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Here’s the thing, you can never be too clean. Or can you? Recent studies show that our homes contain microbiomes of up to 9,000 bacteria, fungi, and viruses. “There is, however, tantalizing evidence that many microbes are quietly doing us a lot of good. While research into the health-promoting effects of specific microbes is still in its infancy, certain species of bacteria have been linked with improvements in our physical and mental health,” according to Andy Ridgeway of the BBC (Put Down the Disinfectant: Should we be encouraging helpful bacteria into our homes?). So this spring as we clear out the winter cobwebs, let’s take care of our tiny housemates, our health, and the environment by choosing cleaners that get the job done without unnecessary environmental contaminants.

Spring is a time to shepherd out the old and make a fresh start in cultures around the world. In China, the tradition states that you begin your cleaning at the front door and continue through the house to the back door, where you sweep out the all the bad luck from the last year. At the strike of midnight on the Lunar New Year all the cleaning must stop so as not to disturb the good luck as it enters the home through the front door. In Persian tradition, the spring cleaning – or Khooné Takoonee – literally means shaking the house and takes place over the month before their new year, Nowruz. The Germans call it Kehrwoche and in Japan it’s called Osoji. All of these traditions date back hundreds and even thousands of years so we can get our homes ready for spring with simple time-tested ingredients and avoid the environmentally toxic new cleaners.

Over the last few decades and particularly during the pandemic, corporations have been promoting the use of anti-microbials to keep our houses germ-free and “safe” for our families. Because of the dramatic increase in disinfectant use during the pandemic, researchers sought to understand how these biologically active chemicals were affecting ecosystems and wildlife. Researchers at the National Institute of Health showed chlorine-based disinfectants (CBD’s) can combine with other chemicals in the environment to form disinfectant by-products (DBP’s) that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, and harmful to flora and fauna as they enter waterways and the soil. The diagram below shows the pathways from our facilities to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. (WWTP stands for wastewater treatment plant and WTP stands for water treatment plant.)


Additionally, what we learned from the pandemic is that soap and water is usually all that is needed to keep ourselves safe from harmful bacteria. In fact, microbial soaps and other anti-microbials have contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant super-bugs and they should be avoided in the average household. And it is not only wildlife that is affected by these toxic cleaners, the people doing the cleaning can also experience health effects through contact with the solutions and their fumes.

The good news is that there are great alternatives to these toxic cleaners and resources to help you find them. The EPA has created two programs to help the consumer find safe cleaners: the Safer Choice Label and the Design for the Environment Label.

The Safer Choice program lists over 1900 products that are safe for the home and the Design for the Environment lists 49 products that disinfect without chlorine and other harmful chemicals. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also provides an excellent online guide to products providing ratings from EWG Verified to A to F with all of the ingredients and reasons for the ratings for each product.

Ultimately the best cleaners for the big spring scouring are homemade. Making your own cleaners means you will be avoiding the single-use-plastics most products are sold in, the fuel costs of transportation from the manufacturing facility to the store, and you will save a lot of money. Most jobs can be accomplished with common household ingredients that are good for the environment and keep your own household microbiome and air quality safe and intact. Here are a few sites that offer recipes for everything from all purpose cleaners to tub and toilet cleaners: The Spruce and The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. (Warning: There are a few recipes here that include borax which should be avoided for use around children and pregnant women, but is otherwise safe if used with gloves and UA Extension includes a recipe that uses bleach which is not recommended.)

Finally, while it may be tempting to call for a “Wipe!”, these sheets do not decompose like paper does and many of them contain plastics which are harmful to aquatic life.

Our resolution for March is to ditch the toxic cleaners and replace them with Safer Choices and EWG-Verified products and homemade non-toxic cleaners. Let’s clean up our act for wildlife!


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