I know, I know, it’s not as if green cleaning is a new concept. Lots of people are doing it and many companies are producing great and nature-based cleaners for those of us on the crunchier end of the spectrum. But there are also many companies cashing in by “greenwashing” many of their existing products to make us think they’re better for both you and the environment, even when they’re not. And there are many more companies who simply aren’t doing anything because what they make works and sells, no matter the effects on a person’s health. So let’s talk about why we should go green to begin with.
Back in 1976 (so long ago, right?) the “Toxic Substances Control Act” (TSCA) was passed, giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. Long story short, it regulated the introduction management of new and already existing chemicals. Certain substances were generally excluded from TSCA, including food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is why the FDA is not, per se, in charge of regulating cleaning products and/or what goes in them and why the “Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act” doesn’t include cleaners (because those items are not meant to be ingested, such as food, drinks and drugs- or cosmetics put on the skin, of which the FDA also has oversight). The fact that ingredients (chemicals) that have contact with our skin still make it into our bodies is, apparently, beside the point.
The TSCA was a flawed act, though, and according to the Environmental Defense Fund, allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to remain on the market without proof of safety, and allowed new chemicals to be introduced without manufacturers first testing or proving they weren’t harmful. You may be thinking, as I was, that it sounds like a crazy system. “You mean, a manufacturer could put any new chemical they wanted in a product WITHOUT proving it woulnd’t cause harm??” And herein lies the rub... the government had to have evidence that a chemical was dangerous, or posed a health risk, BEFORE it could require testing. Let that sink in for just a minute.
OK, let’s get back to companies being able to put virtually any chemical they wanted in a cleaning product. The reason that was so, was because the government gave manufacturers a wide berth when it came to their products (chemicals) and their ability to claim the ingredients therein as trade secrets. This made the information inaccessible to the public (including medical professionals who may want to determine levels of safety for those ingredients/products). Manufacturers are only required to list chemicals that are of known concern, or active ingredients in a product. I know you may be thinking, “It’s OK, right? If they list the chemicals of known concern, then we just avoid those chemicals.” Well, hold on there, friend. Remember... the government couldn’t require testing on a chemical until they had proof it was of concern, so even though there are chemicals out there that we know to be dangerous, the companies aren’t required to test them. Are you seeing this catch 22?
You may be thinking that a lot has changed since 1976. Indeed, it has. In 1976 a postage stamp cost $.13. Bread was $.30, milk was $1.42, gas was $.59 a gallon and the average cost of a car was just $4,100. And if you were to buy a house back in 1976? It would cost you, on average, about $54,700. Yes, a lot has changed. Including this, we have been exposed, mostly unwittingly, to a cocktail of chemicals that most of us have never heard of, and they’re hurting us. And it’s not just us, you the reader and me, the writer. In 2004, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born in U.S. hospitals and found a total of 287 chemicals, and an average of 200 chemical per child! Let’s be clear about this point, the chemicals were found in the babies’ cord blood. They were exposed to toxic chemicals in utero!
Fast forward to June, 2016 when the “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act” was signed into law. This new law had a number of new components, including:
- Mandates safety reviews for chemicals in active commerce.
- Requires a safety finding for new chemicals before they can enter the market.
- Replaces TSCA’s burdensome cost-benefit safety standard—which prevented EPA from banning asbestos—with a pure, health-based safety standard.
- Explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women.
- Gives EPA enhanced authority to require testing of both new and existing chemicals.
- Sets aggressive, judicially enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions.
- Makes more information about chemicals available, by limiting companies’ ability to claim information as confidential, and by giving states and health and environmental professionals access to confidential information they need to do their jobs.
Are you cheering? Yep, me too. What’s more, after just a year, the EPA announced a number of implementation activities that allowed them to meet their first-year statutory responsibilities. Read the EPA’s press release here. Truly, it’s short, so go ahead and give it a read. Now, take a deep breathe, and exhale. If you read the press release you know that nothing has really changed. Yet. There are new policies in place, and that’s a good thing, but if you go to the market today to buy a bottle of something with which to clean your bathroom, you won’t find a bit of difference.
