SPRING IS GREEN, BUT SPRING CLEANING ISN’T
BY RYAN MAIA, MAY 3rd, 2018
Spring is in the air, and with it comes the sharp scent of cleaning products. The term “Spring Cleaning” is often applied to tremendous cleaning overhauls undergone this time of the year, but it can also describe ambitious sanitation schemes in general. Historians trace the origins of this perennial tradition to social and religious events, such as the Persian New Year, Judaism’s Passover, and Catholicism’s Maundy Thursday. Before the invention of the vacuum in North America and Europe, post-winter warmth also provided the perfect conditions for dusting. The weather was warm enough to open windows without fear of bugs intruding, and the wind would carry dust out and away from the house. Today, spring weather means modern households can open their windows to allow cleaning product fumes to escape.
According to research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a number of American and Canadian universities, everyday cleaning products (as well as paints and perfumes) cause about as much air pollution as cars and industries, combined. To quote Brent Stephens of the Illinois Institute of Technology, “We typically think of outdoor air pollution as an outdoor problem,” but “it’s more complicated than that.” As it turns out, household habits play a substantial role in determining air quality both in and outdoors.
WHAT DOES ‘CLEAN’ MEAN FOR OUR ENVIRONMENT?
The assertion that cleanliness causes pollution sounds like that perplexing line from the witches in Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Short of black magic, how exactly does your clean thumb create such a deathly atmospheric impact?
It turns out that cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) that easily evaporate into the air. The three major VOCs in household products should sound familiar: nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia. Dishwasher and laundry detergents are often 30-40% phosphorus and nitrogen is frequently found in glass-cleaning liquids. These VOCs then react with other atmospheric gases to produce harmful ozone. The ozone layer plays a critical role in protecting us from harmful UV radiation,however, cleaning products produce ground level ozone, which we end up breathing in. This is a big hazard, since even low levels of ozone can cause health problems, such as shortness of breath, asthma attacks, and with prolonged exposure, permanent lung damage.
VOCs also react with the atmosphere to create even more concerning fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5. “2.5” refers to the fact that such particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter—about 3% of the diameter of a human hair. These particles are so small, they bypass the protections provided by our nose and throat, penetrate our respiratory and circulatory systems, and cause chronic heart and lung disease. You know the terrible respiratory ailments suffered by workers in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? Those were likely caused by PM2.5—the same particles household cleaning products put into the air.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia are also dangerous water contaminants. Whether they’re rinsed down a drain, flushed down the toilet, or dumped outside, cleaning products and their VOCs often end up in rivers, streams, and lakes. That’s because household cleaning chemicals are actually not removed by sewage treatment processes. When they end up in our waterways, they cause algae blooms, killing off fish and shellfish. Furthermore, the chemicals in detergents responsible for getting dirt out of our clothes (known as surfactants) break down the mucus layer that coats fish. As a result, they become more vulnerable to parasites and bacteria. Fish deaths subsequently degrade water quality, forcing us to use more chemicals and energy to cleanse water for consumption—a vicious, environmentally deleterious cycle. And, to add insult to ecological injury, detergents often come in non-reusable, non-recyclable plastic containers.
HOW TO BE CLEAN AND GREEN
The evidence against common cleaning products is pretty compelling. But nobody wants to live in a dirty, smelly household or workspace. What can we do to deal with dirtiness while also respecting environmental and public health?
Luckily, environmentally responsible alternatives are not hard to find! Many businesses already sell cleaning products that are sustainable in terms of both their environmental and health impacts. CABA member business DoneGood’s website helps with finding sustainable alternatives to common domestic products, including household cleaning solutions. Businesses can choose to either buy eco-friendly cleaning supplies from suppliers such as US Eco Products or hire sustainable cleaning services from places like Somerville Sustainable Cleaning. There are numerous green search engines, such as Climate Store, that also help with finding eco-friendly items in general.
- To clean windows, use warm water and a microfiber cloth. If that doesn’t do it, use a mix of warm water, biodegradable soap, and white vinegar with a sponge or rag.
- To remove stains in kitchen sinks, bathtubs and showers, sprinkle baking soda on a damp sponge (with just enough water to form a paste) and scrub.
- To freshen out rugs and furniture that smell stale, consider t placing them outside on a sunny day. Household items don’t sweat in the Sun—on the contrary, the sunlight makes a great deodorizer!
- To erase orange stains on your toilet or bathtub, scrub them with a pumice stone, which can be found in the household cleaning section of most stores.
- Make your own all-purpose, eco-friendly cleaning solution! Mix the following in a glass spray bottle:
- 3 cups of water
- 1 tablespoon biodegradable cleaner
- 1 cup white vinegar
- For that fresh, fruity scent, add 20 drops of your favorite essential oils.
On the surface, getting clean conflicts with going green. Household cleaners have more disturbing environmental and public health impacts than we typically think about. The products we usually use to tidy up cause substantial harm to both the Earth and our own personal health. But environmental consciousness is no excuse to leave your home amuck! Green cleaning products are being manufactured and sold at prices more affordable than ever before. If you’re a fan of household science experimenting, you can even concoct your own eco-friendly cleaning solution in a matter of minutes. This spring, make your cleaning green.
RYAN MAIA Communications Fellow