Search the Archive:

May 12, 2004

Back to the Table of Contents Page

Back to The Almanac Home Page


Publication Date: Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Safe cleaning: To avoid health problems from harsh toxic cleansers, many are turning to alternative home cleaners, such as baking soda and vinegar Safe cleaning: To avoid health problems from harsh toxic cleansers, many are turning to alternative home cleaners, such as baking soda and vinegar (May 12, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

The women who work with Maria Rosales have horror stories about their previous job. Not about nasty co-workers, but about feeling tired and nauseated, and having headaches, rashes and eye problems.

It's no wonder, Ms. Rosales says: The women are housecleaners, and they were working with products filled with harsh bleach and other chemicals.

"Toxic chemicals are meant to be used once a week. The cleaners were using them four times a day," she says.

But things changed when the women began working with Ms. Rosales at the enterprise she founded, Emma's Eco-Clean in Redwood City.

Members of the worker-owned cooperative, all Latino women, use only cleaning products that they view as "least-toxic." Some are store-bought items that are biodegradable and have only "green" items. Others are household staples such as baking soda and distilled white vinegar.

The women of Emma's are not alone. Eco-friendly cleaning products have become widely popular in recent years, attracting people who don't want to harm the environment, or who simply don't want to breathe in noxious fumes or have toxic products be a danger to pets and children.

With warning labels cautioning about everything from eye and skin irritations caused by bleach to respiratory-tract problems sparked by drain-cleaner vapors, many are leery. That includes Dianne Dryer, environmental programs coordinator for the city of Menlo Park, who hasn't used cleaners with toxics in years.

"I have sensitive skin. And I thought, 'I don't know what these chemicals are going to do. Maybe I'll get cancer when I'm 60,'" she says. With "green" products, she says, "It's safer. I feel more comfortable."

More elbow grease

In today's time-strapped culture, the appeal of quickly sliding a pre-moistened, disposable bleach-filled towelette down a counter is undeniable. Name-brand products do tend to be easier and stronger.

Ms. Rosales acknowledges that going green does require a change in one's cleaning mindset. "You have to use more elbow grease with these products," she says, adding that people typically clean more frequently with the products so that each cleaning session is easier.

Alternative products also may need to sit on a surface for a longer time to get the surface clean, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site on green housecleaning.

Many people take an extra step and make their own cleaning products. That also takes additional effort, but advocates say the "recipes" can be quite simple.

For example, the women at Emma's use distilled white vinegar, a common cleaning item, to clean hardwood floors, mixing one to two teaspoons with a gallon of water. Vinegar's acidity also allows it to remove hard-water deposits from glass.

Does the room end up smelling like vinegar? No, Ms. Rosales says: "You don't use a lot of it. You mix it with a lot of water."

Ms. Rosales and Ms. Dryer also swear by baking soda, mixing it with water to form a paste that they say can be used to scrub black marks out of kitchen counters and grime out of sinks, toilets and bathtubs.

"It's great for getting sticky stuff or burned stuff out of pots and pans," Ms. Dryer says. "Put a bit of baking soda with water in the bottom and let it sit. It loosens it up."

Many also use borax to get stains out of toilet bowls and lemon juice to clean fingerprints off windows. As an alternative to air freshener sprays, some put vanilla extract on a cotton ball in a saucer, or wrap cloves and cinnamon in cheesecloth, then boil it all in water.

People mixing their own cleaners should remember to label containers clearly and keep them out of reach of children, the EPA Web site advises. It's also best to mix no more than a month's supply at once, because the solutions can become less effective over time, according to the Web site.

Multi-purpose cleaners

Besides keeping toxics out of the water system -- and the bodies of family members -- using green cleaners also helps keep the wallet fatter, advocates say. It's cheaper to buy a few boxes of baking soda than to pay for different bottles of cleaners for every room in the house.

"We hear in the media that we need a special different high-potency cleaner for every job. That's just advertising," says David Coale, project director for Green Teams, workshops run through the Palo Alto environmental group Acterra that teach people how to live greener lifestyles.

He adds, "Simple mixtures of baking soda, vinegar, mild detergent and hydrogen peroxide can handle most of your cleaning needs."

Acterra is one of about 300 Emma's clients from Burlingame to Cupertino. Emma's has been in business since Earth Day 1999 and has 13 cleaners, Ms. Rosales says.

"We are proud of what we do," she says. "We researched our products to find the safest ones on the market."

Emma's is one of three women's housecleaning cooperatives run by WAGES, an organization in the East Bay seeking to provide green cleaning and stable work for low-income women.

Portola Valley resident Amy Pinneo, an Emma's client, says she's been a fan of eco-friendly products since the early 1980s, when she worked with an environmental group in Bolinas that created a "safe house" free of chemicals for people who had severe allergies or were chemically sensitive.

"I've seen people with allergies (and asthma) worsened by these (toxic) products," she says.

Using eco-friendly products is a simple way to improve personal health and the environment, she says: "I think that there's many things we can do that are easier than we realize."

Information on green housecleaning from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can be found at

Making your own 'green' cleaners

Many advocates of "environmentally friendly cleaning" make their own cleaning products using such kitchen items as white vinegar, baking soda and borax. Here are some recipes for cleaners, found on the Alameda County Household Hazardous Waste Program's Web site at

All-Purpose Cleaner

1 quart warm water 1 teaspoon liquid soap 1 teaspoon borax 1/4 cup undiluted white vinegar Mix ingredients and store in a spray bottle. Use for cleaning countertops, floors, walls, carpets and upholstery.


Pour 1/4 cup baking soda down the drain, followed by 2 ounces of vinegar. Cover the drain and let sit for 15 minutes. Rinse with 2 quarts of boiling water.

Glass Cleaner

1 quart warm water 1/4 cup white vinegar (or 2 tablespoons lemon juice) Mix ingredients and store in a spray bottle. Dip a wet sponge in baking soda to clean a glass oven door.


Silver : Rub object gently with toothpaste on a soft cloth to avoid scratching. Rinse well with water.
Copper : Pour vinegar and salt over copper and rub.
Brass : Polish with Worcestershire sauce; or pour on ketchup, let sit, then wipe dry.
Chrome : Shine wet chrome fixtures by rubbing with newspaper; or rub with baby oil and a soft cloth. Test first on an inconspicuous area.

E-mail a friend a link to this story.

Copyright © 2004 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.