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Greener, Gentler Alternatives to Hazardous Household Products

by Kristine Bradof

This article originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Wellspring newsletter, published by the MTU Regional Groundwater Education in Michigan (GEM) Center, now the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach at Michigan Technological University.

The Winter 1995 issue of Wellspring recommended dispoal methods for hazardous wastes generated around the home and suggested some alternatives to household cleaners with hazardous ingredients. This article focuses on safer substitutes for some of the nastiest chemicals found in many homes. The alternatives may not always work as well as the products they replace. Some of them also must be used with caution to avoid harmful effects. If you want to make your home "greener and gentler" for the environment and your familyís health, however, the alternatives are worth trying.

Drain Cleaners

Most chemical drain cleaners contain harsh, corrosive chemicals that can be fatal if swallowed. The lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide) in caustic powder drain cleaners causes vomiting or collapse if swallowed, lung damage if inhaled. Liquid drain cleaners use hydrochloric or sulfuric acid to dissolve hair and soap, but their corrosiveness causes severe burns. The heat and chemical action that breaks down grease in drains may damage countertops, plastic or metal pipes, and porcelain or stainless steel sinks.

Alternatives. Several alternatives are much safer to use. Only mechanical types, such as a plunger or a drain auger ("snake"), can open completely clogged drains. Drain augers cost $5-$15 and last virtually forever. If drains are slow-running, pour 1/2 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup vinegar down the drain, followed by a gallon of boiling water about 15 minutes later. The baking soda and vinegar react to produce bubbles that loosen clogs. The boiling water helps dissolve soap and grease. Enzyme-type commercial buildup removers are also relatively safe and easy to use. Such cleaners rely on enzymes from harmless bacteria to digest the buildup of gunk that narrows pipes and makes clogs more likely.

Toilet Bowl Cleaners

Liquid toilet bowl cleaners usually use hydrochloric, phosphoric, or oxalic acid to dissolve mineral (hard-water) scale and remove stains. Powders may use sodium bisulfate, which works like sulfuric acid when dissolved. Phosphoric acid is the least harmful, but all of these chemicals irritate the skin and mucous membranes. Sodium bisulfate and hydrochloric acid can be fatal if swallowed. Inhaling hydrochloric acid can cause choking and inflammation of the respiratory tract. Oxalic acid may cause severe burns, intestinal upsets, convulsions, or kidney damage. Cleaning professionals urge use of rubber gloves and eye protection with any of these bowl cleaners. In-tank cleaners mainly mask stains and odors with dyes or bleach. Air fresheners and toilet bowl deodorants often contain naphthalene and PDB, the common mothball ingredients (see below).

Alternatives. Consumer Reports recommends brushing the toilet bowl regularly with liquid all-purpose cleaner to prevent stains from forming. Remember that disinfection of the toilet bowl is only temporary at best no matter what cleaner you use. Other sources suggest scrubbing the bowl with baking soda. For tougher stains, apply a paste of lemon juice and borax, let it sit for 20 minutes, then scrub. (Borax, which can be harmful if ingested or absorbed through broken skin or mucous membranes, must be used with caution.) Pour 2 cups of white vinegar into the bowl overnight to help remove waterline marks. Instead of using deodorizers, set out dishes of potpourri, citrus peels, or vanilla-soaked cotton balls. Simmer cloves, cinnamon, or allspice. Simply lighting a match can help eliminate bathroom odors.

Oven Cleaners

Most oven cleaners use lye, a strong base, to dissolve burned-on, acidic grease. Unfortunately, as in the case of lye-containing drain openers, oven cleaners are poisonous, give off toxic fumes, and can cause severe skin or eye burns. Lye damages paint, fabrics, metals, and other surfaces. Leaving a pan of ammonia in the oven overnight is sometimes recommended for softening stains, making them easier to remove. However, ammonia is toxic if inhaled at high concentration, and it can irritate the skin and mucous membranes.

Alternatives. Preventing food from contacting oven surfaces is the best solution. Use the proper size cookware and line the bottom of the oven with foil, taking care that it doesnít contact the heating element. To remove burned-in food, look for a lye-free commercial oven cleaner that doesnít have a long list of warnings on the label. Another safe method is applying a paste of baking soda and water, leaving it overnight, then wiping it up. Washing soda can be added for tougher jobs. Use a Teflon-safe scrubbing pad or very fine steel wool on stubborn stains. Wiping the oven with a little vegetable-oil soap and rinsing it well removes grease or baking soda residue. You might also follow the advice of Consumer Reports Books not to worry about keeping your oven spotless. They note that while "a little dirt in the oven never hurt anybodyóa little oven cleaner might."

Mothballs

Naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene (PDB) are poisonous chemicals with the familiar mothball smell. Both have been linked to cancer in animals. Prolonged exposure to naphthalene may cause seizures; irritation to nose, throat, and lungs; headaches, confusion, or depression; liver and kidney damage; contact dermatitis; and a form of anemia. It can be absorbed through the lungs, skin, stomach, and eyes. PDB is less acutely toxic than naphthalene but produces similar symptoms.

