Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Clean & Green" - by Meg McConahey

Published on January 5, 2008

© 2008- The Press Democrat


Whipping up your own household cleaning solutions
appears to be the next frontier in green living -- at
least on the homefront. No major investment in solar
panels, new energy efficient appliances or low-flush
toilets is required. All it takes is white vinegar,
baking soda, Borax, a few lemons and maybe some
essential oils, and you're good for a Saturday morning
of scrubbing.

Suddenly, mainstream bookstore shelves are stocked
with newly published handbooks to teach consumers what
great-grandma on the old frontier knew so well:
Cleaning products can be whipped up more easily than a
batch of biscuits.

``Organic Housekeeping,'' by Ellen Sandbeck, and
``Green This,'' featuring a fetching cover photo of
Deirdre Imus (wife of Don) posed with a mop in her
immaculate white kitchen, convey the promise that
toxic chemicals are not necessary to get that Mr.
Clean sparkle. New York artist Michael De Jong's
``Clean: The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing'' reduces the
whole household cleaning process to five ingredients
-- baking soda, old-fashioned borax, lemon, salt and
white vinegar.

Those are the same basic ingredients Mary Heckman used
when she set out to create her own housekeeping
chemistry set.

``I was pleasantly surprised at how well it works --
and especially how simple it is. There are really only
a handful of ingredients you need,'' said Heckman, a
human resources specialist from Petaluma who took on
the green cleaning challenge some six years ago.

Suffering from lifelong allergies and already a
convert to making her own cosmetics from natural
ingredients, Heckman decided to start cooking up her
own cleaning solutions. She has gained so much common
folk wisdom that she has been tapped to do green
cleaning talks, such as the one she gave at the
Petaluma Going Green Expo last October.

``These are practices that have been around for years
and years and years. We just got away from them,''
Heckman said. ``I was talking to a friend recently who
grew up in a family that didn't have much money, and
her mom used this stuff. It's a part of our history.
We've just become a consumer-based society, and we're
used to buying everything.''

Getting back to cleaning basics is an idea that has
grown well beyond hard-core greenies or even the
environmental movement. Government agencies are
concerned about legal, off-the-shelf products with
toxic ingredients winding up in water treatment
systems, ground water, streams and landfills.

The problem with most consumer cleaning products is
that there is no strong regulatory system to prevent
harmful chemicals from showing up in the formulas,
said Debbie Raphael, the toxic reduction program
manager for the city of San Francisco.

``The label is not like a food label that tells us fat
and calories and that says if it has cancer-causing
potential or is hard on your eyes or will harm the
developing nervous system. So cities are worried about
what happens when the product is no longer needed and
becomes waste.''

And when products do contain warning labels, they only
refer to acute effects, like whether it will kill,
blind or burn you. They won't, said Raphael, let you
know about any hidden, long-term effects like cancer
or cognitive impairment or decreased fertility.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of
green cleaning products to hit the market, from
companies like Seventh Generation and Sun & Earth.
Whole Foods carries multiple brands and products --
everything from dish soap to drain cleaner. Even
mainstream retailers like Target now carry cleaning
alternatives that supposedly are earth-friendly.

But unlike with food, which now has more reliable
organic certification, there is no regulation of the
use of terms that imply non-toxic -- like organic,
natural, green or hypo-allergenic. Raphael suggests
people consult the nonprofit, independent Consumers
Union (, whose
Greener Choices Web site features a whole section on
so-called green labels. The site has search tools to
help evaluate labels on food, wood, personal care
products and household cleaners. You can search by
product, category, or certifier., another independent nonprofit group,
also is useful. It has what Raphael calls ``clear,
transparent criteria that are robust and meaningful,''
which it uses to certify products and services that
claim to be green.

The state of California jumped in last year by
launching a Green Chemistry Initiative to try to move
away from the old approach of managing toxic chemicals
after they've been dumped and instead try to reduce or
eliminate their use altogether, not just in industrial
but in consumer products.

``The legislature has been looking at particular
ingredients of particular products, but people are
realizing we have to look more broadly at all the
ingredients in all of our products,'' said Maureen
Gorsen, director of the Department of Toxic Substances
of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

There is a growing concern, among other things, about
the use of anti-bacterial soaps, which appear to be
having an adverse affect on aquatic life, she said.

Harsh household cleaning products may also be hard on
children, the elderly and people with chemical
sensitivities, according to Gorsen.

Perhaps the best way to ensure safety, however, is
simply to make them yourself, like Heckman.

Raphael does caution that simply experimenting without
using tested recipes could be hazardous. For instance,
never mix anything that contains ammonia with anything
that contains bleach. It will form a toxic gas. Entire
buildings have been evacuated after one janitor used
ammonia in toilets and another janitor came along and
added bleach.

The principles, though, are pretty basic.

``The most important thing to think about is what
you're trying to achieve in the cleaning process. Are
you trying to cut grease, or are you simply trying to
clean up dust? For the most part, a little bit of
vinegar will cut grease and a little bit of soap will
act as a surfactant to lift dirt, which can then be
wiped up by a rag,'' Raphael said.

Borax, a natural mineral compound which has been
around for generations, is also a key ingredient to
keep on hand for green cleaning. It can be used as a
natural laundry booster, multipurpose cleaner,
fungicide, preservative, insecticide, herbicide or

Green cleaners have also long known of the wonders of
lemons. Heckman simply cuts one in half, rubs it on
the surface and lets it sit. To many of her basic
cleaning recipes she likes to add a few drops of
essential oil like tea tree or lavender, which have a
disinfecting effect and also add a nice fragrance.

For scrubbing action on hard surfaces like ovens, the
secret is baking soda, another cheap, all-purpose
cleaner and deodorizer.

Heckman and other green cleaning converts also find
club soda great for cleaning dirt. She uses it on
linoleum and for carpet stains.

For stubborn scum, a little non-detergent liquid soap
helps loosen things up. Heckman likes Dr. Bronner's, a
pure castile liquid soap known for its concentrated
lather and available at places like Whole Foods.

Meg McConahey, a staff writer, can be reached at
521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@

PHOTO: 3 by MARK ARONOFF / The Press

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