When Hazel Salazar moved to Seattle from El Salvador to join her husband 20 years ago cleaning houses was the only job she could get. Her first client handed Salazar a bucket and a jug of pine-scented cleaner. Within hours the skin on Salazar’s hands had blistered. Over the course of the next three days it peeled away in sheets.
Welcome to mainstream American cleaning products.
That first episode wasn’t Salazar’s only adventure with cleaning products in the early days. Some memorable encounters with ammonia left her gasping like an asthmatic, though fortunately not permanently. For years she used chlorine bleach full strength, straight out of the plastic bottle, to which she attributes the raw throat and sinuses that plagued her for a long time.
“I wish someone had told me about the dangers to my health from some of the solutions we used,” Salazar says. “People didn’t know so much in those days. Now there are good sources of information. But cleaning people need to inform themselves.”
Salazar is still cleaning houses today, and she deploys a crew of more recent immigrants, mostly women, all from Mexico and Central America. But neither she nor her employees have problems with cleaning products. Salazar has become a savvy reader of labels and troller of helpful websites such as this one.
These days you can find cleaning professionals who specialize in green cleaning. But many people who clean houses for a living are first generation immigrants who don’t speak or read enough English to get the information Salazar thinks they ought to have. They may not suspect that a product you can buy on the shelf in any grocery store might have dangerous chemicals in it.
And there’s pressure on professional cleaning people to work fast and leave a sparkling house. Whatever products they use need to work well and not require an absurd amount of elbow grease. It’s a bit of a balancing act.
Water and white vinegar do a good job on floors; ditto vinegar and newspaper for cleaning windows; baking soda, vinegar, salt, and boiling water do a volcanic job on drains. Bon Ami brand cleaning powder is a relatively nontoxic commercial mix that works well for scouring, too.
But some jobs call for stronger stuff—at least in the minds of professional cleaners, who need to meet a certain standard. Salazar herself still resorts to bleach on some jobs—intractable shower mold, for one—but she now uses the scant quarter-cup per gallon of water that health experts advise.
Stained and scuffed kitchen sinks can be particularly tough. You can use the resources below to find the least toxic product that will clean the sink to your standards. Jennifer Troyer, owner of the business Seattle Green Cleaner, combines Dr. Bronner castile soap and Bob’s Red Mill baking soda to create a soft scrubbing mix that’s her go-to for tough stains. She regulates the amount of grit by adding more or less baking soda accordingly. Old or damaged porcelain sinks call for a light touch, she says. She even has a trick for getting rust stains off stainless steel sinks.
If you know anyone who makes their living cleaning houses, spread the word about healthy cleaning products. Pass this column along, if you think it would be welcome.
Unless someone in the household has an immune disorder or an infectious disease, disinfectants are not needed or even a particularly good idea. Germs in the kitchen and bathroom don’t need to be killed, they simply need to be washed away. Products containing antimicrobial chemicals such as Triclosan are ineffective at killing germs but are suspected of being dangerous to your health.
There’s an easy and useful way to get basic information on how safe a commercial cleaning product is: read the warning label on the package. The scarier the warning the more likely it is you should be looking for a better choice. King County’s waste management website provides a good guide to understanding warning labels.
Store-bought cleaning products:
Check out the products you use at the Environmental Working Group’s online Guide to Healthy Cleaners. Just enter the exact brand and product name in the search window.
Recipes for Safer Cleaning
Common ingredients such as baking soda and liquid soap can be used for a host of jobs around the house. Try these recipes as alternatives to hazardous cleaning products!
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
Put mixture in a spray bottle and label contents.
Use baking soda in place of scouring powder. Sprinkle it on porcelain fixtures and rub with a wet sponge. Add a little soap to the sponge for more cleaning power. Rinse well to avoid leaving a cloudy film.
1/2 cup vinegar
1 quart warm water
Few drops of liquid soap (optional)
Mix ingredients in a spray bottle and use on glass surfaces. Rub with a lint-free cloth and polish with wadded up newspaper. For dirty outdoor windows, wash with soapy water, rinse well, and squeegie dry.
1/2 cup baking soda
1/2 cup vinegar
Kettle of boiling water
This recipe will free minor clogs and is great preventative medicine. Pour the baking soda down the drain first, then the vinegar. Let it bubble for a few minutes. Then pour down a kettle full of boiling water. If clog is stubborn, repeat or use a mechanical snake.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
Don’t bother with strong disinfectants or acids. Use a non-chlorinated scouring powder or baking soda and liquid soap to clean the toilet bowl thoroughly and often.
Copper scouring pad
Make a paste of baking soda and water, apply to oven surfaces, and let stand a little while. Mechanical action is the key. Use a copper scouring pad for most surfaces. A razor blade is effective to get under large food deposits.
Mix equal parts vinegar and salt and apply to surface with a sponge or immerse object in solution. Rinse thoroughly with water afterwards, otherwise it will corrode. Apply a little vegetable oil with a cloth and rub for a shiny appearance. (Don’t use on lacquered finishes.)
The Household Environmentalist is a monthly installment by former Seattle Times columnist, Susan McGrath. McGrath has contributed her insights on science, natural history, and the environment to our work over the years and we are thrilled to have her back on the Washington Toxics Coalition team.
Thank you to Ana Rivero and Tito Ortega for their contributions to this article.