Alternatives. To prevent damage to clothes from moths, clean clothes before storing. Moth larvae canít live on clothing fibers alone. Use tightly sealed boxes, chests, or bags. Freezing clothes in sealed plastic bags for a few days before storing also kills moth larvae. If not storing clothes in sealed bags, shake or brush them vigorously and expose to sunlight. Heat from a warm dryer or in an attic also kills moth eggs. Some sources recommend using cedar chips or a cedar chest for storage. Weavers mix 1/2 pound rosemary, 1/2 pound mint, 1/4 pound thyme, 1/4 pound ginseng (optional), and 2 tablespoons cloves in cheesecloth bags. Also try sachets of dried lavender or equal parts rosemary and mint.

Pesticides

All pesticides are toxic to some extent. They are used to kill creatures that are present where we donít want them, but may also harm humans, pets, and wildlife. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency national household pesticide survey in 1989 estimated that 2.5 million Americans are poisoned by pesticides each year. Long-term exposure to some pesticides may contribute to cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, and damage to the nervous and immune systems. So-called "inert" ingredients and contaminants in pesticidesóor their breakdown productsómay also be harmful. Widespread use of pesticides increases the risk of creating resistant strains of the pests, contaminating drinking water, and poisoning beneficial species. For all of these reasons, safer alternatives to pesticide use are suggested for controlling the following household pests.

Ants. Small numbers of ants in the house can actually be beneficial, as long as they arenít carpenter ants. Ants feed on the young of fleas, flies, moths, silverfish, and cockroaches. If ants are nesting in the house, find where they are entering, then caulk holes or cracks. To remove food sources that attract ants, wipe up food spills and wash dirty dishes immediately, sweep or vacuum the kitchen daily, and keep food in containers with tight covers. Use silica gel, diatomaceous earth, or boric acid in cracks near the nest or home entry points, but wear a mask to avoid irritation from the dust. Keep boric acid away from pets, children, and food-preparation areas. Control methods are the same for carpenter ants, whose presence may signal a problem with rotting wood in your house. Carpenter ants often enter houses through cracks around electrical lines or pipes. Tree branches that touch the house can become carpenter ant pathways and should be removed.

Fleas. Most flea collars contain neurotoxic pesticides in levels supposedly too small to harm pets, but the effects of long-term exposure are not well known. Fortunately, there are safer ways to control these common pests. If you discover an infestation in your house, remove adult fleas from pets with a flea comb and drown them in soapy water. A few fleas arenít cause for concern, unless you or your pet are particularly sensitive to them. Fleas often breed where pets sleep or spend most of their time, so it helps to vacuum or wash pet bedding and nearby carpeting. Relatively safe chemicals that kill fleas on pets and in the environment include diatomaceous earth, silica gel, insecticidal soap, citrus oil extracts, and fatty acids. The citrus oil linalool is particularly useful because it kills all stages of fleas, including eggs. Pyrethrins and pyrethroids may also be used, but some people are allergic to them; they are also toxic to fish and some other aquatic organisms. Insect growth regulators like methoprene (Precor) and fenoxycarb disrupt reproduction in fleas. They can be safely used on pet bedding and outdoors. Wear a dust mask and protective clothing when using any of these chemicals. Insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, and silica gel are safest to use on cats, which lick their fur and may be more sensitive to the other chemicals.

According to Consumer Reports Books, flea collars or sprays containing pennyroyal oil, citronella, or citrus oils repel fleas in laboratory tests, but their effectiveness on pets is less certain. Diet supplements that contain brewerís yeast (a source of vitamin B1) or garlic seem to help, supposedly by making the animalís blood less palatable! Ultrasonic or electronic flea collars have not proven effective.

Mice and other small rodents. As is the case with ants, prevention is the best control for mice, voles, and shrews. Find and seal entry points large enough to admit small rodents. Keep bread, cereal, grain, and pet food in sealed containers, preferably metal, glass, or heavy plastic that canít be chewed through. Clean up piles of paper, clothing, or other potential nesting materials and hiding places. Place snap or glue traps in dark areas along walls or other runways where droppings indicate rodent activity. Rodents caught in live traps should be released away from the house. Poison baits are not recommended because the rodents may die in the house, creating odor problems. Even if the baits are placed where pets canít reach them, poisoned mice may be eaten by the pets. Of course, another popular rodent control method is making a cat part of your household, though not every cat is a good "mouser."

Alternatives to many other potentially harmful products are available, often at low cost. Consult the following resource materials, your local library or county extension office, or the MTU Regional GEM Center for more information.

References:

Chemicals in the Household. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (poster).

Clean & Green: The Complete Guide to Nontoxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping. Annie Berthold-Bond. Woodstock, NY: Ceres Press. 1994.

The Cleaning Encyclopedia. Don Aslett. New York: Dell Publishing. 1993.

A Consumerís Dictionary of Household, Yard and Office Chemicals. Ruth Winter. New York: Crown Publishers. 1992.

Guide to Non-Toxic Cleaners. Recipes for a Clean Home and a Cleaner Environment. Lake Michigan Federation. Milwaukee, WI. 1992.

How to Clean Practically Anything. Third Edition/Updated. Consumer Reports Books. Yonkers, NY. 1992.

Pest Control for Home and Garden. The Safest and Most Effective Methods for You and the Environment. Michael Hansen. Yonkers, NY: Consumer Reports Books. 1993.

Recipes for Easy Alternatives to Hazardous Household Products. Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Duluth, MN. 1993.