Products and Resources for
Sheet: Safe Substitutes at Home:
Non-toxic Household Products
Gary A. Davis and Em Turner,
University of Tennessee
Knoxville Waste Management Institute
The Household Toxics Tour
in the home can be eliminated simply by making thoughtful choices in
the supermarket after educating oneself about where the hazards are
in common consumer products. How can you determine what toxics you
have in your home? Take this "toxics tour."
In the Kitchen
ammonia-based cleaners, bleach, brass or other metal polishes, dishwater
detergent, disinfectant, drain cleaner, floor wax or polish, glass
cleaner, dishwashing detergent, oven cleaner, and scouring powder contain
dangerous chemicals. Some examples are:
- sodium hypochlorite
(in chlorine bleach): if mixed with ammonia, releases toxic chloramine
gas. Short-term exposure may cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more
serious respiratory problems;
- petroleum distillates
(in metal polishes): short-term exposure can cause temporary eye
clouding; longer exposure can damage the nervous system, skin, kidneys,
- ammonia (in
glass cleaner): eye irritant, can cause headaches and lung irritation;
- phenol and
cresol (in disinfectants): corrosive; can cause diarrhea, fainting,
dizziness, and kidney and liver damage;
(in furniture and floor polishes): can cause skin discoloration,
shallow breathing, vomiting, and death; associated with cancer and
(a preservative in many products): suspected human carcinogen; strong
irritant to eyes, throat, skin, and lungs.
In the Utility
A number of products
are likely to contain toxic ingredients: carpet cleaner, room deodorizer,
laundry softener, laundry detergent, anti-cling sheets, mold and mildew
cleaner, mothballs, and spot remover all usually contain irritant or
toxic substances. Examples:
or 1-1-1 trichloroethane solvents (in spot removers and carpet cleaners):
can cause liver and kidney damage if ingested; perchloroethylene
is an animal carcinogen and suspected human carcinogen;
or paradichlorobenzene (in mothballs): naphthalene is a suspected
human carcinogen that may damage eyes, blood, liver, kidneys, skin,
and the central nervous system; paradichlorobenzene can harm the
central nervous system, liver, and kidneys;
acid or sodium acid sulfate in toilet bowl cleaner; either can burn
the skin or cause vomiting diarrhea and stomach burns if swallowed;
also can cause blindness if inadvertently splashed in the eyes;
- residues from
fabric softeners, as well as the fragrances commonly used in them,
can be irritating to susceptible people;
- possible ingredients
of spray starch (aside from the starch) include formaldehyde, phenol,
and pentachlorophenol; in addition, any aerosolized particle, including
cornstarch, may irritate the lungs.
In the Living
Room and Bedroom
Even the furnishings
of the typical American home can be harmful. Fabrics that are labeled "wrinkle-resistant" are
usually treated with a formaldehyde resin. These include no-iron sheets
and bedding, curtains, sleep wear -- any woven fabric, but especially
polyester/cotton blends, marketed as "permanent press" or "easy
care." More modern furniture is made of pressed wood products
emits formaldehyde and other chemicals. Carpeting is usually made of
synthetic fibers that have been treated with pesticides and fungicide.
Many office carpets emit a chemical called 4-phenylcyclohexene, an
inadvertent additive to the latex backing used in more commercial and
home carpets, which is thought to be one of the chemicals responsible
for "sick" office buildings.
In the Bath
and personal hygiene products contain hazardous substances. Examples:
- cresol, formaldehyde,
glycols, nitrates/nitrosamines and sulfur compounds in shampoos;
- butane propellants
in hair spray (replacing carcinogenic methylene chloride), as well
as formaldehyde resins;
- aerosol propellants,
ammonia, formaldehyde, triclosan, aluminum chlorhydrate in antiperspirants
- glycols, phenol,
fragrance, and colors in lotions, creams, and moisturizers.
