From carpets to diapers to fertilizers, the ugly truth is that poisons can lurk below a home's neat and tidy surface, potentially causing mysterious headaches, allergies, illness and discomfort. Finding a cleaner, greener approach to common household tasks can help reduce exposure to these toxins.
"A green lifestyle is not just what you eat; it's about everything you put in and around your body," says Steve Asher, a certified sustainable-building advisor and owner of Asher Homes in Ashland. "Cleaning supplies, recycling — healthier lives means adjusting everything to be more earth-friendly."
To help clients make greener lifestyle decisions, Asher often works with Gina Heckley of Idea House Consulting in Ashland. "You can build or remodel the greenest home in the world, but if the homeowners are not educated in lifestyle issues, it won't make much of a difference in their health," she says. "I try to educate people on healthy practices they can do within their home."
Heckley focuses on energy- and water-conservation, waste-reduction and buying local and healthy products and services. She counsels people on making their home weather-tight so it doesn't leak energy (and money); how to take advantage of free energy audits and incentives through Energy Trust of Oregon, power companies and city programs; and "personal-responsibility things that don't cost a thing."
"Keep your thermostat to a reasonable number, take shorter showers, turn off the water while doing dishes and brushing teeth and reduce outdoor watering by using low-impact planting in your landscaping," suggests Heckley. "All these will save you money in energy and water costs."
Then start reducing waste by reusing everything you can and recycling the rest. Buying fewer packaged goods is a great start — it means less waste to begin with, both in the home and in the landfill.
"Buying local and healthy products and eliminating chemicals in your home is the next step," says Heckley. "The demand for earth-friendly products is currently so high that the manufacturers have been able to lower the price so they are comparable to conventional products."
When homeowners choose professionals for specialized services like cleaning and lawn care, it's best to ask a lot of questions.
"A really good homeowner conversation you should have with your service providers is about what products they use," says Heckley. "They should have a choice, and you should be able to decide. If you tell them you don't want them to use any chemicals and they won't change their habits, find a new service."
Carpet cleaning is a great example.
"My industry means well — it is trying to go green," says Michael Kozak, owner of NewAge Natural & Organic Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning in Ashland. "But if one is to go to a cleaning-supply house and pull out an ingredient list, just two layers down, there are carcinogens."
To keep his own business eco-friendly, Kozak uses a single-ingredient, organic cleanser that's free of any toxins. He adds a drop of organic tree-tea oil for a fresh scent then sprays it on whatever fabric he's cleaning. After that, Kozak brings in his industrial equipment. But instead of soaking the carpet with more cleansers, he uses the machine to perform a "clean, clear, hot-water rinse."
The reason Kozak avoids excessive detergent is twofold: Most soaps are full of chemicals, and most carpets, rugs and fabrics in people's homes already are full of soaps from years of professional and spot cleaning.
"Picture this: Mrs. Jones spills something on the carpet, or the baby vomits or the dog pees. Two ounces of urine or apple juice goes into the rug, then she puts 2 ounces of spot cleaner on it. Then Joe Carpet Cleaner comes in and puts more cleanser on, and it still hasn't been rinsed," says Kozak. "The carpet is full of stuff, and those are the hidden toxins that nobody talks about."
Kozak rinses all that out with 240-degree water, leaving fabric spotless and toxin-free.
The benefits of chemical-free fabric cleaning are immense, says Kozak. "Children, pets and little babies crawling around are not exposed to all the hidden toxins that my generation was exposed to. Overall, it's something you may not feel immediately, but over the long term, you're not being affected by these toxins. It just makes so much sense."
Finally, don't feel pressured to green up all your housekeeping habits at once.
"Set realistic goals," says Heckley. "Do some soul searching to discover what's important to you personally. Then adopt one or two things and do them until they become habit. Then introduce one or two more things."
When you decide for yourself how green you want your home to be, it becomes achievable, rewarding and second nature — and Mother Nature will thank you for your efforts.