Look in the cupboard under your kitchen sink. I bet it is full of the many and varied cleaning products you use to fight dirt, kill germs and mask odours to keep your home sparkling clean and protect your family. The big trouble is, those products are full of hazardous chemicals. Look at the labels – do they say ‘hazardous to humans and domestic animals’, ‘danger’, ‘warning’, ‘poison’, ‘vapours harmful’ or ‘may cause burns on contact’? They might take away dirt and kill bacteria, but they leave behind health-damaging substances.
The average household contains about 62 toxic chemicals that are likely to be inhaled as they linger in the air, ingested via the residues on dishes and absorbed by the skin (which, unlike the digestive system, has no safeguards against toxins). Various ingredients can asthma, headaches, chronic fatigue, stuffy noses, coughing, itchy eyes, and other mysterious health conditions that your GP might be at a loss to explain. We can tolerate these chemicals in low doses with occasional exposure but when we are in contact with them in our soaps, detergents, air fresheners, ‘antibacterials’ and cleaning products day after day, week after week, over the course of a lifetime, they can gradually build up in the tissues of our bodies, and many now believe some are linked to heart and lung problems, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, low sperm count and various cancers. There is often no legal requirement for damaging chemicals to be listed on a product label. One-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic, but they are just listed on the label as ‘fragrance’.
Many commercial brands of furniture polish contain nerve-damaging petroleum distillates, and some formulations may contain formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen. Aerosol spray furniture polishes are easily inhaled into lung tissue. Corrosive ingredients in toilet bowl cleaners are severe eye, skin and respiratory irritants. Some toilet bowl cleaners contain sulphates, which may trigger asthma attacks. Bathroom cleaners containing sodium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), or phosphoric acid can irritate lungs and burn eyes, skin and, if ingested, internal organs. Mixing acid-containing toilet bowl cleaners with cleaners that contain chlorine will form lung-damaging chlorine gas. Some window cleaners contain nerve-damaging butyl cellosolve. Many contain ammonia, which may irritate airways and will release toxic chloramine gases if accidentally mixed with chlorine-containing cleaners. Even then, many of them are barely more effective than plain water.
When we wash our cleaning products down the drain, they are treated along with sewage and waste water, and then discharged into nearby waterways. Some break down into harmless substances but others do not, threatening water quality or fish and other wildlife.
The plastic bottles used to package cleaning products pose another environmental problem by contributing to the mounds of solid waste that must be landfilled, incinerated or, in not enough cases, recycled.
Be wary of ecological claims on commercial products. ‘Natural’ or ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t actually mean anything (most substances will eventually break down if given enough time and the right ecological conditions).
Any self-respecting (and Earth respecting) Pagan avoids actions that harm the environment. When you shop consider the following in relationship to any purchase:
- Does it endanger your health or the health of others?
- Does it damage the environment during its manufacture, use or disposal?
- Does it have wasteful or non-recyclable packaging?
- Does it use materials from threatened environments or species?
- Does it involve animals testing?
The good news is that proprietary chemicals are not necessary to keep your home spotlessly clean. These are some of the things I use to make my own more environmentally (and people and pet) friendly products:
Castile Soap is pure vegetable soap made from olive oil. It can be purchased in liquid form, in flakes, powders or bars. It is biodegradable and may be used to wash dishes, in the laundry, or even to make your own shampoo and shower gels.
Baking Soda aka Bicarbonate of Soda cleans, deodorises, softens water and scours. It is a nontoxic cleaner which is safe on most surfaces and fabrics. It has numerous household uses, but it should be used fresh – replace old boxes frequently. Baking soda will clean many surfaces without scratching: mix to a paste with water and use to scrub grills, hobs, fridges, deep fat fryers, irons, plastic buckets, bowls and sinks, barbecues, stained tea and coffee cups etc.
Borax (sodium borate) is a naturally occurring mineral which is antibacterial, deodorising, inhibits the growth of mould and mildew, removes grease, is disinfectant, and can be used as a laundry booster. It is not harmful to the environment but it should not be ingested, and it is best to wear rubber gloves when using and avoid inhaling the fumes.
Washing Soda (sodium carbonate or soda ash) is made from common salt and limestone or found as natural mineral deposits. It contains no phosphates, enzymes or bleaches. Washing soda cuts grease, removes stains, softens water (use as a pre-soak for laundry), cleans wall, tiles, sinks and bath tubs. A strong solution will clear a blocked drain. Unlike baking soda, the slightly stronger washing soda can’t be ingested; wear rubber gloves when handling it. Do not use on aluminium.
Lemon is one of the strongest food-acids, and effective against most household bacteria. The acid in lemon juice removes dirt and rust stains. It can be used to sanitise cooking surfaces and chopping boards, breaks down limescale and can be used as a mild bleach in the laundry.
White Vinegar cuts through grease, removes mildew, odours, some stains and wax build-up. It inhibits the growth of mould, mildew and some bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella. In a 5% solution it can kill 99 % of bacteria, 82 % of mould, and 80 % of viruses. It is also completely safe, unlike commercial antibacterial sprays which are toxic in large does. Make a stronger solution to clean limescale from taps and appliances or to clean windows effectively without smearing. Use in the kitchen and bathroom to eliminate mould and as a natural fabric softener which removes soap residue in the rinse cycle and helps to prevent static cling in the dryer. (Don’t be tempted to use the brown malt vinegar, which will stain and also smells much stronger.)
Corn Starch aka Cornflour can be used to clean windows, polish furniture, or shampoo carpets and rugs.
Olive Oil dislodges dirt, diminishes scratches and imperfections, and nourishes wood, as well as shining stainless steel.
Salt makes a good scouring agent, especially when combined with borax. Combine with baking soda and white vinegar to unblock drains. Table salt, sea salt, and coarse salt can all be used, but cooking salt is the cheapest option.
Essential Oils such as tea tree oil, lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, or lemongrass oil are antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic. Natural oils made from fruit, flowers and barks are a much better scenting option than the nasty chemicals that comprise synthetic petroleum based fragrances in most commercial products. NB. Do not ingest and do not apply undiluted to the skin.
© Anna Franklin