In the Studio
or Hobby Room
controlling many of the dangerous ingredients in hobby materials has
recently been passed, exposure to certain art materials remains a health
risk. Dangerous chemicals and metals include:
- lead in ceramic
glazes, stained-glass materials, and many pigments;
- cadmium in
silver solders, pigments, ceramic glazes and fluxes;
- chromium in
paint pigments and ceramic colores;
- manganese dioxide
in ceramic colors and some brown oil and acrylic paint pigments;
- cobalt in some
blue oil and acrylic paint pigments;
as a preservation in many acrylic paints and photographic products;
- aromatic hydrocarbons
in paint and varnish removers, aerosol sprays, permanent markers,
hydrocarbons (solvents) in ink, varnish, and paint removers, rubber
cement, aerosol sprays;
- petroleum distillates
(solvents) in paint and rubber cement thinners, spray adhesives,
- glycol ethers
and acetates in photography products, lacquer thinners, paints, and
In the Garage
A number of dangerous
substances are frequently present, including paint, paint thinner,
benzene, kerosene, mineral spirits, turpentine, lubricating/motor oils,
and gasoline. Hazards among them include these chemicals:
aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons in paint thinner can cause liver
and kidney damage;
- petroleum hydrocarbons,
an ingredient of gasoline, motor oils, and benzene, are associated
with skin and lung cancer;
- mineral spirits
in oil-based paint are a skin, eye, nose throat, and lung irritant.
High air concentrations can cause nervous system damage, unconsciousness
- ketones in
paint thinner may cause respiratory ailments; vary according to specific
form of the chemical;
- ketones and
toluene in wood putty; toluene in highly toxic, may cause skin, kidney,
liver, central nervous system damage; may damage reproductive system.
In the Garden
of the most important single hazards in the home. Around 1,400 pesticides,
herbicides, and fungicides are ingredients in consumer products. Combined
with other toxic substances such as solvents, pesticides are present
in more than 34,000 different product formulations.
On the Patio
fluid contains petroleum distillates. Besides being flammable and imparting
a chemical taste to food, some petroleum distillates contain benzene,
a known human carcinogen.
for Household Toxics
Until World War
II and the zenith of the Chemical Age that followed war-related research,
householders used a limited number of simple substances to keep most
objects in the house clean, order-free, and pest-free. Soap, vinegar,
baking soda, washing soda, ammonia, borax, alcohol, cornstarch, and
certain food ingredients were used to lift out spots and stains, deodorize,
polish wood or metal, disinfect, scrub, repel pests, clean pets, wash
and starch clothes, and to perform countless other household tasks.
Simple cosmetic preparations kept hair lustrous and skin supplied with
the aid of ingredients such as eggs, oil, clay, vinegar, and herbs.
The garden was
fertilized and pests were kept down with naturally occurring substances.
Weeds were weeded by hand. Even though some natural pesticides, like
nicotine and rotenone, were indeed toxic to humans, they were not persistent
in the environment. They degrade soon after application. Pyrethrum,
a pesticide derived from a variety of chrysanthemum which is nontoxic
to mammals, controlled a wide spectrum of pests. Although it is till
widely used, it is usually mixed with other chemicals to increase its
Buildings of the
past were made with wood, brick, stone, glass, plaster, and cement.
Furniture was made of solid wood, oiled to keep it polished. Rugs or
carpets were made of wool or cotton. Insulation was built in by making
walls thick, and roofing was constructed from wood shingles or tiles
of clay or stone. Walls were plastered. Windows were made to be opened,
so at least in good weather there was plenty of natural ventilation.
But toxic materials
also were present in homes of the past. Not knowing enough about their
hazards, housewives used such chemicals as arsenic, lead, and mercury
to perform certain household chores. Interior and exterior paints were
often made with lead; many American children are still living with
the legacy of lead poisoning caused by eating chips of leaded paint.
