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.

A Better Garage Organizational System

I gave übermaker Federico Tobon a tour of the garage when he visited the Root Simple compound back in 2017. He took one look at the pegboard and asked, politely, if I liked it. I could tell by his tone of voice that he was skeptical of this ubiquitous garage storage strategy.

Technically known as perforated hardboard (Peg-Board is an expired trademark), the idea dates to the early 20th century. You can still pick some up at almost every lumber yard or big box store here in the U.S. But here’s the thing. It sucks. Even with the little plastic doodads that are supposed to keep the metal hooks from falling out, in my experience, half the time you you go to retrieve a tool off the wall the damn metal pegs fall out.

This past week, inspired by an article in Fine Woodworking by Jason Stephens, I decided to put all my furniture building plans on hold and replace the pegboard with a more usable and robust home-brewed hanging system using 1/2 inch plywood and custom made tool holders.

The first step was a Marie Kondoing of the workshop. I decided to only keep tools that I know I will use. Since I’m focusing on woodworking this was fairly simple. A flurry of furniture projects in the past year taught me which tools are useful and which ones are not. But don’t worry, I also decided to keep the tools that I use for non-wood related household emergencies (toilet augers and stuff like that).

Stephens’ tool storage method begins by attaching 1/2 plywood to your workshop wall. Then you make a custom hanger for each tool or set of tools. This is easier than it sounds and took only a few minutes per tool. Having a table saw and air nailer makes this go faster but you could easily make hangers with hand tools. It would just take longer. For many of the tools I just put a nail or screw in the plywood to hang them. You could also make a small version of this system for an apartment and attach the plywood to the wall with a French cleat.

While what I put together was a storage wall for a wood shop, you could easily adapt this idea to any other craft. I could see a sewing or crafting room organized the same way. It does help to know which tools you need and to place the most frequently used ones close at hand. In my case that meant the measuring tools and hand planes were placed close to the workbench and the table saw accessories are on shelves next to, you guessed it, the table saw.

Rolling with Stephens’ suggestion, I used French cleat hangers so that I could remove tool sets, such as my drill bits and chisels, from the wall. As you can see I made a base so that you can put the whole set on a table.

There were a few other changes to the workshop I made in order to make it more useful for furniture making such as being sure that I could access my workbench from all sides, as well as improvements to the dust collection system. I can detail these changes in a future post but I’m more interested in showing that a well organized workshop can benefit any activity from sewing to gardening. Taking the time to plan a workspace makes work go much easier.

Aesthetics are important too. It helps to have a workshop that’s inspiring to work in. Towards this end I hung a few mementos on the wall. A St. Joseph icon reminds me to not cut off my fingers. And my late grandfather’s shop glasses, from his time riveting airplanes at McDonnell Douglas, look down from above the nuts and bolts.

So Much Stuff

A Silver Lake estate sale.

Over at Granola Shotgun, a blog you should follow if you don’t already, Johnny has a post on what happened to all the stuff he and his tenants stored in the basement during an earthquake retrofit. Spoiler: it exposed the hoarding tendencies of even the most committed neatniks in the building. Here’s what Johnny had to say,

Wow. So. Much. Useless. Crap. I was designated as the guy to transport the donation items to Community Thrift and organize the bulk trash pick up. Getting up close and personal with other peoples stuff made me relax about any suggestion that I was a hoarder – a term that’s tossed my way on a regular basis. KonMarie wasn’t up for this job. I needed battlefield triage. Even the minimalists in the building had ridiculous things salted away that I know haven’t seen sunlight in a decade. Honestly, I think this is what almost every American has packed in their dark corners. Clothes that will never be worn. Broken things that will never be fixed. Sentimental objects that will never be fondly looked at or ever touched.

Estate sale in Altadena.

We had a similar experience this summer. I had to clear the house and box up the contents of three rooms so that we could sand the floors and paint the walls. Not once during those months of restoration work did I pop open any of those boxes. In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time going through the contents of those infamous boxes, a process that has made me exceptionally cranky. Why do I lack the courage to just pivot and dump all those things in the garbage? If I could write a letter to my younger self I’d say two things: don’t accumulate anything, especially sentimental items and failed artistic efforts. It may sound harsh but why should any of us be defined or burdened by the things we own.

Glassware at Altadena estate sale.

Last weekend I went to an estate sale, not to accumulate any more crap but just to see the inside of a majestic old house next to the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s. At the sale snarky hipsters laughed as they tried on the clothes of the deceased former residents. This has become a new momento mori for me. The less stuff I leave behind the fewer giggles there will be at my estate sale.

To that end I’ve taken to looking at pictures of estate sales as a way of reminding me of the importance of doing with less. Think of this as a gentler form of the late Medieval cadaver tomb. There’s nothing like a pile of seldom used glassware or blank stationary dating the 1960s to scare you away from a trip to Costco or make you want to drive a stake into the cold, vampyric heart of Adam Smith.

Food Storage Revisited

Kitchen spice pantry at the Joseph D. Oliver House, 1946. Photo: Library of Congress.

My post on de-cluttering our food storage hit a nerve proving, yet again, that the most direct path to the deeper issues of our culture is through the mundane details of our daily lives. Through the neglected field of home economics one can address collective vs. individual action, city planning, capitalism and, gasp, even eschatology.

To clarify my original post, I was not arguing against keeping a pantry stocked, rather that our pantry had accumulated a lot of useless items. I also contend that the storage in our house, built in 1920, is adequate for our day to day and emergency needs without having to add more shelves. In addition to the cabinets mentioned in the post on Monday, our house also has storage under the seating in the breakfast nook as well as built-in cabinets and drawers in a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. And there’s another set of cabinets that hold our dishes. I should also clarify that if you live out in the country and have a big vegetable garden you will need a larger pantry or basement. We are urban dwellers with, at best, a tiny vegetable garden (which has been neglected this year while I work on the house).

That said there are some big differences between the kitchens of the 1920s and the kitchens of today that present new challenges. Some of those changes:

  • We have a lot more kitchen gadgets and consumer electronics.
  • With the ascendancy of the personal automobile we have fewer small neighborhood markets in walking distance.
  • Pervasive cable TV food porn that pushes us all to turn our kitchens into the next elBulli.

Helms Bakery delivery truck alerting us all to the dangers of baking at home!

One thing that went away during the mid 20th century and has now returned is food delivery. In the 1920s lots of things were delivered: milk, baked goods, ice etc. Food delivery has returned in the form of services such as Instacart and Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Unfortunately, many of these new services rely on gig economy serfdom, which has made me uncomfortable about using them, though Instacart was handy when my mom could no longer drive herself to the market. I suspect we’ll see a lot more food delivery in the near future and can see how helpful it is to busy families with young children or elders to take care of. I’d just like to make sure that the folks delivering the food can also afford to buy that food.

I think if I could “immanentize the eschaton” of our 21st century pantries I’d see those shelves holding useful, healthy staples always ready to turn into basic meals. While that sounds simple, it’s not. Can we please bring back those home economics classes and make them co-ed?