a phosphate concentration less than 0.5% of the total weight of the product.
  • Avoid products that contain bleach, chlorine or sodium hypochlorite.
  • Use products with packaging or bottles that are recycled, recyclable or that can be refilled.
  • Use concentrated products (they are more efficient with less packaging) and can be used with cold water.

An article from September of 2005 by the U.S. organization the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA), classifies the following substances that should be avoided in cleaning products:

  • Petroleum-based: paraffin, mineral oil, diethylene glycol, perchloroethylene, or butyl cellosolve.
  • Phosphates (very harmful to marine life) and EDTA (degrades very slowly in the environment).
  • Phthalates: used by manufacturers of many products to prolong their scent, phthalates are potentially carcinogenic and damaging to embryos and newborns.
  • Antibacterial agents: triclosan and benzalkonium chloride. Their use could be contributing to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resulting in human illnesses that are more difficult to treat.
  • Chlorine bleach: this popular whitener and disinfectant can harm the environment by contributing to the formation of organochlorines like chlorofluorocarbons that damage the ozone layer.

“Green” is too vague

Determining just which cleaning products are free from toxins isn’t always easy. There are sites that help consumers locate more exactly which ingredients to avoid, such as that of the Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Project which has evaluated the health and safety risks for several hundred chemical ingredients commonly found in janitorial products. But often this information isn’t useful since in the U.S., manufacturers of household cleaning products- unlike those of food, drugs and most cosmetics- are not required to list their ingredients.

Labeling doesn’t help much either. According to the U.S. Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels, labels like “green” don’t guarantee a harmless product and are considered by both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) to be “too vague to be meaningful to consumers.”

A label like “organic” while more regulated for food products, is meaningless for cleaning products. Any chemical that contains carbon is considered an “organic chemical”, like those made from petroleum or “petrochemicals”, which include “some of the most hazardous substances ever made”.

Reading “non-toxic” on a product isn’t a guarantee either. For example, different organizations have different definitions of “non-toxic”, which means, according to the Consumers Union that “a consumer could see both a ‘non-toxic’ label and a ‘This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer’ label on the same product since the threshold for what CPSC considers to be toxic is lower than that for the State of California.

With a label like “no detergents” a product “may still contain harsh solvents or cleaning chemicals as an alternative to detergents.” And the list goes on. (For more from the Consumers Union Guide, go here to search for the effectiveness of specific labels or certifications).

There are some labels that are meaningful, like the Environmental Choice’s EcoLogo Program and Green Seal, which the Consumers Union verifies as having standards “designed to address the environmental impacts of a product from manufacturing to use to disposal.”

Look for enzymes and plant-based oils

Another way to evaluate cleaning products is by choosing products with specific, environmentally friendly, active ingredients. Those recommended by the Union of Concerned Scientists are:

  • Citrus- and plant-based oils. Natural oils can be used as degreasers (orange, lemon), disinfectants (tea tree, eucalyptus), and polishes (olive). They freshen the air at the same time.
  • Sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, and sodium silicate. These compounds work like phosphates and EDTA to soften water, but without the harmful impact.
  • Enzymes. Natural drain openers use digesting bacteria and enzymes to eat through most clogs.
  • Non-chlorine bleach. These products use oxygen to whiten and brighten clothes.

Commercial alternatives

With increased awareness around the risks of the majority of conventional home cleaning products (as with perfumes, cosmetic products, personal hygiene and baby products), there has been an increase in companies offering biodegradable and non-toxic products like Ecover (in Europe and North America) and Seventh Generation (with a huge presence in U.S. supermarkets).

Besides Ecover and Seventh Generation, several companies and initiatives are making home cleaning products, such as BEE Cleaning Products, Ecoconcepts, Clean and Greeen, Fruits of Passion (At Home), Swheat Scoop, E-Cloth, Mrs. Meyers, Method and there are many local and industrial alternatives (Advanced Vapor Technologies, The Clean Environment Company,EnvirOx, etcetera) in Europe and North America.