Asbestos, called a miracle mineral when its fire-resistant properties
were discovered, is now known to be a cancer causer that contaminates
hundreds of thousands of residences, schools, and other buildings in
We do not need
to return to the ways of the past to avoid exposure to house toxics,
but we can take some lessons from the past for a better future. How
can we do this?
But Safe Substitutes.
For example, search for a soap-based garden insecticide (at least one
national brand is available) instead of chemically--based ones. Appendix
1 for sources of safe substitutes.
When in Doubt,
Leave it Out. In cases where there is no effective safe substitute
for a toxic product, reevaluate how important the goal really is. Must
you absolutely get rid of all insects in your garden, or can you live
with some chewed-up leaves? If the goal is absolutely imperative, such
as ensuring that termites do not invade your house, it is important
to educate yourself thoroughly. You may have more healthful alternatives
than your local pest company tells you.
in the Kitchen and Bath
One shelf of simple
and relatively safe ingredients can be used to perform most home cleaning
chores. All that's needed is a knowledge of how they work and how different
ingredients should be combined to get the cleaning power needed for
a specific job.
Soda is sodium bicarbonate. It has a number of useful properties.
It can neutralize acid, scrub shiny materials without scratching,
deodorize, and extinguish grease fires. It can be used as a deodorizer
in the refrigerator, on smelly carpets, on upholstery and on vinyl.
It can help deodorize drains. It can clean and polish aluminum, chrome,
jewelry, plastic, porcelain, silver, stainless steel, and tin. It
also softens fabrics and removes certain stains. Baking soda can
soften hard water and makes a relaxing bath time soak; it can be
used as an underarm deodorant and as a toothpaste, too.
a naturally occurring mineral, soluble in water. It can deodorize,
inhibit the growth of mildew and mold, boost the cleaning power of
soap or detergent, remove stains, and can be used with attractants
such as sugar to kill cockroaches.
derived from corn, can be used to clean windows, polish furniture,
shampoo carpets and rugs, and starch clothes.
Alcohol is an excellent disinfectant.
Juice, which contains citric acid, is a deodorant and can
be used to clean glass and remove stains from aluminum, clothes,
and porcelain. It is a mild lightener or bleach if used with sunlight.
detergent) is made in several ways. Castle soap can be used as a shampoo
or as a body soap. Olive-oil based soap is gentlest to the skin. An
all-purpose liquid soap can be made by simple dissolving the old ends
of bar soap (or grated slivers of bar soap) in warm water.
Wool is an abrasive strong enough to remove rust and stubborn
food residues and to scour barbeque grills.
trisodium phosphate, a mixture of soda ash and phosphoric acid. TSP
is toxic if swallowed, but it can be used on many jobs, such as cleaning
drains or removing old paint, that would normally require much more
caustic and poisonous chemicals, and it does not create any fumes.
made from soured apple juice, grain, or wine. It contains about 5 percent
acetic acid, which makes it a mild acid. Vinegar can dissolve mineral
deposits, grease, remove traces of soap, remove mildew or wax buildup,
polish some metals, and deodorize. Vinegar can clean brick or stone,
and is an ingredient in some natural carpet cleaning recipes. Use vinegar
to clean out the metallic taste in coffeepots and to shine windows
without streaking. Vinegar is normally used in a solution with water,
but it can be used straight.
Soda or SAL Soda is a sodium carbonate decahydrate, a mineral.
It can cut stubborn grease on grills, broiler pans, and ovens. It
can be used with soda instead of laundry detergent, and it softens
hard water. These items are available from drug and chemical-supply
For common household
tasks, try these nontoxic strategies using the above ingredients:
air by opening windows and doors for a short period; distribute
partially filled dishes of vinegar around the kitchen to combat unpleasant
cooking odors; boil cinnamon and cloves in a pan of water to scent
the air; sprinkle 1/2 cup borax in the bottom of garbage pails or
diaper pails to inhibit mold and bacteria growth that can cause odors;
rub vinegar on hands before and after slicing onions to remove the
smell; use bowls of potpourri to give inside air a pleasant scent.
cleaner can be made from a vinegar-and-salt mixture or from
4 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in 1 quart warm water.
anything that will reduce the number of harmful bacteria on a surface.
