In the Kitchen
All-purpose cleaner, ammonia-based cleaners, bleach, brass or other
metal polishes, dishwater detergent, disinfectant, drain cleaner,
floor wax or polish, glass cleaner, dishwashing detergent, oven cleaner,
and scouring powder contain dangerous chemicals. Some examples are:
-sodium hypochlorite (in chlorine bleach): if mixed
with ammonia, releases toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure
may cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems.
-petroleum distillates (in metal polishes): short-term
exposure can cause temporary eye clouding; longer exposure can damage
the nervous system, skin, kidneys, and eyes.
-ammonia (in glass cleaner): eye irritant, can cause
headaches and lung irritation.
-phenol and cresol (in disinfectants): corrosive;
can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, kidney and liver damage.
-nitrobenzene (in furniture and floor polishes):
can cause skin discoloration, shallow breathing, vomiting, and death;
associated with cancer and birth defects.
-formaldehyde (a preservative in many products):
suspected human carcinogen; strong irritant to eyes, throat, skin,
In the Utility Closet
A number of products are likely to contain toxic ingredients: carpet
cleaner, room deodorizer, laundry softener, laundry detergent, anti-cling
sheets, mold and mildew cleaner, mothballs, and spot remover all
usually contain irritant or toxic substances. Examples:
-perchloroethylene or 1-1-1 trichloroethane solvents (in spot removers
and carpet cleaners): can cause liver and kidney damage if ingested;
perchloroethylene is an animal carcinogen and suspected human carcinogen.
-naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene (in mothballs):
naphthalene is a suspected human carcinogen that may damage eyes,
blood, liver, kidneys, skin, and the central nervous system; paradichlorobenzene
can harm the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
-hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate in toilet
bowl cleaner; either can burn the skin or cause vomiting, diarrhea
and stomach burns if swallowed; also can cause blindness if inadvertently
splashed in the eyes.
-residues from fabric softeners, as well as the
fragrances commonly used in them, can be irritating to susceptible
-possible ingredients of spray starch (aside from
the starch) include formaldehyde, phenol, and pentachlorophenol;
in addition, any aerosolized particle, including cornstarch, may
irritate the lungs.
In the Living Room and Bedroom
Even the furnishings of the typical American home can be harmful.
Fabrics that are labeled "wrinkle-resistant" are usually
treated with a formaldehyde resin. These include no-iron sheets
and bedding, curtains, sleep wear -- any woven fabric, but especially
polyester/cotton blends, marketed as "permanent press"
or "easy care." More modern furniture is made of pressed
wood products, which emits formaldehyde and other chemicals. Carpeting
is usually made of synthetic fibers that have been treated with
pesticides and fungicide. Many office carpets emit a chemical called
4-phenylcyclohexene, an inadvertent additive to the latex backing
used in more commercial and home carpets, which is thought to be
one of the chemicals responsible for "sick" office buildings.
In the Bath
Numerous cosmetics and personal hygiene products contain hazardous
-cresol, formaldehyde, glycols, nitrates/nitrosamines and sulfur
compounds in shampoos.
-butane propellants in hair spray (replacing carcinogenic
methylene chloride), as well as formaldehyde resins.
-aerosol propellants, ammonia, formaldehyde, triclosan
- aluminum chlorhydrate in antiperspirants and deodorants'
-glycols & phenol in lotions, creams, and moisturizers.
In the Studio or Hobby Room
Although legislation controlling many of the dangerous ingredients
in hobby materials has recently been passed, exposure to certain
art materials remains a health risk. Dangerous chemicals and metals
-lead in ceramic glazes, stained-glass materials, and many pigments
-cadmium in silver solders, pigments, ceramic glazes
-chromium in paint pigments and ceramic colors
-manganese dioxide in ceramic colors and some brown
oil and acrylic paint pigments
-cobalt in some blue oil and acrylic paint pigments
-formaldehyde as a preservation in many acrylic
paints and photographic products
-aromatic hydrocarbons in paint and varnish removers,
aerosol sprays, permanent markers, etc.
-chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents) in ink, varnish,
and paint removers, rubber cement, aerosol sprays
-petroleum distillates (solvents) in paint and rubber
cement thinners, spray adhesives, silk-screen inks
-glycol ethers and acetates in photography products,
lacquer thinners, paints, and aerosol sprays.
