Thursday, April 15, 2010
Green Cleaning without Greenwashed Toxicants
With Earth Day right around the corner, television and radio stations are rife with advertisements for companies touting what they're doing for the environment. And while there are a number of companies making genuinely green products certified as nontoxic by independent third parties (like Martha Stewart’s new Clean and, surprisingly, Clorox's GreenWorks lines of cleaners, both brands registered with the EPA's Design for the Environment program), there are still quite a few companies trying to greenwash people into believing that potentially toxic products are green.
Take, for example, Simple Green. The company has long advertised its neon-green all purpose cleaner as green, but a recent test by the Environmental Working Group found that it contained 93 air contaminants, including 2-butoxyethanol (the cleaner's main ingredient), which can cause severe respiratory irritation and has been dubbed a possible carcinogen by the EPA. EWG also detected formaldehyde, another carcinogen, and acetaldehyde, another respiratory irritant.
Even if you don't immediately feel the ill affects of these cleaning product chemicals, others in your home might. Children are perhaps the most vulnerable because their smaller bodies absorb more chemicals, pound for pound, than an adult's, but older adults are at risk, as well. A recent study from South Korea found that the volatile organic compounds (chemicals that exist in products but evaporate into air during use) could impair the lung function of older adults and possibly even exacerbate heart conditions.
So if you're looking to Do One Green Thing this Earth Day, learn how to make your own cleaning products! As long as you're the chemist, you can control what goes in, and what you inhale, while you're cleaning.
The easiest cleaners to make involve nothing more than ordinary white vinegar, baking soda and water. Vinegar and baking soda have been found to kill strains of mold and mildew, and vinegar is a mild disinfectant. Both can be mixed with water and sprayed on countertops. For a basic all-purpose cleaner with a little more oomph, mix 2 cups of baking soda with ½ cup of a liquid plant based soap, like Dr. Bronner's, and add three to four drops of vegetable oil. It's a good soft, non-scratching scrub for scouring countertops as well as your bathroom sink.
For dusting surfaces, invest in a microfiber cloth. Popular in Europe and getting popular here in the U.S., these marvelous cloths are made from synthetic fibers split into hundreds of smaller, thinner, "micro" fibers that capture dust so securely that even shaking the cloth won't release them. They work best when you spray a little water on the surface—no chemicals are needed. When the cloths need to be cleaned, you just boil them (laundry detergents can break down the tiny fibers and make them less effective). But do be alert when shopping; cloths are often made with different fiber lengths for different purposes, like general purpose cleaning, window washing, and dusting. A window-washing cloth won't work well as a dust cloth, so make sure you buy what you need.
See the Washington Post staff review of several green cleaners they tested, and their top picks (including sticking with white vinegar and baking soda for the bathroom!)
--by Emily Main