A clean start for the New Year

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Want to be healthier and reduce stress in your life?

Keeping your home clean and organized helps get rid of germs that can make you and your family sick. Removing dust can reduce allergies and asthma. The advantages include reducing opportunities for falls and being able to find things, such as your keys, when you need them. The psychological benefit of keeping your house picked up is stress reduction. Living with clutter can create stress, anxiety and can even negatively impact creativity. One study at Indiana University found that those people with cleaner houses also tend to be in better physical shape.

The cleaning products that we choose also have an effect on our health. Products without toxic chemicals are better for us and the environment. We can make some of them at home - simplifying our lives and saving money, too.

Why commercial products are harmful

Some of the products that we use may clean the house, but they might also have toxic chemicals and fragrances in them. The makers of cleaning products are not required to list the ingredients, so it is hard to figure out what chemicals might be used.

Impacts can be particularly severe for children and pets. Some ingredients can cause burns and other problems if touched or inhaled and can be poisonous, if taken internally. According to the "Green Guide - How toxic are your household cleaning supplies?" published by the Organic Consumers Association, cleaning products are among the most toxic things found in the home, accounting for nearly 10 percent of calls to the U.S. Poison Control Center.

More than half of those calls involved children under six who had been exposed to dangerous products. Some of the most toxic ingredients are chlorine bleach and ammonia, which irate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.

Fragrances can be another source of irritation to the body. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that one•third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic, according to the "Green Guide." Certain sudsing agents may contribute to long-term health risks, such as cancer, and others can disrupt hormone balance causing birth defects and other health problems.

Because many of these products are harmful to humans, it follows that they also hurt the environment. The chemicals that are left over after cleaning products are washed down the sink can persist even after being treated at wastewater plants. Some studies have shown that remains of detergents are present in almost 70 percent of the streams tested. Phosphates in dishwasher powders can act as a fertilizer when they enter rivers, causing an overgrowth of algae, which depletes the water's oxygen and eventually kills fish and other organisms.

Homemade cleaners

To safeguard your family and our natural resources, you can make your own products at home using safe ingredients and essential oils.

Vinegar is a favorite ingredient for making natural and safe cleaning products at home. When asked for their favorite cleaning recipes, Taoseños on the Taos Farm and Garden Facebook page offered the following suggestions:

• Use white vinegar to wash windows

• Put vinegar into the toilet bowl and let it soak over night

• Add an essential oil like sweet orange, grapefruit or lemon to vinegar to create a pleasant smell and use this combination to disinfect and shine counters.

• Use vinegar and baking soda to clear blocked drains and clean grout.

• Use hot water and vinegar to clean just about anything.

• Baking soda and vinegar work well together; organic dish soap can be added if you need suds.

• Vinegar/vodka, tea tree, peppermint and lavender essential oils can be combined and used as a surface and window cleaner.

• For oven cleaning: mix vinegar and baking soda to form a paste. Leave it on overnight and wipe with a wet towel in the morning.

Other favorite ingredients include Castile soap developed in Spain in the 16th century and made from plant-based oils. Dr. Bronner's makes products using Castile soap for cleaning and personal care.

Recipes

"I make my own dryer sheets, using old baby wash cloths, since my baby is a big kid now. I use six to seven cloths, ¼ cup vinegar, ½ teaspoon Castile soap, approximately six drops lavender and tea tree oil. This all can be adjusted to your particular liking. Put in a jar and repeat after use," said Tammy Brand Miller.

Chrissy Streit said, "I make every cleaning product in my home, including laundry and dish-washing detergent. I use different combinations of borax (a naturally occurring mineral), super-washing soda, baking soda, vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and Dawn dish soap."

Muna of the SnowMansion in Arroyo Seco uses the citrus fruits available in the grocery store this time of year to create a cleaning product that is both effective and beautiful. She says you can use a wide-mouth gallon jar full of inexpensive white vinegar and add citrus peel from pink grapefruit and navel oranges. Next, add local products like red pods of chiles found on ristras, and pine boughs. Finally, herbs like oregano and thyme can be added.

Muna calls this mixture "Ma's Miracle Cleanser" and uses it for walls, counters and corners. If you have any issues with vermin, you can add essential oils like mint, lemongrass and lavender. An effective laundry detergent can be made using a small amount of laundry detergent, along with a tablespoon or two each of borax, baking soda, vinegar and some essential oils, according to Muna.

Even for big jobs, natural products can work well. Jayci Carbajal said, "I clean in Angel Fire - custom homes, rentals, etc. We are a five-star-rated company. I use 50 percent rubbing alcohol to 50 percent hot water in a spray bottle. It cleans all glass, shines anything, and does not leave spots. It is best used with a cloth and evaporates quickly."

Such natural mixtures should be safe for septic systems. Contractor Thomas Soule who specializes in sustainable building and has been working in Taos since 1998 said, "Unless you are dumping gallons of vinegar or bleach into your septic, neither will become a problem. The septic ecosystem is very resilient."

Soule does offer a caution about vinegar. "It is a weak acid and can definitely etch and degrade some materials: any concrete/cement product in particular, including concrete floors, limestone tiles, and grout. If you are diluting it with tap water, it may not be an issue since most of our water is alkaline/basic and will neutralize the vinegar upon mixing. You can easily check with some pH paper if you are curious."

At the store

When you see products that are called natural, what does that really mean? It is important to read labels since there is no U. S. government-regulated definition of "natural." Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that natural ingredients are extracted directly from plants or animal products, as opposed to being produced synthetically.

At Cid's Food Market, the buyers look for cleaning products that are environmentally friendly. "What environmentally friendly actually means is that the product is biodegradable, safe for septic systems and grey water use, and phosphate free," said store owner Cid Backer. "Environmentally safe cleaners are an extension of our philosophy about food; we don't carry anything that is preserved with chemicals."

He says that true natural products usually list their ingredients and are made by smaller companies dedicated to preserving our natural resources. They are plant and mineral-based, and don't have parabens or petroleum in them.

Cid's inventory buyer Mike Fernandez said that environmental concerns are the number-one reason that customers at Cid's purchase natural cleaning products. Backer and Fernandez point out that many commercial cleaners have toxic ingredients that can cause irritation and allergic reactions.

"People come to Cid's looking for products that are better for us and the environment. Our natural products use essential oils, not artificial fragrances," Fernandez said.

Backer and Fernandez are always on the lookout for new products. They visit food shows and speak to product representatives. One new trend is the use of bamboo instead of trees for products such as tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper. The paper towels are re-usable up to 100 times. The Treefree brand uses sugar cane and bamboo to make their tissues.

Taos Market also carries a variety of natural cleaning products at its location next to the Taos Diner, including scrubbing powders, such as Bon Ami. Created in 1886, Bon Ami used tallow soap and feldspar. The formula has been updated over time to include limestone and baking soda.

The Taos Food Co-op carries natural products as does Sol Food in Arroyo Seco. Some of the larger grocery stores in town, including Albertson's and Smith's also have environmentally-friendly products.

Getting started and more information

Switching over to more natural products doesn't have to be expensive or complicated. "Most household cleaning needs can be met safely and inexpensively with a sturdy scrubber sponge and simple ingredients like water, liquid Castile soap, vinegar, lemon juice or baking soda for scrubbing grease and grime," according to the "Green Guide" at organicconsumers.org.

You can look online for recommendations on how to combine various natural products to create the solution you need for your home. Search for chemical-free or natural-cleaning methods. Use caution when trying new recipes and watch for any unexpected reactions between ingredients.

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