Non-Toxic Cleaning for the Home


Why Green Cleaning?

We’ve been sold a pack of lies. Professional marketers have convinced us that a good housekeeper keeps a pantry full of specialized cleaning products for every item in the house. A toilet cannot be cleaned with the same stuff you use to clean a sink, or the floors, or the shower.  This lie is merely expensive and wasteful. Far worse is the lie that the chemicals in household cleaners can’t hurt us, that we need harsh mystery cleansers in cheerful bottles to make our houses into homes to keep our children safe and well and to hold up the family pride.

In fact, we were being sold cocktails of chemicals which were and are still ill regulated and little understood, thinking all the time that they were safe, because they were on store shelves.  In Europe, a manufacturer has to prove that a product is safe before it goes to market. In the U.S., the people have to prove a product is dangerous before it can be pulled from the market.

We know for a fact that many common cleaning products are harmful to human health. Some of the best consumer protection work in this field is being done by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan group dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Their website, www.ewg.org, is a treasure trove of consumer information. They rate the safety of everything from tap water to cosmetics to cleaning supplies. We encourage you to reference them often, and support them if you can. We’ve used their information to shape this guide.

Please see their Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners). Look up how they rate your favorite cleaning products, and also browse their top rated cleaning products in various categories.

To quote from the EWG’s website, they made the following findings in their survey of cleaning products:

  • Some 53 percent of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
  • Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
  • The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
  • Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
  • Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.

To add to the problem, many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment. Nobody really knows what will become of all of the chemicals mixing in the ocean as of now, how they will combine, or disperse, or create new chemicals.

Continue reading…

Saturday Tweets: As Seen on TV

On the Safety of Cleaning Products

I had the great privilege of working with adobe yesterday while doing maintenance on our outdoor oven. While I’m terrible at plastering it was a great pleasure to work with this elemental and ancient building material that consists of just clay from the ground, sand, straw and water. There’s no need to gear up like an astronaut, with a respirator and gloves, as there is when working with concrete.

The same day I showed Kelly Christopher Schwartz’s video on the use of soap as a wood finish. Solid wood and soap are also basic, safe materials. With a soap finish on solid wood there’s no out-gassing composites and no danger to the worker applying the finish. While these materials require more maintenance and work, they aren’t going to kill you. In fact, you could argue, their use makes the world a better place.

Contrast this with our post-industrial modern life and all those toxic cleaning chemicals which promise convenience but come with significant risks to ourselves and to our environment.

How do cleaning products clean?
Most cleaning products consist of detergents that lower the surface tension of water and/or acids or bases that dissolve calcium and fatty substances. Some acids act as disinfectants and bases also inhibit the corrosion of metal. Solvents (such as alcohol) also dissolve fatty substances. Other chemicals are added to cleaning products such as water softeners, to help dissolve certain minerals, as well as fragrances and preservatives. Commercial cleaning products consist of some combination of these categories of ingredients.

Hazards
Cleaning products are harmful to human health through direct exposure and also through contributing to poor indoor air quality thanks to the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are found in cleaning products in the form of fragrances, solvents, disinfectants and softeners. Also, when used improperly at too great a concentration, some cleaning products can cause the degradation of materials resulting in the release of more VOCs. Many products can also trigger asthma.

Disinfectants are considered to be the most hazardous category of cleaning products (1). And many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment.

Assessing indoor air quality as well as the adverse health effects of commercial cleaning products is difficult and involves many factors such as building ventilation, temperature and what’s being cleaned. This is not even to address new ideas about the symbiotic relationship between microorganisms and human life that are disrupted by an over-reliance on disinfectants. The complexity is so great that I have doubts that we’ll ever wrap our heads around what cleaning products are safe and which ones should be avoided.

Rather, the problem is less about science and more about economics and environmental ethics. I think we have, with cleaning products, another example of the distortion of capitalism and markets. The need to develop “new and improved” products leads to ever more and needless complexity. Previous to the dark Satanic Mills of 19th century industrialism, floors were simply swept, carpets (if you could afford them) were taken out and beaten and surfaces were washed with soap and water. It might seem like more work but even that may be a myth when you consider that you didn’t have to take a third job to afford all the gadgets and chemicals that constitute our modern life.

We seem to have distorted ideas of cleanliness dating back to the reformation and related to a strain of Calvinism that has morphed into a questionable, secular version (2). But this thoughtstyling would have to be the subject of a much longer post.

Greenwashed
I’m wary of so called “green” products because they are subject to the same rules of the marketplace that dictate novelty, brand extension (gag) and manipulative advertising. Some “eco” products are definitely better for us and the environment but there’s also a lot of deceptive marketing. Multiple trips to the massive Natural Products Expo West disabused me of any notion that so-called “eco-friendly” products lie outside the ruthless and destructive dictates of our neo-liberal hellscape. Instead, when we buy these eco cleaners, we often get a cocktail of ingredients we don’t need with a needless veneer of virtue signalling.

The Bottom Line
Here, at Root Simple headquarters, we rely on a basic set of cleaning products that includes such boring commodities as white vinegar and baking soda. We’ll publish the complete list in a separate blog post later this week.

I appreciate that commercial kitchen and medical facilities need to use disinfectants such as bleach. Most of us don’t need such powerful disinfectants in our homes unless you or another household member has a compromised immune system. If you do need to use bleach or other strong disinfectants, please use the proper dilution and open windows.

For More Information
The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive and searchable guide to cleaning products and a letter grade for safety if you’d like more information on all those silly products you can find at our overstocked and not-so-super supermarkets.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I suspect that readers of this blog will enjoy Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I’ve been a fan of Odell’s work since reading her mind-bending essay There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch wherein she describes how the internet’s nightmarish realm of disembodied Instagram babble results in actual crappy objects. If you’ve seen either of the Fyre festival documentaries you’ll know how these “influencer” nightmares play out.

If you’re looking for a book about how to be more productive in a world of Facebook notifications, text messages and endless emails How to Do Nothing, despite the deceptive subtitle ain’t that book. But, perhaps, that’s the point. Maybe the problem with our culture is the need to “be productive,” to live in the myth of endless growth on a planet with finite resources.

Central to Odell’s book is Walter Benjamin’s quirky interpretation of a Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Benjamin says,

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Odell sees our role as like Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking backwards, facing the destruction and injustices of our past and working to undo the damage, to “make whole what has been smashed.” In Odell’s words, “When we pry open the cracks in the concrete, we stand to encounter life itself—nothing less and nothing more, as if there could be more.”

Odell floats the idea of a “manifest dismantling,” an inversion of the industrialization and colonialism embodied in John Gast’s silly painting American Progress. The examples of manifest dismantling that Odell offers range from monumental, such as the multi-year dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in Northern California, to the modest, such as the volunteers that sustain and maintain public gardens.

Odell asks for us to consider a present grounded in remediation rather than obsessed with grand teleological visions. What if our heroes were caregivers, gardeners, bird watchers and people who fix things instead of venture capitalists, tech bros and mars mission obsessed CEOs? Personally, I think the readers of this blog are the sisters and brothers of the great dismantling. Let’s open those cracks in the pavement.

Saturday Tweets That Should Have Been Posted on Saturday but Are, Instead, Posted on Sunday Evening Because I Was at a Met Opera Telecast (Dialogues of the Carmelites) Followed by a Wedding and Was Too Tired by the End of the Day to Sit at a Computer and Come up with Clever Titles