So, what’ next? If you’re still using traditional cleaners, go grab a bottle. Really, go get it... I’ll wait.
Do you have it? OK, take a look at the list of ingredients. What do you see? In many cases you will see the active ingredients totaling just 1-3% of the product, with the “other” ingredients being 97% or more. That means you have no idea what is in 97% of that product and can’t, realistically, determine if the product is safe to use. This is where you really have to make a decision. Is it worth it?? To help you decide, let’s take a quick look at some of the health issues stemming from using traditional cleaning products.
According to the Environmental Working Group, “fumes from some cleaning products may induce asthma in otherwise healthy individuals. A large and growing body of evidence links frequent use of many ordinary cleaning supplies at home or on the job with development of asthma and other respiratory problems. It is already known that cleaning product fumes may trigger attacks in persons previously diagnosed with asthma.” Additionally, “children born to women who held cleaning jobs while pregnant have an elevated risk of birth defects, according to a 2010 study by the New York State Department of Health.” Ingredients in many cleaning products can also lead to chemical burns; poisoning; reproductive/endocrine disorders; developmental problems; allergies; respiratory irritation from asthmagens; mild to severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes nose, throat and lungs; and cancer. CANCER!!!
Wow... all of that above... it’s scary. It’s also hard to process and find space for because you also want your bathroom to smell clean, right? Before you answer, let’s talk about fragrances. Because while they might smell nice, in many cases they’re doing more harm than good. The Environmental Working Group also cites research telling us that “fragrances are collectively considered among the top five allergens in the world (de Groot 1997; Jansson 2001). They can also trigger asthma attacks (Norback 1995; Millqvist 1996). Researchers at the Universities of Washington and West Georgia who surveyed everyday Americans’ experiences with fragranced cleaning supplies found that nearly one in five suffered headaches, breathing difficulties or other problems when exposed to air fresheners (Caress 2009). A study led by Alexandra Farrow of Brunel University in the United Kingdom linked air fresheners in the home to higher incidence of diarrhea and earaches in infants and headaches and depression in their mothers (Farrow 2003). A Swiss study published this year found that use of air freshening sprays 4-7 days a week was associated with reduced heart rate variability, a marker of autonomic cardiac dysfunction (Mehta 2012). Because manufacturers routinely refuse to list individual ingredients in fragrances, independent researchers have difficulty conducting targeted studies to identify which fragrance chemicals raise the greatest concern.”
We’ll get to some natural ways to clean in just a minute, but before we do, let’s just look at one teeny tiny chemical compound often used in “fragrances.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has a treasure trove of information to be uncovered if you have the time and patience to do a little digging. For example, here is an article about the dangers of the fragrance compound acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin (it’s a mouthful, I know), specifically the behavioral and neuropathological changes occurring in rats who were exposed. While this still may not mean anything to you, a quick Google search will show you that acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin is a component fragrance of many soaps, deodorants and cosmetics and guess what? It SHOULD mean something to you, because the reason so many tests are done on rats are because (aside from doing the tests on humans being unethical) humans and rats have the same basic physiology and similar organs. The exposed rats experienced, among many other effects, “structural damage throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems including the accumulation of abnormal lipopigment granules in the neurons and myelinating cells, symmetrical demyelination, and scattered neuron cell body and nerve fiber degeneration.” The study authors determined, not surprisingly, that the toxin had a cumulative neurotoxic effects in rats. But it’s still in our soap. Let me say that again... IT’S STILL IN OUR SOAP!