In the Garage
A number of dangerous substances are frequently present, including
paint, paint thinner, benzene, kerosene, mineral spirits, turpentine,
lubricating/motor oils, and gasoline. Hazards among them include
-chlorinated aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons in paint thinner
can cause liver and kidney damage
-petroleum hydrocarbons, an ingredient of gasoline,
motor oils, and benzene, are associated with skin and lung cancer
-mineral spirits in oil-based paint are a skin,
eye, nose throat, and lung irritant. High air concentrations can
cause nervous system damage, unconsciousness and death
-keytones in paint thinner may cause respiratory
ailments; vary according to specific form of the chemical
-ketones and toluene in wood putty; toluene in highly
toxic, may cause skin, kidney, liver, central nervous system damage;
may damage reproductive system.
In the Garden Shed
Pesticides, one of the most important single hazards in the home.
Around 1,400 pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are ingredients
in consumer products. Combined with other toxic substances such
as solvents, pesticides are present in more than 34,000 different
On the Patio
Charcoal lighter fluid contains petroleum distillates. Besides being
flammable and imparting a chemical taste to food, some petroleum
distillates contain benzene, a known human carcinogen.
Safe Substitutes for Household Toxins
Until World War II and the zenith of the Chemical Age that followed
war-related research, householders used a limited number of simple
substances to keep most objects in the house clean, order-free,
and pest-free. Soap, vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, ammonia,
borax, alcohol, cornstarch, and certain food ingredients were used
to lift out spots and stains, deodorize, polish wood or metal, disinfect,
scrub, repel pests, clean pets, wash and starch clothes, and to
perform countless other household tasks. Simple cosmetic preparations
kept hair lustrous and skin supplied with the aid of ingredients
such as eggs, oil, clay, vinegar, and herbs.
The garden was fertilized and pests were kept down
with naturally occurring substances. Weeds were weeded by hand.
Even though some natural pesticides, like nicotine and rotenone,
were indeed toxic to humans, they were not persistent in the environment.
They degrade soon after application. Pyrethrum, a pesticide derived
from a variety of chrysanthemum which is nontoxic to mammals, controlled
a wide spectrum of pests. Although it is till widely used, it is
usually mixed with other chemicals to increase its potency.
Buildings of the past were made with wood, brick,
stone, glass, plaster, and cement. Furniture was made of solid wood,
oiled to keep it polished. Rugs or carpets were made of wool or
cotton. Insulation was built in by making walls thick, and roofing
was constructed from wood shingles or tiles of clay or stone. Walls
were plastered. Windows were made to be opened, so at least in good
weather there was plenty of natural ventilation.
But toxic materials also were present in homes of
the past. Not knowing enough about their hazards, housewives used
such chemicals as arsenic, lead, and mercury to perform certain
household chores. Interior and exterior paints were often made with
lead; many American children are still living with the legacy of
lead poisoning caused by eating chips of leaded paint. Asbestos,
called a miracle mineral when its fire-resistant properties were
discovered, is now known to be a cancer causer that contaminates
hundreds of thousands of residences, schools, and other buildings
in this country.
We do not need to return to the ways of the past
to avoid exposure to house toxic's, but we can take some lessons
from the past for a better future. How can we do this?
Buy Safe Substitutes. For example, search for a
soap-based garden insecticide (at least one national brand is available)
instead of chemically-based ones.
When in Doubt, Leave it Out. In cases where there
is no effective safe substitute for a toxic product, reevaluate
how important the goal really is. Must you absolutely get rid of
all insects in your garden, or can you live with some chewed-up
leaves? If the goal is absolutely imperative, such as ensuring that
termites do not invade your house, it is important to educate yourself
thoroughly. You may have more healthful alternatives than your local
pest company tells you.
Safe Substitutes in the Kitchen and Bath
One shelf of simple and relatively safe ingredients can be used
to perform most home cleaning chores. All that's needed is a knowledge
of how they work and how different ingredients should be combined
to get the cleaning power needed for a specific job.
-Baking Soda is sodium bicarbonate. It has a number
of useful properties. It can neutralize acid, scrub shiny materials
without scratching, deodorize, and extinguish grease fires. It can
be used as a deodorizer in the refrigerator, on smelly carpets,
on upholstery and on vinyl. It can help deodorize drains. It can
clean and polish aluminum, chrome, jewelry, plastic, porcelain,
silver, stainless steel, and tin. It also softens fabrics and removes
certain stains. Baking soda can soften hard water and makes a relaxing
bath time soak; it can be used as an underarm deodorant and as a
-Borax is a naturally occurring mineral, soluble
in water. It can deodorize, inhibit the growth of mildew and mold,
boost the cleaning power of soap or detergent, remove stains, and
can be used with attractants such as sugar to kill cockroaches.
