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…

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.

Clean Your Home Without Toxic Chemicals

Kelly and I will be leading a green cleaning for your home class at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on May 19th, after the 11 o’clock service (roughly 12:15 p.m. give or take a few minutes). All are welcome and the class will be held in the historic Lady Chapel, a room entirely covered in gold mosaic tile. Come for the tile alone which we promise not to make you clean!  We’ll talk about non-toxic cleaning products that really work and bust some Internet myths along the way. More than just a white vinegar soliloquy we’re throwing in some church coffee for free. St. John’s is located at 514 W. Adams Blvd in Los Angeles near the corner of Adams and Figueroa.

A Not So Close Shave

Image from Der Golem.

I made the mistake of looking at Instagram for the first time in a year and was completely traumatized by the juxtaposition of beautiful meals and glamorous vacation destinations alongside posts by friend’s exes and children in hospital rooms. What bothers me most about social media is the pressure to curate an idealized, alternate self. These alternate selves remind me of the Jewish legend of the Golem, a kind of medieval robot made of mud and conjured into consciousness. Initially protective the Golem, in some versions of the story, ends up going on a murder spree. I’m worried that our online, alternate selves are forming a kind of Golem army. We can thank our Silicon Valley overlords for making an old legend a painful force-multiplied reality.

And yet, every time I look at social media it causes me to ask how am I also complicit in the curation of an idealized alternate self via this blog and our books? How many times have I presented some neatly tied up homemaking/gardening tip when the actual results were more ambiguous? Or, to go deeper with this, how often have I presented a “failure” as a kind of false modesty?

At the risk of doing the latter, and via a long winded media theory laden introduction, permit me update my ongoing struggle with shaving. Most folks don’t know that, long before the advent of social media deep in the bowels of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, our government developed the internet precisely for the purpose of creating divisive shaving forums. The thought was that arguments over the merits of modern safety razors vs. the manly art of shaving and sharpening a straight edge razor would so confuse our communist adversaries that they would throw down their AK-47s and embrace the joys of Pumpkin Spice Frappuccinos® and Logan Paul videos.

For years, not wanting to blow money on modern plastic razors, I’ve instead used an old-fashioned safety razor like the one above that has just one metal blade that lasts maybe two weeks at the most (you can flip it over and use the other side of the blade for another two weeks). To use it properly, you need to shave three times, down, sideways and up, lathering between each shave direction. It works great if you aren’t lazy and care about your appearance. The trouble is that I’m lazy and don’t care about my appearance.

The trouble is that when I wear my favorite stained and sawdust caked hoodie, I look like that police sketch of the unabomber. Looking disheveled can be charming when you’re younger but once you hit fifty it’s just creepy. In order to, at least temporarily, reverse this sartorial slide, I recently had a proper haircut rather than have a friend buzz my head. My hair-cutting professional took a look at my patchy facial stubble and pointed to his own face noting that both of us don’t have much in the way of beard hair even if we wanted to grow one out. He recommended something I’ve never heard about, shaving with an Andis Outliner II, a kind of electric trimmer used for close cutting. Men of African descent often use trimmers like this for dry shaving as a way of avoiding ingrown hairs.

Does an Andis Outliner II give you a really close shave? No. Would it work for those with prodigious facial hair? No. Would it be good enough if you worked at a corporate law firm or are in the military? Probably not. Can women shove their legs with it? Yes, but it leaves stubble. Does it work well enough for an aging Gen Xer who spends most of his time doing manual labor alone? Yes. It’s certainly better than looking like an escapee from a Victorian mental hospital.

A Manual of Needlework and Cutting Out

Please enjoy this manual of the lost art of hand sewing by Agnes Walker published in 1907 and recommended by YouTube sewing sensation Bernadette Banner. What makes the book useful is that, unlike a lot of sewing resources, there’s not a lot of assumed knowledge. The book also shows the high level of craftsmanship expected of young children before the great crappening of the mid-20th century.