All of the above, they’re reasons (albeit sometimes seemingly invisible ones) for us to go green. After all, who really wants to experience any of the many potentially harmful side effects of using more traditional, chemical-laden cleaning products? But there’s another really good reason to go green, and it’s all about the not-so-invisible safety concerns that we have to address. I was a kid born in the 70’s, and I remember Mr. Yuck. The stickers have been mostly phased out for more than a decade now, primarily because (as it turns out) they weren’t terribly effective. The Mr Yuck stickers were intended to keep kiddos away from poisons and had the number for Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) printed directly on the sticker so that in the event of an emergency, a worried parent or caregiver wouldn’t have to think, the number was at hand. But why wasn’t it effective? For a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was that the kids the campaign targeted wasn’t the age range of biggest concern. Why? Because it was kids 13 months to 2 years who were most at risk of an unintentional poisoning.
According to the US Poison Control, they “provided telephone guidance for nearly 2.2 million human poison exposures in 2015. That’s about 6.7 poison exposures/1,000 population and 41.9/1,000 poison exposures were in children younger than 6 years. What’s more, there was 1 poison exposure reported to U.S. poison control centers every 15 seconds. Across all ages, there were 666 poison exposures reported per 100,000 population, but the highest incidence occurred in one and two year olds (8,243 and 7,903 exposures/100,000 children in the respective age groups).” And how were these kiddos being poisoned? “Cosmetics and personal care products lead the list of the most common substances implicated in pediatric exposures, coming in at 144,396/13.6% (children younger than 6 years, NPDS, 2015). Cleaning substances (118,346/11.2%) and pain medications (96,720/9.1%) follow. These exposures are nearly always unintentional.”
Just breathe, friends. I know, it’s a lot. And it’s scary. We want to do the right thing, to take care of our families and keep them safe. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can do it and that Green Cleaning is a great start to reducing the toxic load in your home. So, let’s get started, shall we?
Let’s start by figuring out what supplies we want to use. Here are some of my green cleaning staples (we’ll also talk about a green cleaning fave that we won’t use in our house, and I’ll tell you why!):
Acetic Acid (white distilled vinegar)
Why we use it: This biodegradable agent is a solvent, pH adjuster, and disinfecting agent. The long and short of it is that vinegar cuts through scum. Woot woot! Vinegar (at a strength of about 5%), has a pH of 2.4, making it great at cutting through limescale, etc., but not so great at oil and fats. This is where using vinegar with baking soda becomes so important (just don’t mix them TOGETHER- more on that soon!). If you look in the cleaning aisle, you should be able to find a “cleaning” vinegar with a strength of 6%.
Why we use it: This non-toxic, plant-derived agent (which is safe for the environment) is a pH adjustor, chelating agent (meaning it binds metals) and can soften water. A solution with a 6% concentration of citric acid can remove hard water stains from glass without even scrubbing. Got hard water? This little gem of an ingredient may be for you (think of removing limescale from your bathroom). Citric acid has a pH of about 2.2, making it great for removing limescale and rust stains. I find it easiest to order a food grade citric acid from Amazon (this mama doesn’t like to run all over town, and Amazon brings the goodness straight to me!).
Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda)
Why we use it: This non-toxic favorite for green cleaning is a pH adjuster, abrasive, and it deodorizes. Baking soda has a pH value of 9, making it great for removing fat and oily impurities (the icky stuff that vinegar alone can’t clean). Baking soda is great for all kinds of cleaning needs and a real staple in our house. We used to buy it in big bags at Costco, but now settle for the larger boxes at the grocery store as we’re out of range of our favorite warehouse store.
Why we use it: This pantry staple does double duty in green cleaning. I love salt as a “gentle” abrasive and salt solutions can have a pH that is acidic, neutral or basic depending on what you mix with it (basic table salt has no pH). This makes me think of tofu, actually, taking on the flavor of what you mix it with. Salt is great this way, so give it a try!