Practically no surface treatment will completely eliminate bacteria.
Try regular cleaning with soap and hot water. Or mix 1/2 cup borax
into 1 gallon of hot water to disinfect and deodorize. Isopropyl alcohol
is an excellent disinfectant, but use gloves and keep it away from
cleaner. Try a plunger first, though not after using any
commercial drain opener. To open clogs, pour 1/2 cup baking soda
down drain, add 1/2 cup white vinegar, and cover the drain. The resulting
chemical reaction can break fatty acids down into the soap and glycerine,
allowing the clog to wash down the drain. Again, do not use this
method after trying a commercial drain opener--the vinegar can react
with the drain opener to create dangerous fumes.
cleaner and polish can be as simple as
a few drops of vinegar in the cleaning water to remove soap traces.
For vinyl or linoleum, add a capful of baby oil to the water to preserve
and polish. For wood floors, apply a thin coat of 1:1 oil and vinegar
and rub in well. For painted wooden floors, mix 1 teaspoon washing
soda into 1 gallon hot water. For brick and stone tiles, use 1 cup
white vinegar in 1 gallon water and rinse with clear water.
cleaners and polishes are different for
each metal -- just as in commercial cleaners. Clean aluminum with
a solution of cream of tartar and water. Brass may be polished with
a soft cloth dipped in lemon-and baking-soda solution, or vinegar-
and-salt solution. Polish chrome with baby oil, vinegar, or aluminum
foil shiny slide out. Clean tarnished copper by boiling the article
in a pot of water with 1 tablespoon salt and 1 cup white vinegar,
or try differing mixtures of salt, vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice,
andcre am of tartar. Clean gold with toothpaste, pewter with a paste
of salt, vinegar, and flour. Silver can be polished by boiling it
in a pan lined with aluminum foil and filled with water to which
a teaspoon each of baking soda and salt have been added. Stainless
steel can be cleaned with undiluted white vinegar.
Sprinkle baking soda on moist surface and scrub with steel wool. Or
use Arm & Hammer Oven Cleaner, declared nontoxic by Consumers Union.
powder can be made from baking soda or dry table salt. Or
try Bon-Ami Cleaning Powder or Bon-Ami Polishing Cleaner.
bowl cleaner can be made from straight bleach (do NOT mix
with any other substance except water), baking soda and vinegar,
or borax and lemon juice.
tile cleaner can be as easy as rubbing in baking soda with
a damp sponge and rinsing, or wiping with vinegar first and following
with baking soda as a scouring powder.
Window and glass
cleaner is easy with these tips: to avoid streaks, don't
wash windows when the sun is shining. Use a vinegar-and-water solution,
cornstarch-vinegar-and-water solution, or lemon-juice-and-water.
Wipe with newspaper unless you are sensitive to the inks in newsprint.
for Laundry Products
Detergent is specially
adapted to clean synthetic fabrics, and it has the added advantage
of not leaving soil residues even in hard water. However, detergents
are generally derived from petrochemicals, and people sensitive to
these compounds may find it hard to tolerate detergents or the fragrances
they are scented with. In addition, most detergents contain phosphates,
which build up in streams and lakes and upset the natural balance in
waterways, causing blooms of algae which deplete the dissolved oxygen
fish need to live. Some detergent may even contain naphthalene or phenol,
both hazardous substances.
