Scary Dirt: The Real Dirt on Household Cleaners
by Sloan Barnett
Let's talk about dirt. I divide all dirt into two camps: Safe Dirt and Scary Dirt.
Safe Dirt is natural dirt. It's real dirt. It's the dirt you get all over you when you go camping or hiking. I'm good with Safe Dirt. I'm fine with mud, bugs, and genuine earthy muck. It's honest. It's easy to get rid of, and most importantly, for the most part it can't really hurt you.
Scary Dirt is another story. Scary Dirt is all the toxins we buy and spread all over our homes and ourselves when we use everyday household products - the very products that seem new and clean or promise to make the home we live in look and smell new and clean. It's the dish detergent that smells like fake lemon. It's the air freshener that smells like vanilla lime pine cinnamon oranges. We've been trained to believe that "clean" smells like vanilla lime pine cinnamon oranges. But it doesn't. Real clean doesn't have a smell. More important, real clean can't hurt you.
What I'm saying is that getting both clean and green means rethinking what you've come to know as clean. Before the middle of the last century, cleaning products were sort of like cookies, pies, and cakes: They were homemade. Women combined things like vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda in recipes that resulted in effective - and safe - cleaners. Then, slowly, chemical companies began introducing new products they claimed were easier to use and more effective. They mounted advertising campaigns that implied that women who didn't use those products were somehow bad wives and mothers. We were suckered by promises that our entire home and everything in it - would sparkle like diamonds. What these companies didn't say was that these products were like Trojan horses. We brought them into our homes, thinking them benign, only to discover they'd unleashed an army of invaders.
In the years since, we've been brainwashed to associate scents with clean. In fact, they're the opposite. And that brings up a crucial question: What is "green"? A green product is one that won't harm you, your children, your pets, or the environment inside the house or outside where your waste goes. And it won't hang around like an unwanted guest after you use it - on floors, carpets, counters, clothes, and so forth. The packaging it comes in should be the minimum required and should break down into safe or recyclable stuff when you're done with it. And, though this can be hard to find out, it shouldn't require a lot of nonrenewable or even renewable resources to make it, use it, or dispose of it.
And what's clean? Clean, I've learned, is the yumminess of my children after their bath. It's my baby boy just before he goes to sleep. It's my fresh bed after I've just washed the sheets in nontoxic detergent. It's when I come home and smell absolutely nothing - like Antarctica twenty years ago. Utterly unscented. That's when I know my house is clean. And safe.
[The above excerpt is reprinted with permission from Green Goes With Everything: Simple Steps to a Healthier Life and a Cleaner Planet by Sloan Barnett (Atria Books, September 2008)].
About the Author: Sloan Barnett is a regular contributor to NBC's Today Show and the Green Editor for KNTV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco. She has been a television and print journalist for more than 10 years, and wrote a popular consumer advice column for New York's Daily News for nearly a decade. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and three children. FMI, please visit: Green Goes With Everything.