Seventh Generation estimates that the average North American home contains 63 distinct synthetic chemical products, that include at least 10 gallons (38 liters) of potentially toxic petrochemical products, among them diethylene glycol (found in window cleaners), chlorinated phenols (toilet bowl cleaners), nonyl phenol ethoxylate (found in laundry detergents and all purpose cleaners; is banned in Europe) and butyl cellosolve (common in window, and other, cleaners).

The authors of a report by Global Information Inc. (Changing Attitudes to Home Hygiene: From House-Proud To Carefree Consumers), from December of 2006, recommend that the manufacturers of cleaning products invest in “making products more ethical and environmentally friendly”. The reasons, according to the study:

  • The shift to ‘green cleaning’ is gaining momentum.
  • New product development is moving in the right direction, but more can be done.
  • Efficacy driven products tend to lack an environmental focus.
  • Position natural and/or environmentally friendly as more suitable for frequent use.

Homemade products: a non-commercial alternative with proven effectiveness

For those who want to save money or to know the exactly what is going into their home, there is an alternative to commercial environmentally friendly alternatives: make your own. Many magazines and websites, like the U.S. non-profit Circle of Life, are recommending a return to traditional recipes, to avoid chemical additives and guarantee the health of both children and adults.

According to Greenpeace, to thoroughly clean our home we only need four easily accessible ingredients: pure soap, baking soda (bicarbonate of soda), vinegar and water. Depending on what we want to clean, some of the ingredients can be combined with oils and natural essences.

  • Laundry: laundry detergent contaminates water and marine life. You can replace it with natural grated soap (powder or dissolved in water). To optimize energy use, wash clothes only when the machine is completely full. Regarding softeners, ask yourself if it is really necessary for all washes. Try to use a smaller dose than indicated (the calculations on the label are made to sell more softener). There are also natural softeners on the market (Body Time video).
  • Dishwashing: dissolve three spoonfuls of natural grated soap in a liter of water and add a half glass of alcohol vinegar and lemon juice. If it is necessary to scrub the dishes, add baking soda.
  • Oven: you can clean with a mix of hot water, grated soap, lemon juice (to degrease) and baking soda (in case it is necessary to scrub).
  • Floor: the same mix of soap, water and vinegar used for dishes also works on the floor. To clean tiles, use a wet rag with vinegar followed by a dry cloth. For wood floors, you can use cold water with a bit of vinegar.
  • Carpets and rugs: use a solution of cold water and vinegar on a rag or brush. It helps, as well, to brighten colors. If the carpet is stained, you can use a wet rag and, afterward, add baking soda; finally, vacuum.
  • Glass: clean first with a mix of cold water and grated soap. Later, use a solution of one part vinegar and 4 parts water. Dry with a clean cloth.
  • Disinfectant: mix with 50 or 100 milliliters of eucalyptus oil in a liter of water. Use on surfaces to disinfect.
  • Air freshener: dissolve 5 milliliters of baking soda in a half liter of hot water and add 5 milliliters of lemon juice.
  • Furniture polish: mix 5 milliliters of lemon juice with 250 milliliters of vegetable oil.
  • Appliances in general: use a solution of baking soda or vinegar with cold water.

For a bit more on how to use the following products, several of which you can easily find at home:

  • Vinegar is a disinfectant and gets rid of grease or calcium buildup. With hot water, it works to clean worktops and to polish floors, to clean glass and tiles, etc.
  • Lemon is also a degreaser and deodorizer. It’s also a good polish for bronze and copper. In the washing machine, it works as a bleach and softener.
  • Baking soda cleans sinks, tiles, marble and stains on carpets and clothes.
  • The mineral salt borax is a disinfectant, fungicide and insecticide. It protects against fungus, woodworm, etc.
  • Wood ash, marinated 24 hours in water, works as a homemade bleach: it whitens clothes, removes stains, etc.
  • Ammonia diluted with water can be used to clean glass and aluminum.