After Robyn Griggs-Lawrence runs the mop across her kitchen floor, you could literally eat your dinner off the linoleum - not just because it's so clean, but because of what she cleans it with.
"Just vinegar and water," says Griggs-Lawrence, a mother of two who lives in Boulder, Colo.
You will find no Windex, Pledge or Ajax in her broom closet. Instead, she and her cleaning lady embark on the annual rite of house cleaning with a bucket of supplies that seem more like the makings of a salad dressing or summer drink than a squeaky clean home.
There's club soda for washing windows, lemon and salt for disinfecting countertops and cutting boards, mayonnaise or olive oil for polishing wood furniture and a mix of eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree oils for disinfecting and cutting through mold.
Baking soda is her scouring powder, and borax, a natural salt available in the laundry section of the grocery store, is the main ingredient in her laundry detergent.
"I always knew that it wasn't right, that you shouldn't be cleaning your house with this stuff that has all these warnings on it, but I always thought, 'I am so busy. I'm a working mother. I don't have time to make my own,'" says Griggs-Lawrence, editor in chief of Loveland, Colo.-based Natural Home Magazine. "Then I started to do the research and realized it is just as easy and cheap."
It's also safer and better for the environment than typical, store-bought household cleaners, she says. "This is some of the most toxic stuff we can bring into our homes."
In 2003, 4,247 people in Colorado called the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center hot line after suffering adverse reactions to household cleaning supplies, making it the third most common form of poisoning. Roughly 50 percent of exposures are in children: Some ingest cleaning supplies and get sick; others get them on their skin or in their eyes and suffer a chemical burn.
But the center also often gets calls from adults who have inadvertently mixed two products, creating a toxic gas. For instance, a product containing chlorine bleach mixed with something, like a toilet bowl cleaner, containing acid creates chlorine gas. Ammonia plus chlorine (two common ingredients in household cleaners) makes chloramine gas.
"When it happens, they know it. It smells really bad and there is a visible smoky gas. Their eyes burn, their nose burns, and they cough. It's pretty dramatic," says Mary Hilko, public education coordinator for Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.
Even when commercial cleaners are used properly, they can have an adverse effect on indoor air quality. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, household cleaning supplies are a major source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), potentially toxic substances that can linger in the air long after a product is used, causing eye and upper respiratory irritation, nasal congestion, headache, nausea and vomiting.
One EPA study found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be two to five times higher inside homes than outside, even when those homes were in cities with petrochemical plants. Household cleaning supplies, particularly drain cleaner and oven cleaner, were some of the major culprits.
And then there's the impact on the environment outside, says EcoCycle's Erin O'Leary, an environmental educator who visits local elementary schools to teach fifth- and sixth-graders how to make their own cleaning supplies.
"The commercial cleaners that you buy at the grocery store usually have bleach or ammonia in them. As they get flushed down the drain, they go to the water treatment plant, and the little microbes at the water-treatment plant can only clean out biodegradable products. These do not biodegrade, so they get left in the water and flushed into Boulder Creek," O'Leary says.
Lemon-mint window wash
Juice from 1 lemon
2 cups club soda
1/2 teaspoon peppermint essential oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Directions: Mix, pour into plastic spray bottle. Note: Cleans windows and discourages flies.
Easy toilet bowl cleaner
1/2 cup borax
20 drops tea tree oil
Directions: Pour both into toilet bowl, brush, leave on over night. Wipe with vinegar to deodorize.
Easy Oven Cleaner
3 parts baking soda
1 part water
Directions: First, spray oven with a diluted soap and water spray. Make a paste of baking soda and water. Put paste on, let sit overnight. The next morning, scrape, wipe with soap and water, and finish with vinegar rinse.
Easy furniture polish
3 parts olive oil
1 part vinegar
Directions: Mix together and rub on furniture.
Eucalyptus, Lavender and Tea Tree Spray Cleaner
1 teaspoon borax
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups hot water
1/4 teaspoon eucalyptus essential oil
1/4 teaspoon lavender essential oil
3 drops tea tree essential oil
Directions: Stir, put in spray bottle.
Note: To disinfect and get rid of mold, not for glass
Source: Natural Home Magazine, at www.naturalhomemagazine.com