When my kids were small, I wanted to give them a clean, healthy home to live in. Our home was clean, no doubt about it, but was it healthy?
Naturally Clean by Jeffrey Hollender and Geoff Davis (with Meika Hollender and Reed Doyle) debunks the myth that a clean home is automatically a healthy home. Cleanliness in itself isn’t bad (though it can be taken to extremes, according to Chapter 20), but the chemicals used in those cleaners can be deadly. “The decision to stop using synthetic chemical cleaners is one of the most important ones you’ll ever make for the health of your family and the safety of your home,” say the authors.
“We think of our book as a kind of ‘Introduction to Household Chemicals and Home Cleaning 101,’ ” they write. Everyone needs to know these basic facts. And this book, copyrighted in 2006, is filled with them.
For example, in Chapter 2, I read, “Today, there are an estimated 80,000 different chemical compounds being made and used around the world. Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) receives approval applications for another 2,000 more. That’s more than five new chemicals being created every day. In the United States alone, some 500,000 chemical products are available to consumers, and according to various estimates the average home contains anywhere from three to ten gallons of these toxic substances.”
Americans — and presumably others around the world — have long been subjected to advertising that tells us we not only want, but must have these chemical products in our homes. We rush to the supermarkets in droves, filling our carts with lemon-scented furniture polish, spring-fresh soaps, country-breeze detergents, antiseptic hand cleaners, quick-shine floor cleaners, squeaky-clean window washes, and on and on and on. We move en masse to buy it all, following the advertisers’ lead like lemmings playing Follow the Leader to the sea.
The cliff we consumers are falling from may not kill us as swiftly as a plunge to a rocky shore. But if we don’t change our habits, we will slowly poison ourselves and our children. “Interestingly, if you put a chart detailing the rising cancer incidences from 1940 onward over a chart illustrating our increasing use of chemicals over the same time period, you’d see a startling parallel,” the authors write.
But surely the EPA protects us from dangerous chemicals. Doesn’t it?
Chapter 2 of Naturally Clean goes on to say,
In fact, under the clearly misnamed Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA is not allowed to require manufacturers to conduct health studies on the new chemicals they introduce unless the agency can demonstrate that a particular substance poses a significant risk. Because such proof can only come from scientific studies that take appreciable amounts of time and money, researchers simply can’t keep up with the continual flood of new compounds being introduced, and regulators are forced by a combination of law and circumstance to allow the vast majority into the marketplace with no study and no assurance of safety. The situation has become so extreme that according to the Environmental Working Group, in 2003 less than half of all chemicals submitted for approval to the EPA were backed up by even basic toxicity data, and 80 percent were approved in less than three weeks.
That’s a dismal record of consumer safety (which is why the Environmental Working Group and others are pushing for adoption of the Kid Safe Chemicals Act, but that’s for another discussion). But more often than not, we consumers subject ourselves and our families to toxic chemicals by voluntarily purchasing and using products that contain them.
The Dirt on Cleaning Products
In the introduction to Section Three, “The Dirty Secrets of Household Cleaners,” the authors write,
[T]hese products work so well, it’s all but impossible to imagine cleaning without them. Yet, perhaps we should, because behind their cheerfully sparkling labels of crystal mountain streams, and fields of wild flowers waving in the freshest breezes, all too many household cleaning products hide a dirty little secret: they’re made from synthetic chemicals that are toxic to people and dangerous to use.
Talking recently with a chemist friend (whose company affiliation shall remain nameless), I asked him what single chemical, of the many available, should I most try to avoid. Without hesitating, he said, “Chlorine bleach — not just for what it can do to you, but also for what it does to the environment.” A minute later, he added, “And anything that ends in ene: Benzene, xylene, methylene, propylene, and ethylene. Just stay the hell away from them.”
So I’m becoming more conscious of product labels, doing my best to screen out the hazards to my family’s health.
Naturally Clean contains the basic terminology you will need to be able to read the labels on cleaning products. In Chapter 19, “Unpronounceably Unhealthy: A Look at Some of the Specific Chemicals in Your Cupboard,” you’ll learn a few of the dangerous chemicals contained in the most common of household products — laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, furniture polishes, toilet bowl cleaners, degreasers, window cleaners, and more. (You’ll find chlorine and some of the “enes” among them.)