-Cornstarch, derived from corn, can be used to clean
windows, polish furniture, shampoo carpets and rugs, and starch
-Isopropyl Alcohol is an excellent disinfectant.
I use this for shining the chrome faucets and cleaning mirrors.
-Lemon Juice, which contains citric acid, is a deodorant
and can be used to clean glass and remove stains from aluminum,
clothes, and porcelain. It is a mild lightener or bleach if used
-vegetable oil, derived from seeds, can be used
as a furniture polish
-Soap (NOT detergent) is made in several ways. Castle
soap can be used as a shampoo or as a body soap. Olive-oil based
soap is gentlest to the skin. An all-purpose liquid soap can be
made by simple dissolving the old ends of bar soap (or grated slivers
of bar soap) in warm water.
-Steel Wool is an abrasive strong enough to remove
rust and stubborn food residues and to scour barbeque grills.
-TSP is trisodium phosphate, a mixture of soda ash
and phosphoric acid. TSP is toxic if swallowed, but it can be used
on many jobs, such as cleaning drains or removing old paint, that
would normally require much more caustic and poisonous chemicals,
and it does not create any fumes.
-Vinegar is made from soured appled juice, grain,
or wine. It contains about 5 percent acetic acid, which makes it
a mild acid. Vinegar can dissolve mineral deposits, grease, remove
traces of soap, remove mildew or wax buildup, polish some metals,
and deodorize. Vinegar can clean brick or stone, and is an ingredient
in some natural carpet cleaning recipes. Use vinegar to clean out
the metallic taste in coffeepots and to shine windows without streaking.
Vinegar is normally used in a solution with water, but it can be
-Washing Soda or SAL Soda is a sodium carbonate
decahydrate, a mineral. It can cut stubborn grease on grills, broiler
pans, and ovens. It can be used with soda instead of laundry detergent,
and it softens hard water. These items are available from drug and
For common household tasks, try these nontoxic
strategies using the above ingredients:
Freshen air by opening windows and doors for a short period; distribute
partially filled dishes of vinegar around the kitchen to combat
unpleasant cooking odors; boil cinnamon and cloves in a pan of water
to scent the air; sprinkle 1/2 cup borax in the bottom of garbage
pails or diaper pails to inhibit mold and bacteria growth that can
cause odors; rub vinegar on hands before and after slicing onions
to remove the smell; use bowls of potpourri to give inside air a
All-purpose cleaner can be made from a vinegar-and-salt
mixture or from 4 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in 1 quart warm
Disinfectant means anything that will reduce the
number of harmful bacteria on a surface. Practically no surface
treatment will completely eliminate bacteria. Try regular cleaning
with soap and hot water. Or mix 1/2 cup borax into 1 gallon of hot
water to disinfect and deodorize. Isopropyl alcohol is an excellent
disinfectant, but use gloves and keep it away from children. I use
Tea Tree oil for killing bacteria from surfaces, like phones, counter
tops, children's toys, etc.
Drain cleaner. Try a plunger first, though not after
using any commercial drain opener. To open clogs, pour 1/2 cup baking
soda down drain, add 1/2 cup white vinegar, and cover the drain.
The resulting chemical reaction can break fatty acids down, allowing
the clog to wash down the drain. Again, do not use this method after
trying a commercial drain opener--the vinegar can react with the
drain opener to create dangerous fumes.
Floor cleaner and polish can be as simple as a few
drops of vinegar in the cleaning water to remove soap traces. For
vinyl or linoleum, add a capful of vegetable oil to the water to
preserve and polish. For wood floors, apply a thin coat of 1:1 oil
and vinegar and rub in well. For painted wooden floors, mix 1 teaspoon
washing soda into 1 gallon hot water. For brick and stone tiles,
use 1 cup white vinegar in 1 gallon water and rinse with clear water.
Metal cleaners and polishes are different for each
metal -- just as in commercial cleaners. Clean aluminum with a solution
of cream of tartar and water. Brass may be polished with a soft
cloth dipped in lemon-and baking-soda solution, or vinegar- and-salt
solution. Polish chrome with vegetable oil, vinegar, or aluminum
foil shiny slide out. Clean tarnished copper by boiling the article
in a pot of water with 1 tablespoon salt and 1 cup white vinegar,
or try differing mixtures of salt, vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice,
and cream am of tartar. Clean gold & silver with toothpaste,
pewter with a paste of salt, vinegar, and flour. Silver can be polished
by boiling it in a pan lined with aluminum foil and filled with
water to which a teaspoon each of baking soda and salt have been
added. Stainless steel can be cleaned with undiluted white vinegar.
