Cleaning Up

April 6, 2003

By Michael Jessen

Resetting your clock, crocuses, and changeable weather are all signs of the arrival of the spring equinox. That means it's time for spring cleaning.

With an extra hour of daylight, suddenly there is more time to contemplate how to dig yourself out from the accumulation and dirt of the winter season.

But be careful how you tackle the job. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (, the average citizen has a "body burden" of almost 90 chemicals. They include pesticides, phthalates, herbicides, pest repellents, and disinfectants. Among them may be the very chemicals you are relying on to accomplish your spring cleaning chores.

The real chore, then, becomes how to clean your house without hurting the planet or yourself.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the first thing you should do is open your windows. Levels of pollutants in indoor air can be from two to more than 100 times higher than outdoors. That indoor pollution is due in large part to volatile organic compounds (VOCS) that evaporate, or "offgas," from home decorating and cleaning products.

If you have been waiting for flowering daffodils to add a pleasant scent to your house, but have used synthetic room fresheners and fragranced cleaning products to tide you over, well you may be in for a big surprise.

These products are full of VOCs and other toxic chemicals. They can make your indoor air unhealthy, provoke skin, eye, and respiratory reactions, and harm the environment. In homes where aerosol sprays and air fresheners were used frequently (according to a study published in New Scientist in 1999), mothers experienced 25 percent more headaches and were 19 percent more likely to suffer from depression, and infants under six months of age had 30 percent more ear infections and 22 percent higher incidence of diarrhea.

But don't just rely on "greenwashing" to convince you that a product is natural and non-toxic. Most labels that mention natural, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly are unregulated by government and may be meaningless.

Because no standards exist, claims such as "non-toxic," "eco-safe," and "environmentally friendly" are also meaningless, according to the Consumers Union web site at Currently, only food and herbs can be certified organic, so the word "organic" on the face of a dish or laundry soap also doesn't wash.

Before you begin cleaning up, check out the following sources to be sure you are using products that are safe for yourself and the Earth.

David Steinman, co-author of "The Safe Shopper's Bible" ( advises looking at labels for specific, eco-friendly ingredients that also perform effectively. These include grain alcohol instead of toxic butyl cellosolve as a solvent; coconut or other plant oils rather than petroleum in detergents; and plant-oil disinfectants such as eucalyptus, rosemary, or sage rather than triclosan.

You can also mix your own cleaners, as does Annie Berthold-Bond, green living editor at and author of Clean and Green and Better Basics for the Home. According to Berthold-Bond, a few safe, simple ingredients such as plain soap, water, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), vinegar, washing soda (sodium carbonate), lemon juice, and borax can satisfy most household cleaning needs -- and save you money at the same time. Check out her web site of the five basics for non-toxic cleaning at

Finally, to avoid the clean up congestion, consider following the minutes a day routine espoused by Real Simple magazine ( The April 2003 issue with the relevant article is available online only until April 21 so click quickly!

It may allow you to put your feet up sooner rather than later. With a clean house to boot. Now that's something to spring for!

RESOURCES - An article entitled "Eco-Clean Homes" by Pam Chang appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Yes! magazine. It details two California cooperatives -- Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning and Emma's Eco-Clean -- whose members got tired of the rashes, nausea, headaches, dizziness, and respiratory irritation resulting from the use of chlorine, ammonia, oven cleaner, furniture polishes, and air fresheners. They now use less toxic cleaning methods. Three books that will give you the information you need are: Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living by Annie Bertold-Bond, published by Three Rivers Press, 1999; Nontoxic, Natural, & Earthwise: How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Harmful Products and Live in Harmony with the Earth by Debra Lynn Dadd, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990; and Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids by Joyce M. Schoemaker and Charity Y. Vitale, published by Island Press, 1991. An article prepared by the Green Guide ( at has information on how to lessen the impact of your spring cleaning. A chart highlighting the most commonly used household cleaning supplies and some suggestions for safer, greener spring cleaning can be found at Cleaning Solutions for a Healthier Environment at has a wealth of information but you may tire of the musical accompaniment. The City of Seattle has an online green cleaning kit at as does Pierce County, Washington at Recipes for environmentally safe cleaning can also be found at,, and

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by email at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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