An effective alternative
to using detergents is to return to soap. Soap is an effective cleaner
for natural fabrics, leaving such items as diapers softer than detergent
can. For cotton and linen, use soap to soften water. A cup of vinegar
added to the wash can help keep colors bright (but DO NOT use vinegar
if you are using bleach -- the resulting fumes are hazardous). One-half
to three-quarters of a cup of baking soda will leave clothes soft and
fresh smelling. Silks and wools may be hand washed with mild soap or
a protein shampoo, down or feathers with mild soap or baking soda.
fabrics or blends (including most no-iron fabrics), there are biodegradable
detergents on the market that do not contain phosphates, fragrances,
or harsh chemicals. They are often imported from Europe and are available
at health food stores or by mail order.
for Personal Hygiene and Cosmetic Products
We use cosmetics
and hygiene products for a fairly narrow range of reasons: to keep
skin moist and supple; to clean hair without stripping it of natural
oils; to eliminate unpleasant body or mouth orders; to prevent skin
oiliness and clogged skin pores; and simply for the pleasure of relaxing
and pampering ourselves with body-care or facial-care treatments. The
following ingredients can help achieve these purposes without the use
of toxic additives, synthetic fragrances, or artificial colorings:
and conditioners: egg yolk, milk, yogurt, safflower oil
(for light moisturizing), olive oil (for dry skin or hair), water,
oatmeal, jojoba oil.
shaves: witch hazel, diluted isopropyl alcohol.
soda, white clay, deodorant crystals.
cleansing agents: castle soap, olive-oil based soap.
oils provide nontoxic fragrances that can be used to scent shampoo,
bath soaks, or even, in the case of peppermint, to flavor toothpaste.
easy to make healthful alternatives to many cosmetic and hygiene products,
any natural-foods store has a fairly wide selection of shampoos, moisturizers,
toothpastes, after shaves, soaps, and bath products that do not contain
the harmful ingredients in many commercial preparations.
for Art and Hobby Materials
There are some
nontoxic choices that can be made when buying art or craft supplies,
but because some techniques require certain materials, minimizing exposure
may be the best you can do.
In painting and
print making, ready-mixed water-based paints or inks can be used. If
you must be exposed to paint dust, use toxic dust respirator approved
by the National Institute for OccupationalSaf ety and Health (NIOSH).
Ventilate the space thoroughly whenever using any kind of solvents,
whether in painting or in lithography, intaglio, or photoetching. Solvents
also should be avoided while pregnant.
Enamels are usually
lead-based, and can contain other toxic metals such as cadmium and
nickel. Use lead-free-enamels whenever possible, and make sure kilns
are vented outside.
In pottery as
well, outside vented kilns are important, as is a careful choice of
materials -- most potters know to avoid lead glazes and lead frits,
but many don't know that flint, feldspars, fluorspar, and some compounds
containing barium, lithium, manganese, or nickel can also be toxic.
Children should avoid the pottery studio, as they are more highly susceptible
to the toxics used in pottery than are adults.
a number of toxic hazards which are difficult to avoid. Minimize exposure
to photo chemical by using gloves, mixing chemicals in a mixing box
with holes in the sides for gloved hands, and providing adequate ventilation.
The Health and Welfare Office of Canada suggests at least 10 room air
changes per hour. Children under 12 should avoid the darkroom.
for Pesticides in Home and Garden
in the home, the best offense is a good defense. The first step is
to make the house -- especially the kitchen -- unattractive to insects
by cleaning up food spills immediately, keeping hard-to-reach areas
reasonably clean, and removing clutter that can hide pests. Store foods
attractive to pests, such as flour, in the refrigerator. Water attracts
pests, so leaky faucets and pipes should be promptly repaired. Doors
and windows should be well screened. Cloths should be regularly cleaned
and aired, and properly stored in paper or cardboard boxes sealed against
A number of nontoxic
substances can be used to repel insects. Generally, they are highly
fragrant or volatile herbs or spices. Powdered red chill pepper, peppermint,
bay leaves, cloves, citrus oil, lavender, rosemary, tobacco, peppercorns,
and cedar oil can repel various types of insects.
can be trapped and killed without resorting to dangerous chemicals: generally
a poison nontoxic to humans is mixed with a food that insects find
attractive, and spread in the infested area. Examples are oatmeal
(attractive) and plaster-of-Paris (poisonous), and cocoa powder and
flour (attractive) and borax (poisonous). Old-fashioned flypaper
-- not a hanging strip of insecticide -- is an effective trap. For
specific house pests, try these solutions:
For ants: sprinkle
powdered red chill pepper, paprika, dried peppermint, or borax where
the ants are entering.
