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Get the Dirt on Nontoxic Spring Cleaning

Your vacuum and a damp rag can get you pretty far. All those bottles under the sink are another story.

Kana Okada

As the days get longer and early flowers poke up through the ground, giving your home a thorough spring cleaning is a satisfying opportunity to mirror the renewal that’s taking place outdoors.

Alas, keeping your home spic and span—and healthy—isn’t so straightforward. Because we don’t submit household products to rigorous chemical testing in the United States, your go-to cleaning solutions may be chock-full of unpleasant ingredients. In fact, the average American uses 25 gallons of toxic chemical products at home every year.

Even if you keep only a bottle of vinegar and a container of baking soda under your sink, dangerous chemicals could be lurking close by. A recent NRDC analysis identified 45 chemicals commonly found in U.S. indoor dust. In the study, 10 different phthalates, fragrances, flame retardants, and phenols were found in a whopping 90 percent to 100 percent of samples. These chemicals slough off from personal care products, furniture, and plastics and have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and hormone disruption. They’re especially dangerous for young children, whose brains and bodies are still developing, and who spend more time crawling and playing at dust level.

NRDC is pressuring Congress and various federal agencies to protect consumers from chemical risks. But in the meantime, don’t throw in the towel. Here’s how to give your spring cleaning a fresh—and nontoxic—start.

Lisa Tichane/Westend61/Offset

Start with the basics.

Before you begin, make sure you have a few simple supplies on hand. If you’re low on cloth rags, cut up some of those old towels stuffed inside your linen cabinet. Microfiber cloths are reusable and great at catching dust. But if you must have paper towels, stock up on those that are free of chlorine, a toxic chemical that releases carcinogenic dioxins during manufacturing. Make sure you also have a mop and a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to keep those chemical-laden particles in your carpets and upholstered furniture from swirling into the air in a Pigpen-like cloud.

Out with the old . . .

Take a long, hard look at the old bottles of cleaning products under the kitchen sink and the personal care products in your bathroom, and properly dispose of any items that don’t meet your safety standards. “Don’t use them, and don’t dump them down the drain into the water supply,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in NRDC’s health program. “Dispose of them with your regular household garbage, where they have to go to lined pits so they won’t leach into the soil and water.” Some cities host special collection days for household hazardous waste, including chemical cleaners. Consult the website of your local sanitation or public works department to find out whether you can take advantage of these services.

. . . In with the nontoxic.

Since companies aren’t required to disclose all the ingredients they use in their cleaning products, it can be easier to look for labels that say what a product does not contain. When buying soaps and detergents, look for versions that are phosphate free, chlorine free, and not petroleum based. Biodegradable is also a plus.

Avoid products made with “fragrance,” a catchall term that usually means phthalates, which are hormone-disrupting plasticizers. Natural fragrances made from essential oils, however, are okay.

Check the ratings.

If you doubt your own judgment, there are a number of helpful websites that have your back. The Environmental Working Group’s “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” is a good place to start, and MadeSafe certifies nontoxic consumer products. The EPA, too, awards a “Safer Choice” label to products that have been thoroughly evaluated for carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life, and persistence in the environment. The EPA also recently introduced a fragrance-free certification as a companion to its Safer Choice label (products that qualify will have a notation on their packaging).

Consider DIY.

Household staples like vinegar, baking soda, and borax are great for cleaning. If you’re feeling crafty (and thrifty), you can make your own safe laundry detergent, air freshener, and dishwashing liquid, among other supplies. For a nontoxic take on an air freshener, fill a spray bottle with water, then add several drops of your favorite essential oils and a dash of vodka or rubbing alcohol. As an added bonus, DIY can be more cost effective than store-bought cleaning products.

Keep calm and carry on.

Realizing that toxic chemicals are lurking in so many common products can be daunting. “It feels overwhelming at the beginning,” Sass says. “The trick is that once you get a few products that you like, you can use them for everything.” For example, you can use castile soap to wash your dishes, floors, and the tub.

Stay one step ahead of dust with regular vacuuming and wipe downs, and get your family in the habit of always washing hands before meals to avoid ingesting it. As soon as you get inside, kick your shoes off to keep street dirt, fertilizer, and toxic lawn care chemicals off your floors. Then kick your feet up and simply enjoy the fact that spring is finally here.

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