Clean Up Your Act

Natural spick-and-span options are better than ever, so say goodbye to toxic chemicals in cleaning products.

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A clean home is a healthy home, right? Not necessarily. It turns out the very efforts to rid your living space of dirt, dust, mildew and grime might make it a more dangerous environment for you and your family. And you’re not the only ones who could suffer: Many of the ingredients in household cleaners contaminate the air and water as well as thousands of organisms, from algae to wildlife, when they are washed down drains and make their way into the ecosystem.

What’s Wrong with What’s on the Market

“Conventional commercial cleaners are some of the most toxic substances you can bring into our home,” says Linda Mason Hunter, home ecology specialist and co-author of Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home. “Many of the chemicals found in cleaners have only been around since World War II, and they’ve never been tested for long-term health effects.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that the immediate health risks associated with the use of conventional household cleaning products include asthma attacks, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory impairment. Additionally, a 1987 study by the EPA determined that the air inside a typical home is up to ten times more polluted than the air outside the home because of the toxic chemicals many of us use to scrub and sanitize. They include the following:

Formaldehyde a volatile organic compound, found in liquid cleaners and floor polishes, that is suspected of causing cancer.

Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) a toxic compound that irritates the respiratory system and emits poisonous vapors when combined with ammonia or vinegar.

Petroleum distillates (naphthas) nonrenewable, oil-based resources found in furniture and floor polishes that can affect the central nervous system and lead to cognitive and behavioral problems.

Pesticides and fungicides such as chlorine and alkyl ammonium chlorides, found in most conventional antibacterial cleaners and mildew removers. They can cause skin irritation and nervous system damage.

Polish Off or Pitch Out?

There are two ways to go about switching over to eco-friendly products: gradually replace your scrubs and sprays as you use them up, or toss toxin-filled items out once and for all. Experts are split on the issue, but Annie Berthold-Bond, author of Clean & Green: The Complete Guide to Non-Toxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping, cautions that there are a few situations in which she suggests making an immediate change. “If the home contains young children or anyone who is pregnant, sick or sensitive to chemicals, contact your local recycling center about disposing of your toxic cleaning products,” she recommends.

If you choose to deplete your supply of conventional household cleaners before replacing them with safer alternatives, carefully follow the instructions to avoid toxic reactions, always wear gloves when you clean, and make sure your home has lots of ventilation while you’re scrubbing—even an open window or two can help get the fumes out.

Make a Lifelong Change

Once you start using natural cleaning agents, you’ll find it hard to believe you ever allowed something labeled “Hazardous” into your house. Here are a few of the products we’ve taken a shine to, plus some tried-and-true homemade options you can make with everyday pantry items such as baking soda and vinegar. Store-bought or homemade, they’re all reasonably priced, readily available and really work at keeping things spotlessly clean—without compromising your health or the environment.

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