Most important, the book also presents the health effects these chemicals cause — hormone disruption, neurotoxicity, cancer, reproductive toxicity, and more.
In Naturally Clean, you’ll also find tips for nontoxic cleaners that are safe for your kids, your pets, and you. In Chapter 32, “What to Pour on Your Floor,” the authors give the straightforward and cost-saving advice: “For the most part, soap and water are all you need to make floors shine.” If you want a deeper clean, combine “one quarter cup of natural liquid soap with half a cup of distilled vinegar and two gallons of hot water.” Need a cleaner strong enough to remove wax? “[R]eplace the vinegar … with one quarter cup of washing soda.”
Section Five, “Kidstuff,” warns, “we need to be hyperprotective when it comes to safeguarding our kids” and explains why kids are at greater risk than adults. Chapter 36 provides “A Baker’s Dozen Ways to Help Kids Breathe Easier.” Chapter 37 explains the dangers of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and provides a list of ingredients and materials that you’ll want to stay away from. Some of the products that the authors recommend avoiding may surprise you. They did me.
For example, I remember when vinyl flooring first became available. What an improvement over linoleum! How comfy to the foot! How beautiful the shine! Little did we know back then that vinyl flooring contains phthalates — and phthalates release VOCs. Naturally Clean recommends, “If you have vinyl flooring, consider replacing it with something else as soon as possible in order to protect children from the phthalates vinyl contains.” Really? I had no idea.
Don’t Freshen My Air
One of my personal favorites is Chapter 45, “Air Fresheners Stink.” It confirms what I’ve often thought — but have been hesitant to say — about homes and businesses that are infused with perfumed air fresheners.
In general, air fresheners don’t remove odors. They simply use chemicals to cover them up. In some cases, they even work by employing chemicals that reduce the ability of the nose to smell. Since air fresheners do nothing to stop the source of offensive odors, those odors remain in the air and the product must be reapplied frequently, which increases your exposure to the chemicals they contain.
Many of these chemicals either have a dubious safety record or remain untested for human health effects. Toxins found in air fresheners and room deodorizers include naphthalene, phenol, cresol, dichlorobenzene, and xylene among many others. Air freshener chemicals have been implicated in cancer, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental disorders, and other conditions. The compounds in air fresheners, particularly the synthetic fragrances they contain, can also aggravate asthma or trigger attacks.
Earlier, in Chapter 32, I also learned, “Scientists at the University of Bristol in England, for example, have found that the VOCs contained in air fresheners and aerosol products harm the health of mothers and their babies during both pregnancy and early childhood when those products are used around the house.”
Suddenly, I don’t feel the need to keep my mouth shut about the obnoxious scent of air fresheners.
Naturally Clean is not a horror story. It’s a calmly presented narrative based on current scientific data at the time it was written. It contains no-nonsense advice that will help you protect your family from exposure to toxic chemicals that you might not otherwise have known about. It also provides a list of “Recommended Products” (Section Seven) consumers can try as alternatives to those containing dangerous chemicals.
You might recognize author Jeffrey Hollender’s name as co-founder, executive chairperson, and “Chief Inspired Protagonist” (gotta love that title) of Seventh Generation, Inc., maker of nontoxic cleaning products. You might also say he has a vested interest in writing negative things about toxic chemicals. And you’d be right — both as a human being and as a corporate executive of the competition. But Naturally Clean doesn’t just recommend Seventh Generation products. It recommends and rates a variety of products from companies such as Life Tree, Sun & Earth, Bi-O-Kleen, Ecover, Dr. Bronner’s and more. By the way, though it consistently does well, Seventh Generation doesn’t always come out on top of the ratings.
If you’re concerned about your family’s health and want to make changes that will reduce the chemical load your bodies have to bear, this is an important book for you to read. But be forewarned: It’s not exactly bedtime reading. The mere thought of so many toxins in your immediate environment might just keep you awake at night.
Note: Although we didn’t pay for this book (it was a gift from a friend), we did not receive it as a complimentary copy from the publisher. Thought you might like to know.
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