For beetles: Kill
manually when you see them.
For cockroaches: Mix
by stirring and sifting 1 ounce TSP, 6 ounces borax, 4 ounces sugar,
and 8 ounces flour. Spread on floor of infested area. Repeat after
4 days and again after 2 weeks.
For fleas: Feed
pet brewer's yeast in powder mixed with food or by tablets.
For moths: Air
clothes well in the sun; store in airtight containers, and scatter
sachets of lavender, cedar chips, or dried tobacco in with clothing.
and mice: Again, prevention may be the best cure. Holes
in exterior or interior walls should be closed off and storage spaces
kept orderly. Garbage should be kept tightly covered. To catch rodents,
the most efficient system is the oldest: a cat. Next best are mouse
and rat traps.
For termites: Any
wooden parts of the house should be at least 18 inches off the ground,
as subterranean termites cannot tolerate being exposed to air and light.
They have to build easily visible mud tunnels to get at available wood.
However, most existing houses have only about an 8-inch clearance between
wooden parts and the ground, which makes the wood vulnerable. Metal
shields may help discourage termites, but they cannot prevent infestations.
existing termite infestations, there are a few nontoxic alternatives: the "Extermax" system,
available in California; and the use of a particular species of nematodes
to eat them, a system available from N-Viro Products, Ltc.
For gardens: In
hardware stores, look for new brands of safer insecticides that use
soap-and water solution to get rid of aphids, or pyrethrum for a number
of applications. As more and more people understand the hazards of
organic chemicals in the home, market pressure will encourage the introduction
of safer products.
derived pesticides exist which, in some cases, are less toxic to humans
than the organophosphates, carbamates, or organochlorines now widely
used. Nicotine is the most toxic, poisonous both to humans and to other
mammals, as well as to birds and fish. It is not available commercially
for home gardeners because of its hazards. Rotenone, moderately toxic
to humans, kills a wide range of insects; however, it should never
be used near a waterway, as it is very toxic to fish. Ryania kills
only a few species, including the European corn borer, codling moth,
and cranberry fruit worm. Pyrethrum is relatively nontoxic to humans
and only slightly toxic to aquatic life, so it may be the best choice
for home gardens. Sabadilla controls lice, leafhoppers, squash bugs,
striped cucumber beetles, and chinch bugs. It has low toxicity to wildlife,
but it may be toxic to bees.
For lawns: Herbicides
are most often used to kill "unsightly" weeds in gardens
and yards, and by lawn care companies to maintain the perfect appearance
of turf around homes and on lawns and golf courses. Basically, the
safe alternative to herbicides is simple: pull weeds by hand. There
are no really safe herbicides.
for the Patio
A simple and much
more effective alternative exists for the charcoal lighter fluid used
to start the backyard barbeque. A metal, chimney-pipe cylinder, which
holds the charcoal above a burning piece of newspaper and relies on
the air flow under the charcoal to quickly bring it to glowing hot,
is available at most discount stores. It readies the charcoal for cooking
much more quickly without the chemical taste and fire hazard of lighter
The Safe Home
of the 21st Century
spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, it is crucial
to make the home environment as safe as possible. Indoor pollutants
have proliferated in recent years, often either because modern construction
techniques and furnishings manufacturers utilize hazardous materials
or because consumers do not know enough about the products they buy
to make informed choices.
But safe, nontoxic
alternatives exist for nearly every real need around the home, and
the search for them may help consumers distinguish between what they
really do need, and what may be "luxuries" that could compromise
their families' health.
Any mention of
a brand name or company is for the reader's convenience and does not
constitute endorsement by TVA.
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