Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Getting Clean and Going Green: Not-so-Crunchy cleaning

So, as you can tell by reading this blog,  I am a huge advocate of natural, non-toxic cleaning products.  In fact, my "Getting Clean and Going Clean (without cleaning out your wallet)" series is going to take off again in the Spring with the advent of spring cleaning.  But, I have to say, although 98% of the time, I use all natural cleaning products.  The other 2% of the time... well, I have to say that I cheat a little.

My insanity is not without reason, and I'll tell you why.

Before I get started, a few definitions.  A cleaner is used to wipe away surface grime, like food splatters and dust.  It visibly cleans the area.  A disinfectant is used to kill harmful things on the surface you are cleaning, such as viruses, mold, and bacteria.  A sanitizer goes a step above a disinfectant and must have an efficacy of killing at least 99.9999% of tested offenders.

Vinegar is an awesome household cleaner and disinfecant and doubles as a delicious dressing ingredient.  Vinegar will make spotless almost any surface, although its acidity may not be safe for all surfaces.  The best part?  It is non-toxic.  Although I don't recommend breathing in acetic acid fumes as it could possibly cause some damage, getting a whiff of it isn't going to kill your lungs.

Chlorine bleach, on the other hand, is not only a cleaner and disinfectant, but it can also be a sanitizer at higher concentrations than what is normally recommended for cleaning (3/4 to 1 cup in a gallon of hot water).  However, it is also known as a horribly toxic chemical.  You should wear gloves when you use it to prevent it from soaking into your skin and allowing its highly basic activity to essentially make your skin lipids into soap.    Always use it in a well-ventilated area.  Never mix it with any other household chemical.  Never ingest it.  Don't use it around your children or pets.  I'm not even going to touch on what it can do to the eco-system.  You get the idea...

I am not going to touch on hydrogen peroxide, because from a scientific standpoint, the 3% solution you can buy at the grocery store, is not as effective at killing all bacteria, viruses, and molds than stronger solutions that are not usually available to consumers.  Although 3% hydrogen peroxide is touted as the amazing bleach-replacement, I haven't done enough of my own research to be able to vouch for it, and therefore won't be discussing it in this post.

Environmental scientists say bleach might not be as bad for the environment as we once thought.  As long as it is used correctly.  Due to the incredible chemical instability and reactivity of bleach, it actually degrades quickly enough when used according to manufacturer directions, it has very little impact on the environment.  Way less than driving a car or leaving your lights in your house on for hours at a time. Who knew?  Environmentalists have been urging us to go bleach-free for years!  However, this is not to say, that its toxicity isn't potent enough that you should use caution when actually using it.

Both of these cleaners and disinfectants, vinegar and bleach, can disinfect.  However, the spectrum of bacteria and viruses vinegar kills is quite narrow compared to chlorine bleach.  Although vinegar can kill 99% of bacteria.  It can only kill around 80-85% of molds and viruses.  Bad news if you need to disinfect your bathroom or if you somehow ended up with black mold growing in that dank corner in the basement.  Bleach, unfortunately, is one of the few things we have that will kill almost everything.  In fact, in the science world, we say it is the ONLY known substance that will kill everything.  And by everything, we mean 99.9999%.  Although, to our knowledge it probably kills 100% of the things we've tested it against, there is always something in that 0.0001% that will evolve to survive even the harshest conditions.

This is why I use bleach to disinfect my toilets and my refrigerator/freezers.  Any other time, I would use vinegar, or an eco-safe homemade cleaner to clean and disinfect my surfaces.  However, I'm not just worried about bacteria in my fridge or in my bathroom.  Where there is moisture, you can usually find its buddy, mold.  Where food lingers, there is almost always bacteria, mold, and even viruses.  Where there is  unsavory human activities, there will almost always be bacteria, mold, and viruses.  Especially, where there are schoolchildren, there are all kinds of nasty bugs.  Especially if someone in your household is actually presenting with virus symptoms.  My point is, it is not just bacteria that we have to worry about, and vinegar may not always clean as well as we want it to.  Therefore, total disinfection is absolutely necessary in these areas, especially if your family chooses not to participate in vaccination.  (The vaccination issue is an entirely separate issue that I may not cover ever, or for a very long time, as it is an extremely touchy and personal subject).

Exposure to some bacteria, viruses, and mold, can be beneficial for health.  It can promote immunity.  It can evolve us to overcome disease and allergies.  However, some types of exposure are extremely risky, and can result in your entire family becoming extreme ill or can even cause death.

The point of this post is that being a Crunchy Wife in every way is not 100% possible.  I will have my faults in cleaning, cooking, family care, finances, and activities, that are not agreeable to most environmentalists.  If you live in a modern environment, it is very difficult to go above and beyond eco-friendly standards every second of your life.  However, as a scientist, I see both sides of the issue.  To my knowledge there is not another natural product on this earth that can kill everything that bleach can and is safe for most of your surfaces (besides fire, and even that is debatable). If used correctly, bleach is actually not that bad for the environment.  Using non-phosphate-free dish or laundry soap probably has a bigger environmental impact. So, if you choose to use bleach, and I recommend that you do in these specific areas, please use it sparingly.  Please follow the safety and manufacturer directions.  This is one Crunchy Wife that won't judge you.


So, I have my own ideas for how to get clean while going green.  What steps have you taken to reduce the environmental impact of your cleaning activities?  Are there "non-environmentally-friendly" cleaners you still use?  If so, what are they, and why won't you give them up?  Let me know in the comments!  Happy green cleaning!

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