Thursday, July 17, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 4

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Read Section 1, Section 2, and Section 3.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

IV. What can we do at home?

First, it's important to think precaution and prevention. You may have someone in your household questioning whether you need to make this switch. Some of these products might cost more than the ones you're using now -- and some cost less.

I think the most compelling argument for taking action, right now, is something called cumulative impacts.

Cumulative impacts describes the situation that each one of us is in right now when it comes to toxic chemicals: sure, maybe one squirt of air freshener won't hurt you. Maybe breathing those scrubbing bubbles a few times won't hurt you. But what happens when you start to add these things up?

What happens when you're surrounded by dusting spray and scented laundry soap and squirt-on window cleaner and plug-in air fresheners and car exhaust and diesel emissions and mercury from power plants and chemicals in toys and makeup and pesticides in food?

Every single day of your life? We're all living in a grand experiment without our consent: we have no idea what all these chemicals do in combination with each other. And that's why it's so important to take precautionary action and remove any exposures that you can.

Five simple steps to a greener home

1.) Educate yourself. Learn enough to make good choices. A non-profit organization called Women's Voices for the Earth, at, has a lengthy report on cleaning products that is available for free downloading. The green cleaning company Seventh Generation has a comprehensive web site at that lists the ingredients in their products, has a "guide to a toxin-free home" and has coupons.

2.) Use fewer products, and less of them. I have a little secret for you that the cleaning product companies don't want you to know: you do not need a different product for every room in your house! Soap and water work for lots of things -- you can get a big bottle of castile soap that will last you for months. Baking soda and vinegar, which cost pennies per use, have many uses.

Question whether you need the products you're using -- maybe instead of spraying an air freshener, you could simmer a cinnamon stick on the stove (this is what realtors do when they want to sell a home, it makes the house smell so good!) Put half a lemon in your disposal. Open your windows when you clean to let the bad air out and the good
air in.

3.) Make your own cleaners. These are several great web resources with recipes for inexpensive, effective cleaners. Have a green cleaning party! Womens' Voices for the Earth has a fun "green cleaning party kit" that you can download form their website, They'll send you an educational DVD, fact sheets, and supplies you need to invite your friends over and have fun getting healthy.

4.) Buy good brands. These are several great companies out there right now who are making safe, healthy products for the home, and working hard to push this market. Only buy products that list their ingredients. Don't buy anything that says "caution" or "warning" or "use in a well-ventilated room." Support the companies who are doing the right thing and creating this market, such as Seventh Generation,
Method, and other brands you'll find at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and natural food shops.

But there is a corollary to this: watch out for greenwashing, the practice whereby companies try to make themselves look good by claiming to be healthy, but actually are not. Words on the label like natural, green, eco, and even organic are not regulated in this market. Think about which companies you want to support.

5.) Perhaps most important, join together and speak up: join a non-profit organization such as Women's Voices for the Earth, the Science and Environmental Health Network (, or the Center for Environmental Health ( Continuing to use these same old dangerous chemicals are political and economic decisions, and both respond to consumers when we join our voices

Just as an example of recent results of consumer advocacy, Wal-Mart is pulling Bisphenol-A baby bottles form their shelves, and Target is phasing out PVC plastic. This is a direct result of great advocacy by non-profit organizations and the members who support them.

You can do some easy advocacy from home too: call the 800 number on the back of your cleaning products. Ask the manufacturers to list all of the ingredients on the product label, and to remove chemicals of concern from their products. Companies are thinking about doing this, but they need to hear from their customers to push them over the edge. You can also sign an online petition and leave comments at (click on "Take Action on Toxics").

This is a great time to get involved in issues of household environmental health. Consumers are learning more and demanding more from the marketplace, and manufacturers hear this and want a piece of that market. The market is shifting to healthier products, and it is because of each of us asking for products that don't harm our children or our planet. It's the perfect time to be gorgeously green.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

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