Oven cleaner. Sprinkle baking soda on moist surface
and scrub with steel wool. Or use Arm & Hammer Oven Cleaner,
declared nontoxic by Consumers Union.
Scouring powder can be made from baking soda or
dry table salt.
Toilet bowl cleaner can be made from straight bleach
(DO NOT mix with any other substance except water).
Baking soda and vinegar, or borax and lemon juice can be used.
Tub and tile cleaner can be as easy as rubbing in
baking soda with a damp sponge and rinsing, or wiping with vinegar
first and following with baking soda as a scouring powder.
Window and glass cleaner is easy with these tips:
to avoid streaks, don't wash windows when the sun is shining. Use
a vinegar-and-water solution, cornstarch-vinegar-and-water solution,
or lemon-juice-and-water. Can wipe with newspaper or a lint free
Safe Substitutes for Laundry
Detergent is specially adapted to clean synthetic fabrics, and it
has the added advantage of not leaving soil residues even in hard
water. However, detergents are generally derived from petrochemicals,
and people sensitive to these compounds may find it hard to tolerate
detergents or the fragrances they are scented with. In addition,
most detergents contain phosphates, which build up in streams and
lakes and upset the natural balance in waterways, causing blooms
of algae which deplete the dissolved oxygen fish need to live. Some
detergent may even contain naphthalene or phenol, both hazardous
An effective alternative to using detergents is
to return to soap. Soap is an effective cleaner for natural fabrics,
leaving such items as diapers softer than detergent can. For cotton
and linen, use soap to soften water. A cup of vinegar added to the
wash can help keep colors bright (but DO NOT use vinegar if you
are using bleach -- the resulting fumes are hazardous). One-half
to three-quarters of a cup of baking soda will leave clothes soft
and fresh smelling. Silks and wools may be hand washed with mild
soap or a protein shampoo, down or feathers with mild soap or baking
For synthetic fabrics or blends (including most
no-iron fabrics), there are biodegradable detergents on the market
that do not contain phosphates, fragrances, or harsh chemicals.
They are often imported from Europe and are available at health
food stores or by mail order.
Safe Substitutes for
Personal Hygiene and Cosmetic Products
We use cosmetics and hygiene products for a fairly narrow range
of reasons: to keep skin moist and supple; to clean hair without
stripping it of natural oils; to eliminate unpleasant body or mouth
orders; to prevent skin oiliness and clogged skin pores; and simply
for the pleasure of relaxing and pampering ourselves with body-care
or facial-care treatments. The following ingredients can help achieve
these purposes without the use of toxic additives, synthetic fragrances,
or artificial colorings:
-Moisturizers and conditioners: safflower oil (for
light moisturizing), olive oil (for dry skin or hair), water, oatmeal,
-Astringents/after shaves: witch hazel
-Deodorants: baking soda, white clay, deodorant
-Toothpastes: baking soda.
-Soaps cleansing agents: old-fashioned made and
glycerin based soaps.
-Perfumes: essential oils provide nontoxic fragrances
that can be used to scent shampoo, bath soaks, or even, in the case
of peppermint, to flavor toothpaste.
Peaceful Scents products do not contain the harmful
ingredients in many commercial preparations.
Safe Substitutes for Art and Hobby Materials
There are some nontoxic choices that can be made when buying art
or craft supplies, but because some techniques require certain materials,
minimizing exposure may be the best you can do.
-In painting and print making, ready-mixed water-based
paints or inks can be used. If you must be exposed to paint dust,
use toxic dust respirator approved by the National Institute for
Occupational safety and Health (NIOSH). Ventilate the space thoroughly
whenever using any kind of solvents, whether in painting or in lithography,
intaglio, or photo etching. Solvents also should be avoided while
-Enamels are usually lead-based, and can contain
other toxic metals such as cadmium and nickel. Use lead-free-enamels
whenever possible, and make sure kilns are vented outside.
-In pottery as well, outside vented kilns are important,
as is a careful choice of materials -- most potters know to avoid
lead glazes and lead fruits, but many don't know that flint, feldspars,
fluorspar, and some compounds containing barium, lithium, manganese,
or nickel can also be toxic. Children should avoid the pottery studio,
as they are more highly susceptible to the toxins used in pottery
than are adults.
-Photography presents a number of toxic hazards
which are difficult to avoid. Minimize exposure to photo chemical
by using gloves, mixing chemicals in a mixing box with holes in
the sides for gloved hands, and providing adequate ventilation.
