Home, safer home

I’d never given much thought to toilet bowl cleaners until about five years ago, when my youngest child, Elias, entered his “willing helper” phase. Scrubbing the toilet with a brush looked like fun to him, and I was eager to encourage his interest in cleaning. But warnings on the labels of the cleaning products—which I’d always stored out of reach of curious fingers—gave me pause. Instead of exposing my children, and myself, to a cabinet full of caustic, corrosive household chemicals, I started looking for more environmentally friendly products.

I would have benefited from one of Tara Roffler’s workshops. Roffler is a health educator with the Ramsey County Department of Public Health, and she teaches free workshops for parents, daycare providers, and other interested community members about reducing toxins in the home.

“We go through how to properly protect yourself while using chemical products, how to read the label, and how to tell which is more toxic,” she says.

How do you know if a product contains toxic chemicals? Look for signal words on the label: “caution” means it’s a mild hazard, “warning” means a moderate hazard, and “danger” or “poison” means it’s extremely flammable, corrosive, or highly toxic.

Roffler says some furniture polishes contain amyl acetate, a neurotoxin; laundry detergents can contain alkyl phenoxy ethanols, which are thought to be hormone disrupters; window cleaners can contain dioxane, an immunosuppressant carcinogen; and many tub and tile cleaners contain phosphoric acid, a corrosive skin toxicant. Manufacturers aren’t required to list every ingredient, so if you are looking for a safer product, look for those that are biodegradable and plant-based and are certified by a credible third party, like the Green Seal organization. Be wary of those that say they’re safe “when used as directed” because this could mean they’re dangerous when stored or in concentrated form.

Natural alternatives

You also can use natural alternatives you might already have in your home. Roffler says olive oil or vegetable oil can be used as a wood furniture polish; baking soda is good for deodorizing and scouring without abrasion; hydrogen peroxide is an alternative to bleach; white paste toothpaste (not gel) can polish metal; white distilled vinegar cleans the film that builds up on bathroom walls and glassware; and lemon juice deodorizes, kills mold, and kills some germs.

Instead of using air fresheners, Roffler recommends decorating with air-purifying, kid- and pet-friendly houseplants such as Boston ferns, rubber plants, Schleffera, and spider plants.

Children and the elderly are most susceptible to toxic chemicals. If you must use the chemicals, choose the least toxic product, and make sure children are not present during its use. Follow the directions carefully and take appropriate safety precautions, such as wearing a face mask, goggles, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and close-toed shoes. Ventilate the house by opening windows or turning on a fan, and use warm water—not hot—when diluting a cleaner.

“The hot water makes the molecules bounce against each other more. The cleaner goes into a gaseous state, and you get more of those fumes,” she says.

Roffler says edible and non-edible products should be stored in separate locations because their packaging can look similar and they can easily be mistaken for each other. It’s best to store cleaning items in their original containers, away from children and pets. If you must put a substance in a different container, make sure you label it, she says.

“Even if at the time you remember, weeks or months could go by and you or others might not know what’s inside,” she says.

She illustrates this point in her presentations by placing an unlabeled, clear container of Lysol next to one containing Mountain Dew—the yellow liquids look very similar. Roffler says she’s also heard of incidences when people confused Pine-Sol with vegetable oil, and windshield washer fluid with Kool-Aid.

Safer products, safe disposal

If you want to dispose of leftover toxic chemicals, take them to a county hazardous waste collection site. Ramsey County residents can call 651-633-3279 or visit RamseyAtoZ.com for more information. If you live in Hennepin County, call 612-348-3777 or visit hennepinatoz.org.

Keep in mind that the leading poisons for children in the U.S. are things that are relatively obvious—household cleaning products and medications, and things that may seem innocuous—deodorant and soap, and cosmetics like perfume and nail polish. Post the Minnesota Poison Center number, 1-800-222-1222, in a visible place and program it into your cell phone, in case of emergency. The number is answered
24 hours a day, seven days a week.