Liquid Castile Soap:
Why we use it: this non-toxic, plant-based soap is awesome! It’s tough enough to clean dirt and grime, but gentle enough that it won’t dull your surfaces. Want to learn something interesting about Castile soap? Castile soap was traditionally made from olive oil and originated in Castile, Spain, hence the name. Today, castile soap can be made from olive or another plant-based oil, such as coconut oil. Our favorite is made by Dr. Bronner’s and it has a greater percentage of coconut oil than olive oil. Like most soaps, which are on the more basic or alkaline side of the pH scale, Castile soap registers at about 8.9 on the pH scale. Because of this, you can’t mix Castile soap (a base) with vinegar (an acid). Actually, if your kids are bigger you may want to do this just once, as a sort of science experiment. Then, never again. Why? Because if you add an acid such as vinegar to your Castile soap, it will essentially “unsaponify,” taking the soap back to it’s original oils. And it will be a mess.
Why we use them: these natural, plant-based oils run the gamut of amazing properties, including being antibacterial, anti fungal, antiviral, antimicrobial and they can help to clean the air! Whoa! Need more? They’ll make your house smell amazing!! Check out the picture below to see some of my faves!
What is a pH adjustor, anyway?
Pure water has a pH level of roughly 7 and is described as neutral. Acidic solutions have a low pH value. Alkaline products have a higher pH value. Acidic cleaning products (like vinegar) are suited to removing limescale and rust stains, whereas alkaline products (such as baking soda or Castile soap) are good at removing fats and oily impurities.
Last, but certainly not least, we have some Norwex products in our cleaning arsenal that we LOVE! The dusting mitts, window cloths, Enviro Cloths, and mop are absolute staples for us, every time we clean. They make cleaning a breeze! I have a favorite Norwex gal, so if you’re looking to make a purchase, let me know!
So, here’s the dirty secret of green cleaning. Sometimes, even those items that are “natural” and “green,” are not great for you. Take Borax, for example. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Borax can have short- and long-term health effects:
Short-term irritant. Borax can be irritating when exposure occurs through skin or eye contact, inhalation or ingestion. Poison reports suggest misuse of borax-based pesticides can result in acute toxicity, with symptoms including vomiting, eye irritation, nausea, skin rash, oral irritation and respiratory effects. Toddlers and young children face special risks from hand-to-mouth transfer of carpet or crack and crevice, dust or spray borax treatments.
Hormone disruption. Borax and its cousin, boric acid, may disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. According to EPA’s safety review of these pesticides, chronic exposure to high doses of borax or boric acid causes testicular atrophy in male mice, rats and dogs.
Animal studies reviewed by the EPA indicate that while the female reproductive system is less sensitive to borax, exposure to it can also lead to reduced ovulation and fertility. Borax and boric acid can cross the placenta, affecting fetal skeletal development and birth weight in animal studies of high-dose exposures.
In its 2006 review of the safety of borax pesticides, the EPA declined to perform a risk assessment that included exposures from cleaning supplies, cosmetics and other consumer goods along with professional and consumer pest-control products. As a result, it’s difficult to assess the level of risk that may be involved in using borax to clean your home. In light of the reproductive effects reported in both animal and worker studies, we suggest that you avoid borax in homemade or store-bought cleaning supplies.”
Borax is indeed an ingredient in a lot of green cleaning recipes, so you’ve just got to be cautious when making your own cleaners as well. But, not to fear, that’s why you’re here, right? Keep reading, friend!
OK, this section is all about the recipes. We’re going to start in the kitchen (the kitchen gets gross, am I right?) and will go straight through to the bath, general household cleaning and some of my favorite tips. Listen, you need cleaners that you can trust to get the job done, kill germs, and not have you worried about chemicals. And you CAN have it all with green cleaners! So, grab a cup of tea, get your pen and paper ready, and be prepared to jot down some notes. Ready? Let’s go!
OK friends, this is it. I appreciate you sharing some time with me. Thank you, too, for making a difference in your health and the health of your family by committing to decrease your chemical exposures and delving into the delightful world of DIY. If you have questions, you can contact me any time by email using firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check me out on Facebook, Instagram and at my website. And when you’re ready to jump into the world of Essential Oils, I’m here for you as your oil mentor. You can do this and I’m here for you every step of the way. Now let’s get to cleaning!