In the early 1990's, after my father died, I was stuck with preparing the family house for sale. Almost twenty years of occupancy had left our home in pretty sorry shape, and it took my sisters and I a long time to pack, clean, and otherwise prepare the house for the block. Finally, toward the end of the summer, I decided to tackle the downstairs bathroom.
My father had remodeled the bathroom years earlier and had included a beautiful tile floor, which he had immediately covered up with wall-to-wall blue carpet. By the time I got to clean the room, the carpet was old and ratty, with odd stains and odder smells. After I tore it up, however, I discovered that the floor was even worse, particularly around the tub, steam shower, and toilet, where there were huge tracts of yellowed, mildewey tile. Being a scorched-earth kind of guy, I decided to pull out the big guns; I dumped the better part of a quart of bleach on the floor.
When I woke up, I was lying on the front lawn. My eyes were streaming, my throat was almost closed up, and I felt like I'd inhaled a box of tacks. My friend Sean has subsequently told me that I probably didn't create chlorine gas, as the residual ammonia around the toilet was insufficient to release pure chlorine from the bleach. The difference is academic, however, given the fact that I was in screaming pain, needed help to stumble out of the house, and wasn't able to breathe properly for a couple of days. On the bright side, the floor was gorgeous.
Granted, this is an extreme case, but most household cleaners contain all sorts of nasty, brutal chemicals that burn your lungs, kill your brain cells, and tear up your skin. Obviously, you can reduce the dangers of these poisons by opening a window and turning on a fan, but even the best ventilation won't completely spare you. Moreover, there are often times and places when ventilation isn't a real possibility. Beyond that, given the ability of these vapors, or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to linger for weeks, months, or even years, there is little chance that you can escape the ill effects of your cleaners.
Of course, you could stop using household cleaners. They're harsh, poisonous, and expensive, and often have negative effects on the very things that they are supposed to be cleaning. On the other hand, nobody wants to live in a pit of bacterial misery. Luckily, these aren't the only two possibilities.
One solution is buying non-toxic cleaners. As more and more people become aware of the dangers of industrial solvents and VOCs, companies are providing an ever-broadening selection of non-toxic cleaners. The downside is that these cleaners tend to be expensive and some of them, like Shaklee, almost seem like a cult in terms of their marketing techniques.
Another solution is using cleaners that are already available in your home. Many ordinary household compounds make safe, effective solutions that will tackle your household messes without leaving you gasping on the front lawn. Without further ado, then, here are a few cleaners that you might want to try the next time you're giving your house a good scrubbing:
Vinegar: Vinegar has an almost unlimited array of uses. White vinegar will kill most household germs, mold, and bacteria, and it makes a great cleaner for counters, surfaces, microwaves, and glass. When combined with salt, it is excellent for scouring metal, especially carbon steel. It can also remove lime stains around sinks and on clouded glassware, and you can even use it to clean your grill.
Castile Soap: Ordinary castile, or vegetable-based soap, can be used all over the house. My personal favorite brand is Dr. Bronner's line of hemp oil-based soaps; in addition to its impressive ability to clean your body, wash your hair, brush your teeth, and do your laundry, the soap can also be diluted and used to scrub floors, wash counters and windows, and do all sorts of other light cleaning. For more heavy-duty uses, it can be applied straight or only slightly diluted. I once used it to clean my bathroom floor. It was not only highly effective, but it left behind a nice peppermint scent.
Baking Soda: Because of its ability to absorb nasty odors, baking soda is the classic cleaner for refrigerators. However, it also has numerous other uses around the house. It's handy for cleaning anything that absorbs odors, including microwaves and tupperware containers. It is also good for polishing silver, and it makes an effective soft-scrub cleaner, as it is lightly abrasive, but won't scratch most surfaces.
Peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is not just a great disinfectant and hair bleach! It makes a great surface cleaner, vegetable wash, and bleach substitute for your laundry. It is particularly handy for sanitizing cutting boards and other food-preparation surfaces, and is great for cleaning mold and mildew.
Alcohol: While I've read some sites that suggest using rubbing alcohol swabs to clean countertops and other surfaces, I vastly prefer to use vodka or denatured ethyl alcohol. My reasons for this are very simple: ethyl alcohol is cleaner, purer, smells better, and won't kill you if you accidentally swallow it (or even if you non-accidentally swallow it). That having been said, alcohol is an outstanding cleaner. It is great on counters, windows, and on pretty much anything else that needs to be cleaned quickly. Also, because of its high volatility, it evaporates very quickly, which makes cleanup a snap.
In all likelihood, you aren't going to switch to non-toxic cleansers overnight; for all their hazards, harsh cleaners are still outstanding for some messes. However, for most of your day-to-day cleaning, you'll probably find that the five cleaners that I mentioned above will do the job and leave your house smelling pretty wonderful. Best of all, they're extremely cheap!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Until renewable-resource flamethrowers become over-the-counter items, he's putting his faith in vinegar.
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