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Healthy Home Basics - Maintaining a Healthy House

By HHI Staff

From The Healthy House Answer Book: Answers to the 133 most commonly asked questions. Questions 127-133.


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127. I can’t tolerate the artificial fragrances in laundry products. Are there any healthier options?


There are a number of fragrance-free products, and they’re also often available at health-food stores or co-op groceries.


If you live in or near a large city, look in the telephone directory under Chemical Suppliers. There should be companies listed that sell all kinds of nasty industrial chemicals. However, they also often sell unscented borax, or unscented washing soda (sometimes called sal soda, or sodium sesquicarbonate)—both of which can be used in the laundry. You may need to purchase 50-100# bags, but buying in bulk is considerably cheaper per pound than buying in small quantities. Sometimes, adding a cup of white vinegar to the wash water can help remove odors.


You may run into another problem with artificial fragrances if you’re shopping for a new washer or dryer. That’s because many manufacturers put scented samples of detergent or fabric softener inside new machines at the factory. If you can’t get a company to ship an appliance without free samples, your best solution is to remove the offending products from the washer or dryer immediately. Then, run the washer - without clothes - several times with unscented borax, baking soda, or white vinegar until the odor dissipates. Likewise, run the empty dryer on its highest temperature setting until all the perfume odors are gone. If your utility room has a window, keep it open during the entire “decontamination” period.


128. How important is it to use unscented cleaning products and cosmetics, and natural-fiber clothing?


Scents and perfumes very often trigger reactions in chemically sensitive people and they bother many individuals with conventional allergies. We feel it’s very important to use unscented products throughout your home. Because fragrances are formulated to spread and cling, they can quickly saturate an entire house and be difficult to remove.


Scented cosmetics can be especially problematic for sensitive people because they’re applied directly to the skin. Your clothing is also in direct contact with your skin. We’ve found that untreated natural-fiber clothing (cotton, wool, linen, ramie, hemp, etc.) is a good option because it outgases no synthetic odors. And, we choose only those items that can be easily cleaned at home with unscented laundry products.


129. The house we just moved into smells perfumy. What can I do to remove the odor?


This is a difficult problem, with no really good answer. Unfortunately, perfume, potpourri, incense, and other natural or artificial fragrances can saturate walls, floors, cabinets, etc. and be extremely difficult to remove completely.


Washing walls (and ceilings) with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate), which is available at many paint and hardware stores, can often help. Opening the windows and blowing plenty of air through the house with window fans for an extended period of time seems to help as much as anything.


Sometimes, repainting will seal in the fragrance odor. But, if the smell is really strong, it can bleed through the new paint. Get a low-tox paint and try it in one room before repainting the whole house.


Sometimes, it’s just the walls inside a closet that are saturated with fragrance. In that case, “wallpapering” the walls in a closet with builders foil, or household aluminum foil, often helps.


130. Do you think a central vacuum is worth the added expense?


Yes, we do. There are two problems with conventional vacuum cleaners. Many have very inefficient filters, so the smallest dust particles travel right through them and get blown back into the room—often in your face. The exhaust can also stir up dust that hasn’t been picked up yet.


There are a number of manufacturers who sell portable vacuums with very efficient filters. Some can be quite expensive, and even though the exhaust is highly filtered, it can still stir up room dust, causing it to become airborne.


Central vacuums usually cost more than typical portable vacuums, but they’re often comparable in price to the more-efficient models. If their exhaust air is vented outdoors (as it is with most central vacuums), they’re the healthiest type of vacuum to operate. They’re also very convenient to use. You just plug a hose into special wall inlets placed strategically around your house. Hoses come in several lengths, so you can usually clean two or three rooms at a time before you need to plug into a different inlet.


131. I can’t seem to get the dry-cleaning odors out of my clothes? What do you suggest I do?


This is another tough question, for which there’s no good answer. Most dry-cleaners use a petroleum-based solvent, perchloroethylene (perc), as the cleaning agent. (In some cases, they also use soaps and detergents.) The perc odor can easily impregnate the fibers of your clothing.


Airing freshly dry-cleaned clothing is the only real solution. Hanging the clothes outdoors in a breeze seems to help the most. Unfortunately, for some sensitive individuals, no amount of airing is enough. For them, dry cleaning simply isn’t an option, and they must stick with clothing they can launder at home.


132. How do I deal with mold?


The first thing you need to do is determine how the mold problem started. Mold and mildew grow where there’s too much water or where there's high relative humidity. If you fix any water problems and lower the humidity, the mold will become dormant and stop growing. The next step is to clean everything thoroughly to remove as many dormant mold spores as possible. If everything remains dry and at a low humidity, a mold problem shouldn’t return.


If mold has stained the walls, you may need to repaint to spruce things up. Don’t expect paint alone to solve a mold problem. Mold needs moisture to live, and if you don’t dry things out, it’ll just start eating the new paint.


Often it isn’t practical to try and kill the mold. That’s because many fungicidal chemicals can be bothersome to people, too. Besides, allergic people react to dead mold as well as live mold because they’re affected by certain proteins, and the proteins can be alive or dead and still trigger a allergic reaction. That’s why clean-up is so important. Still, an unscented borax-and-water solution, or a 3%-hydrogen-peroxide solution (the concentration commonly sold in drug stores), both have some fungicidal properties. So, that’s what we like to use when cleaning up moldy areas. These happen to be odor-free and relatively harmless to people.


133. What’s a healthy way to combat sugar ants in my kitchen and clothing moths in my closet?


While ants can invade the cleanest of kitchens, you should first make sure there’s nothing around for them to eat. A sticky spot of spilled orange juice on the floor can be a real treat to an ant.


The ants’ nest is usually outdoors, but they send out scouts to look for food, and the scouts lay down scent trails for others to follow. You can often follow the trails and find where they’re getting in, so you can caulk or seal up the entry points. Then, you should clean everything again to destroy the scent trails.


If you can’t seem to keep them out, sprinkling talcum powder near the entry points and along trails often takes care of them. It works by clinging to their bodies and preventing normal respiration. Ants take air in through tiny holes (spiracles) in their bodies, and the talcum powder clogs the holes, so they suffocate and die.


Clothing moths like to eat the lanolin on wool. (Actually, it’s moth larva that do the damage.) If woolens haven’t been cleaned, they can contain human body oils and food particles that the larva also eat. Contrary to popular belief, cedar isn’t a good moth repellent and mothballs (usually made of noxious chemicals) can be dangerous to humans and the environment.


To prevent moth damage in a healthy way, first clean your wool items before you store them. Then place them in tightly sealed bags or containers. A cedar chest prevents moth damage, not because it’s cedar, but because it seals tightly. If moths can’t get your woolens, they can’t damage them. (Note: Cedar odors are often bothersome to sensitive people.)


Another way to prevent damage is to tumble your woolens in a clothes dryer for fifteen minutes once a month, or vigorously shake them out periodically. The moths eggs and larva are fragile and aren’t firmly attached to the fibers, so they’re easy to remove.


(Note: This article is part of the original HHI Archives, and was believed to be accurate at the time of writing. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)


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Healthy Home Basics - Maintaining a Healthy House:  Created on February 3rd, 2008.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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