Saturday, October 01, 2005

Home Chemistry (Part I)

(Current advertising campaign for "The Method", an organic brand which probably does respect its environment but lacks a certain muscle, this in spite of a...shall we say...a kick ass campaign.)

Do you know what's really in your cleaning products?

Most homes may be clean, but few of them are green. Ther're filled with a vast number of synthetic chemicals hidding in popular cleaners, polishes, pesticides, stain removers, and personal care products stored under the sink, in the basement, or in the garage.

The average American household uses 40 pounds of these chemicals each year. When we have a housekeeping problem we often reach for a commercial product concocted in a lab, a brew of harsh chemicals designed to get the job done quickly but almost never gently or even safely.
Since the ingredients of many household products are considered trade secrets, only the manufacturers know exactly what is in them. Consumers often have little to go on beyond mandated signal words like danger, warning, and caution.
These words, and longer warnings on some products, tell us what will happen with acute exposure, but nothing about long-term exposure. Symptoms of chronic chemical toxicity appear over time and can include asthma; allergies; cancer; damage to the endocrine, immune, and nervous systems; reproductive and developmental disorders; organ damage; and the general condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity or environmental illness.
Most of the chemicals found in household products fall into a few major classifications. Many products contain a mix of chemicals that cover more than one category.

Synthetic Organic Compounds
Some of these chemicals are building blocks for detergents and plastics, as well as for propane and other gas fuels, heating oil, and lubricants. They are common in everyday household chemicals. Within this broad class you'll find:
Aromatic hydrocarbons:
Many of these simple organic compounds are known to be carcinogens. They're used in degreasers, deodorizers, and pesticides.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):
These evaporate easily at room temperature, then may attach to soft materials such as clothes, drapes, furniture, and carpeting. Eventually they dissipate outdoors, where they cause smog.
These are linked to a host of environmental and health challenges, from oil spills and greenhouse gases to childhood developmental problems. They are found in a variety of household cleaners, including floor waxes, furniture polishes, degreasers, and all-purpose cleaners. Watch out for petroleum distillate and naphtha or naphthalene.

Chlorinated Compounds
Chlorine is a highly toxic gas; one of its first uses was as a poison in World War I. Today there are some 15,000 chlorinated compounds in commercial use; some are found in common cleaning products, including sanitizing and bleaching agents, solvents (for dry cleaning, for example), tub and tile cleaners, and pesticides. Chlorinated compounds used in the home enter the environment when they get washed down the drain. Many of these chemicals are strikingly similar to human hormones and may mimic them in the body; chlorinated compounds affect sperm counts, male birth rates, and other biological functions.

Phosphates contain phosphorus, which acts as a nutrient in water systems. An overabundance of phosphorus encourages excessive growth of algae and weeds, robbing less aggressive plants and animals of oxygen, resulting ultimately in lifeless streams and rivers.

Chemicals of Very High Concern
After a 2003 study of chemicals in household dust, Greenpeace compiled a list titled Chemicals of Very High Concern, including:
Found in some cosmetics and other personal care products, as well as in multisurface cleaners, liquid laundry detergent, paints, and floor coverings.
Artificial musks:
Found in cosmetics, shampoo, perfume, shaving foam, skin care products, liquid soap, air fresheners, laundry detergents, and dishwashing soap.
Bisphenol A:
Found inplastics, epoxies, and some skin care products.
Brominated flame retardants:
Found in mattresses, mattress pads, upholstered furniture, carpets, and some elctronics.
Chlorinated paraffin:
Found in upholstered furniture, floor coverings, paints, plastics, and rubber products.
Found in shaving foam, floor coverings, carpets, pajamas, and air mattresses.
Found in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, including some children's teething and other toys; shampoo, perfume, shaving foam, cosmetics, skin- and other personal care products; shower curtains; air fresheners and multipurpose cleaners; and food packaging materials.

THE FIRST STEP in green cleaning is commitment. Making a naturally clean environment takes mindfulness in each housekeeping decision. Start by controlling the number of synthetic chemicals you use, elimination this and minimizing that. Look for safer alternatives. Make compromises if you must. When it comes to chemical cleaners, the milder the concentration, the lower the risk.
Like any commitment worth honoring, green cleaning comes with a set of challenges-awareness, education, experimentation, and a bit of elbow grease- but it's worth it. You'll learn that the quality of your life has little to do with using a harsh chemical to clean your toilet. By its very action, green cleaning says there is a better way.

- adapted from the new book Green Clean: the Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home (Melcher Media), by Linda Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin.
WE, here at The House would lie to underscore the fact that elbow grease really is the ultimate ingredient in fighting a toilet bowl ring, aided by a Lil'Shaw Pad, and that our official cleaner selection is Caldrea, a gorgeous product manufactured in Minnesota, the land of Menonites, and about which not enough good can be said.