You sort your trash for recycling. You're trying to cut back on the pesticides you spray on the lawn. Maybe you installed a toilet dam to save water.
You'd like to think your house is planet-friendly.But what is that stuff you're pouring down the clogged drain? Spraying on your windows? Scrubbing on your bathroom tile?
If it is a brand name cleaner, chances are your eco-consciousness stops right there. Every time you use one of those household products, you are releasing a miniature chemical cloud that ultimately can affect not only your own home, but the global environment as well.
The Clean Water Fund, a New Jersey consumer group, estimates the common household cleaning products sitting on supermarket shelves contain more than 55,000 chemicals that we've come to depend on for stripping away dirt and germs. It's an addiction to sanitation that began 30 or so years ago with the introduction of convenience cleaners.
"We are so used to chemical smells that we don't think things are clean without them," said Wendy Benchley, an environmental activist who worked on the Clean Air Fund's "Home Safe Home" project.
But there is a hidden price to such convenience. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency completed in 1987 found that the air inside the average house has two to five times the concentration of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that are in outside air. Much of that indoor pollution, the EPA speculated, comes from products that make our lives easier.
Scouring powders release irritating chlorine gas. Drain and oven cleaners contain lye, which can burn skin and eyes. Furniture polish has phenol, which has been found to cause cancer in lab animals. Dishwashing liquids pollute our water with phosphates and contain benzene, which can cause respiratory failure in high concentrations.
Some products carry warning labels; others do not. Many of the chemicals are released into the air when you use the product and even when you don't, while it is sitting in the cabinet under your sink.
So what's a worried homeowner to do? Think yesterday, says Barbara Beauchamp, who for many years coordinated historical programs at the Florida Folk Life Center.
"Old-time(ers) used a lot of natural cleaning methods we can revive," Ms. Beauchamp said. "My mother always used vinegar and newspapers to wash windows. Baking soda we used to brighten pots . . ."
The principle of non-toxic cleaning is that a few natural ingredients can be used for many jobs. You don't need one product for dishes, another for clothes, windows, bathrooms, floors, walls.
Here are some tried-and-true recipes for non-toxic house cleaners, gleaned from several new books on the subject. They are most effective when freshly mixed. And even though they are natural preparations, most are not safe for human consumption. Keep them out of reach of children.
- All-purpose cleaner: A solution of borax and hot water (1/2 cup borax in one gallon water) makes a good general cleaner for kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Borax is also a mild disinfectant.
- Scouring powder: Sprinkle borax, baking soda or table salt on a damp sponge. Scour and rinse. You can also make a paste of baking soda, salt and water that works as an oven cleaner.
- Toilet bowl cleaner: Sprinkle a few tablespoons of baking soda into the toilet, then add a cup of vinegar. The foaming action will work on stains in the bowl and deodorize it.
- Window cleaner: Mix 2-5 tablespoons vinegar in 2 cups of water. Use as you would any spray glass cleaner.
- Drain opener: Pour in 1/2 cup baking soda, followed by one cup vinegar. Plug drain until fizzing stops, then flush with hot water.
- Tile cleaner: Use equal amounts of vinegar and warm water to clean soap film. Vinegar also helps inhibit growth of fungus and mold.
- Dishwashing liquid: Mix equal amounts of borax and washing soda (hydrated sodium carbonate, available in the laundry section of a supermarket); dissolve in hot water. There will be less suds than you're used to. You can also use liquid castile soap or dissolve pure soap flakes in warm water to make a liquid soap.
- Automatic dishwashing powder: Use 1/4-cup borax for each washing cycle, or use half borax and half washing soda.
- Laundry detergent: Use pure soap flakes, and boost their cleaning power with equal parts of borax and washing soda - 3/4 cup of this mix in each load. The borax brightens colors with a mild bleaching action.