Once upon a time, Americans didn't douse their homes with toxic chemicals. They didn't spray endocrine system-disruptors on their countertops or fill the air with clouds of hazardous vapors. The pre-boomer generation used vinegar, baking soda and castile soap to keep houses sparkling, or citrus oils to fight odor.
These days, we spend $14.4 billion on household cleaning products, whose labels, however eco-friendly they may appear, hide the chemicals within. Walk down a supermarket cleanser aisle these days and one thing's obvious: "green" may be the new buzzword, but it doesn't guarantee much of anything.
Problem is, most commercial cleansers — even the green ones — still contain chemicals known to be harmful to people or the environment. Ammonia, chlorine, phosphates and lye are classic offenders.
But even so-called green products add fragrances to impart lemony freshness to the air. And "fragrances," say environmental health advocates at Women's Voices for the Earth, are a generic catch-all that hides the presence of toxic chemicals, including phthalates and other chemicals that have been linked to asthma and reproductive health problems.
The women's health group contacted Clorox and 22 other major commercial manufacturers three times last year to ask about labeling practices. Several companies said their ingredients were proprietary information, and Clorox didn't respond at all.
So what's a parent to do?
EcoMoms groups are springing up cross-country, hosting events and discussions on just these types of topics. There's a branch in San Rafael, and another in Palo Alto. And Karen Rezai started her own East Bay branch of the national Holistic Moms Network last fall in Oakland.
Members meet every few weeks to share tips on "green-ing" their homes; making holistic first-aid kits; and, recently, to mix up batches of homemade cleaning products.
Five years ago, Rezai first started looking for more healthful alternatives to chemical-laden products. But the task took on new urgency with the birth of her son, Aidan, now 2.
"As a breast-feeding mom, I wanted to make my environment as chemical-free as possible," she says. "I was looking for something less caustic, less dangerous to inhale."
At first she tried Seventh Generation and Ecoplanet products, but they're expensive. So she started making her own cleaning products.
"When you go to the store," says Rezai, "you think you need a product for the toilet and a product for the windows."
But the best, greenest cleaning solutions, she says, are usually in the pantry. Environmental health experts agree. Many of the new books on ways to "green" one's family echo Rezai's advice.
"We're led to believe that only synthetic, prepackaged products that are loaded with chemicals can do the job," Jenn Savedge writes in "The Green Parent."
"The good news is that it is actually easy to wean yourself from this chemical dependence."
Her top tip? Do-it-yourself cleaning products.
"I go for simple," says Rezai. "Vinegar, baking soda — the biggies. Basically I look for simple, inexpensive things I can use in different rooms of my house."
Rezai uses olive oil as furniture polish — save the extra virgin stuff for dinner, she says, the cheap stuff is fine for furniture. She dilutes vinegar to tackle sticky countertops, icky bathrooms and grubby floors. And she washes her windows with club soda.
The bonus? Her toddler's safe too.
"He's in that phase of wanting to do what Mommy does," she says. "So he grabbed the (spray bottle). Normally, I'd grab it back, but, hey, it's club soda. It's nice to have a product I completely trust."
You don't need chemical-saturated cleaning wipes and commercial sprays if you make your own simple, eco-friendly cleaning products. Vinegar and water are perfect for cleaning windows, floors and countertops. Use a sprinkle of baking soda for scrubbing sinks, tubs and toilets. Or try these recipes from "The Green Parent" by Jenn Savedge (Kedzie Press, $14.95):
Read more about the dangers of chemicals in household cleaning agents in "Household Hazards," a publication of the national health advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth, available online at www.women