Children under 12 should avoid the darkroom.
Safe Substitutes for Pesticides in Home and
Against pests in the home, the best offense is a good defense. The
first step is to make the house -- especially the kitchen -- unattractive
to insects by cleaning up food spills immediately, keeping hard-to-reach
areas reasonably clean, and removing clutter that can hide pests.
Store foods attractive to pests, such as flour, in the refrigerator.
Water attracts pests, so leaky faucets and pipes should be promptly
repaired. Doors and windows should be well screened. Cloths should
be regularly cleaned and aired out.
A number of nontoxic substances can be used to repel
insects. Generally, they are highly fragrant or volatile herbs or
spices. Powdered red chill pepper, peppermint, bay leaves, cloves,
citrus oil, lavender, rosemary, peppercorns, and cedar oil can repel
various types of insects.
Insects can be trapped and killed without resorting
to dangerous chemicals: generally a poison non-toxic to humans is
mixed with a food that insects find attractive, and spread in the
infested area. Examples are oatmeal (attractive) and plaster-of-Paris
(poisonous), and cocoa powder and flour (attractive) and borax (poisonous).
Old-fashioned fly-paper, not a hanging strip of insecticide is an
effective trap. For specific house pests, try these solutions:
-For ants: sprinkle powdered red
chill pepper, paprika, dried peppermint, or borax where the ants
-For beetles: Kill manually when
you see them.
-For cockroaches: Mix by stirring
and sifting 1 ounce TSP, 6 ounces borax, 4 ounces sugar, and 8 ounces
flour. Spread on floor of infested area. Repeat after 4 days and
again after 2 weeks.
-For fleas: Feed pet brewer's yeast
in powder mixed with food.
-For moths: Air clothes well in
the sun; store in airtight containers, and scatter sachets of lavender
and cedar chips in with clothing.
-For rats and mice: Again, prevention
may be the best cure. Holes in exterior or interior walls should
be closed off and storage spaces kept orderly. Garbage should be
kept tightly covered. To catch rodents, the most efficient system
is the oldest: a cat. Next best are mouse and rat traps.
-For termites: Any wooden parts
of the house should be at least 18 inches off the ground, as subterranean
termites cannot tolerate being exposed to air and light. They have
to build easily visible mud tunnels to get at available wood. However,
most existing houses have only about an 8-inch clearance between
wooden parts and the ground, which makes the wood vulnerable. Metal
shields may help discourage termites, but they cannot prevent infestations.
-For gardens: In hardware stores,
look for new brands of safer insecticides that use soap-and water
solution to get rid of aphids, or pyrethrum for a number of applications.
You can also mix cayenne pepper, drop of dish soap with water in
a spray bottle. As more and more people understand the hazards of
chemicals in the home, market pressure will encourage the introduction
of safer organic products.
Several naturally derived pesticides exist which,
in some cases, are less toxic to humans than the organophosphates,
carbamates, or organochlorines now widely used. Rotenone, moderately
toxic to humans, kills a wide range of insects; however, it should
never be used near a waterway, as it is very toxic to fish. Ryania
kills only a few species, including the European corn borer, codling
moth, and cranberry fruit worm. Pyrethrum is relatively nontoxic
to humans and only slightly toxic to aquatic life, so it may be
the best choice for home gardens. Sabadilla controls lice, leafhoppers,
squash bugs, striped cucumber beetles, and chinch bugs. It has low
toxicity to wildlife, but it may be toxic to bees.
For lawns: Herbicides are most
often used to kill "unsightly" weeds in gardens and yards,
and by lawn care companies to maintain the perfect appearance of
turf around homes and on lawns and golf courses. Basically, the
safe alternative to herbicides is simple: pull weeds by hand. There
are no really safe herbicides.
Substitutes for the Patio
A simple and much more effective alternative exists for the charcoal
lighter fluid used to start the backyard barbeque. A metal, chimney-pipe
cylinder, which holds the charcoal above a burning piece of newspaper
and relies on the air flow under the charcoal to quickly bring it
to glowing hot, is available at most discount stores. It readies
the charcoal for cooking much more quickly without the chemical
taste and fire hazard of lighter fluid.
The Safe Home of the
Because Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors,
it is crucial to make the home environment as safe as possible.
Indoor pollutants have proliferated in recent years, often either
because modern construction techniques and furnishings manufacturers
utilize hazardous materials or because consumers do not know enough
about the products they buy to make informed choices.