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Cleaning Without Chemicals: Recipes for a Toxic-Free Home

The average American uses about 25 gallons of hazardous chemical products in his or her home -- the majority coming from cleaning products. We can change that.

The following is an excerpt from Your Green Abode: A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Home by Tara Rae Miner (Skipstone, 2010).

It used to be that we kept our homes clean by using whatever was at hand. A little baking soda from the cupboard mixed with elbow grease took out caked-on crud. Soap was soap, and it served more than one purpose, whether that was to clean your hands or the dishes. Sugar ants were best prevented by putting the sugar away.

But then things were made easier for us. A swift spray of a sickly sweet-smelling substance would kill those ants in a flash. A thick squirt of whitish goo gave the table a lustrous shine in just minutes. Grainy antiseptic scouring powder cut through the scum in the tub with little effort. Thank goodness for chemicals. At least that's what folks were told and sold and eventually wholeheartedly believed.

The rapid growth of the chemical industry after World War II changed housekeeping forever and not necessarily for the better. Chemists whose previous employment was manufacturing weapons realized that similar concoctions could be used to fight agricultural pests and improve consumer products.

Since the fifties, some 75,000 chemicals have been introduced into our world. Three hundred of those can now be found within our bodies, even in the bodies of newborn babies who inherit synthetic chemicals from their mothers. All those cleaning products and pesticides in the cupboard are more than evidence of a wellkept home. They are a toxic testimony of the chemicals that we willingly bring into our lives in the name of cleanliness.

The average American uses about 25 gallons of hazardous chemical products in his or her home -- the majority coming from cleaning products. Every day, more than 32 million pounds of household cleaning products are poured down the drain in this country. Despite the best efforts of wastewater treatment plants, many of the toxic substances within these products find their way to our rivers.

The news on household chemicals is sobering, the stats are startling, and the studies scary. Even the fairly conservative Environmental Protection Agency encourages folks to use alternatives to conventional cleaning products such as glass, oven, drain, and toilet cleaners; furniture polish; rug deodorizers; and flea and tick products. Cleaners and pesticides with toxic, ignitable, corrosive, or reactive ingredients are classified as "household hazardous waste" by the agency -- alongside oils, batteries, and paints -- and special caution is urged for their disposal.

In the early eighties, a study by the EPA concluded that concentrations of twenty cancer-causing chemicals were up to fifty times higher indoors than out -- most appeared in an average bottle of all-purpose cleaner, toilet-bowl cleaner, or dish soap. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, 150 common household chemicals are linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer, and psychological abnormalities.

The health effects are indeed vast, and the effects of each and every one of these chemicals too numerous to detail. For illumination's sake, here's one potent example: Isobutene, a volatile organic compound, is a propellant you'll probably find in your bottle of conventional glass cleaner. Isobutene also accumulates in breast milk. Prolonged exposure can cause headaches, nausea, and, in very extreme cases, coma.

More than 1.4 million Americans exposed to household chemicals were referred to poison control centers in 2001-824,000 were children under the age of six. In 2009, while my friend was scrubbing her bathtub, her curious and precocious toddler picked up a bottle of all-purpose cleaner and sprayed himself in the face. His mom called poison control, but after reading the ingredients over the phone, she was told she didn't need to bring him in. It was a natural citrus-based cleaner.The remedy was to flush his eyes with lots of water. And the little boy suffered little more than tears.

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