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Sherri Richards, Published April 15 2012

Can your home really be clean without chemicals?

FARGO - When Darby Amundson nears the cleaning supplies section of a store, she says the smells now give her an instant headache.

Amundson, 36, of Moorhead, stopped using chemical cleaners in her house in favor of just water and microfiber cloths after being introduced to Norwex products at a home party last October.

Norwex’s mission is to “improve quality of life by radically reducing the use of chemicals in personal care and cleaning,” its website says. Amundson started selling the products in February.

“I figured if I can remove dust, dirt and grime from the surfaces in my home with Norwex products and just water, why not save my money by cutting out buying chemical products, and also I am helping the environment by not using chemical products,” she says. “It is healthier because I will never breathe, touch or ingest any harmful chemicals.”

Plus, she says the surfaces in her home are cleaner, shinier and more polished than ever, and she says it takes less time to clean.

Amundson is part of a growing number of Americans wanting to be more “green” when they clean, whether by using just water and microfiber cloths, kitchen staples like baking soda and vinegar, or green-branded cleaning products, such as Method, Seventh Generation, Shaklee or Clorox’s Green Works line.

The options for eco-friendly or health-conscious store-bought cleaners have increased greatly and become more mainstream since the early 2000s.

But while consumers may be interested in green cleaning for the sake of their personal health and the environment, many also view these products as costlier and less effective, according to a 2011 strategic business report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

CONCERNS ABOUT CHEMICALS

About 24 percent of Americans buy or make all-natural cleaning products, a survey released by The Shelton Group earlier this month found. The Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency specializes in sustainability and energy efficiency, and regularly conducts studies and focus groups looking at people’s green living habits, says Karen Barnes, vice president of insight.

“People are really concerned about toxins and chemicals. We have seen that concern greatly amplify in the last several years,” Barnes says.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say they’re concerned about chemicals in products, especially household cleaners, that aren’t meant to be eaten but come into contact with their body in another way, Barnes says. And 28 percent of Americans say home cleaning products is a very important category to find green alternatives, behind energy, home improvement products, light bulbs and paper products.

Maria Bosak, owner of Eco Chic Boutique in Fargo, says demand for non-toxic and eco-friendly cleaners contributed in large part to the creation of the store, which sells green products for the home, as well as babies, pets and moms.

Bosak noticed the trend while talking to mothers. They would see their children coughing, developing asthma, eczema and other health conditions which would clear up when they started using natural cleaners. They’d tell their friends, creating a grassroots movement away from traditional cleaners.

“There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market and less than 20 percent have been tested for toxicity,” Bosak says.

She distributes a sheet with information on common household chemicals and their potential dangers, including butyl cellosolve (can irritate skin and eyes and damage the liver and kidneys), crystalline silica (an eye, skin and lung irritant), phosphates (suffocate aquatic plants and animals) and chlorine (fumes are irritating to eye, throat and respiratory tract).

Switching to cleansers with naturally-derived ingredients, and cutting back on the amount of cleaner used, are simple ways to positively affect one’s health, she says.

WHAT IS GREEN? WHAT IS CLEAN?

As the demand for such products has increased, so have concerns about “fraudulent green washing,” degrading the credibility of the industry, Global Industry Analysts, Inc. writes. Some companies, out for a quick buck, mislead consumers with false claims.

“World over, governments are initiating stringent regulations to address the issue, monitoring not only the advertisement claims, but also product features, labeling, and production/delivery processes,” its report says.

Bosak admits “green” is a vague word. A planet-friendly product can still contain potentially toxic chemicals, she says. That’s why reading labels is so important.

She has also noticed more people going back to making their own cleaners with vinegar and baking soda.

These food-safe products can be quite effective at not just cleaning (removing dirt and particles) but sanitizing (reducing germs), says Julie Garden-Robinson, food safety specialist with North Dakota State University Extension Service.

She points to a handout by The Ohio State University Extension that shows white distilled vinegar and hydrogen peroxide – when undiluted and heated to 130 degrees – both effectively kill listeria, E. coli and salmonella, three main contributors to food-borne illnesses.

Baking soda was not an effective sanitizer, the extension research found.

It’s not necessary to sanitize everything, Garden-Robinson says, despite marketing to the contrary. Garden-Robinson suggests avoiding products that contain the ingredient triclosan, a broad spectrum microbial which may contribute to bacterial resistance.

Surfaces where food preparation takes place are the most important to sanitize, she says. Households that contain elderly or very young members or pets would want to sanitize more often.

She notes that hot water alone can act as a sanitizer, and that changing kitchen rags at least twice weekly helps prevent the spread of bacteria.

The key to cleaning with natural products, as well as traditional cleaners, is to use the right concentration, temperature and length of time, Garden-Robinson says. A scant teaspoon of bleach in one quart of water has been found to be an effective and safe sanitizer, she says.

“One thing we really stress is using cleaners and sanitizers according to package directions. The idea is more isn’t better,” she says.