I have a heavy termite infestation in my home, and I’ve been told that I need to tent and fumigate. How can I find out about the toxicity of pesticides the exterminators want to use?
—David Anderson, Woodacre, CA
The best place to start is the website for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (www.pesticide.org/). The website includes free fact sheets on a number of frequently used pesticides (www.pesticide.org/factsheets.html) and on less toxic ways to manage pests. If you don’t find what you need, there are links to about two dozen other sites that give information on pesticide toxicity and alternatives.
Using Vinegar for Cleaning
I downloaded two articles from the Internet on the subject of vinegar for cleaning. One of them stated that there was no need to rinse when using vinegar as a polish. Another suggested spraying with a one-to-one water-vinegar mixture and then wiping it off. The article does not specify whether you should wipe with a damp cloth, dry cloth, or sponge. Can you clarify?
—Edward Hirsh, via email
I recommend diluting vinegar with equal parts of water. I wipe it up with a sponge or a soft, dry cloth. When cleaning windows, I use an old newspaper, which really makes glass surfaces sparkle. I never have found the need to rinse.
Annie Berthold-Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home (Three Rivers Press, 1999) and Clean & Green (Ceres Press, 1994), states that, according to the Heinz company, numerous studies show that a straight 5 percent solution of white vinegar kills 99 percent of bacteria, 82 percent of molds, and 80 percent of germs. Heinz can’t claim that vinegar is a disinfectant on its labels because that would require registering it as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency. Berthold-Bond maintains, however, that vinegar is generally accepted in the industry as a powerful antibacterial. The Good Housekeeping Institute has verified this.
Berthold-Bond recommends keeping a clean spray bottle filled with a 5 percent vinegar solution near your kitchen cutting board and in your bathroom. She often sprays the vinegar on her cutting board before going to bed and lets it sit overnight. The smell of vinegar dissipates within a few hours. She also recommends vinegar for cleaning the toilet rim—just spray it on and wipe it off.
Post-Scotchgard Fabric Protectors
I’ve ordered new furniture that is being made with a mix of natural and synthetic fibers. I’m wondering if I should have fabric protection applied to my new purchases. I heard a while back about a possible link between Scotchgard and cancer, but my furniture store uses a product called Guardsman. The company claims Guardsman is safe for health and the environment. What do you think?
—Sandra Kairis, via email
You did the right thing to look up the product on the Internet. The company made a claim to safety without posting its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)—a government-required document that reveals product toxicity—on the site, so I requested one by mail.
Even though MSDSes are designed for workers and emergency personnel, they are useful to consumers, too. They provide proper procedures for handling and working with a particular product, so all toxic chemicals must be cited.
While Guardsman’s manufacturer claims that its products are “safe for humans, pets, and the environment,” its MSDSes tell a different story. Although none of the company’s fabric protectors contains perfluorooctane sulfonata (PFOS), the problem ingredient that led 3M to phase out some Scotchgard chemistry last year, other toxic chemicals are used. One of the fabric protectors contains ethylene glycol n-butyl ether, which OSHA considers to be toxic.
The others contain petroleum naphtha, odorless mineral spirits, volatile methyl silicone, and silicone resin solution. Space prevents me from listing all the health effects associated with these chemicals, so I’ll summarize by saying they are all toxic. I would not consider a product that contains these chemicals to be safe. Because most of these substances are volatile, it’s possible that they are safe for human exposure once they have outgassed (in the same way that paint can be toxic when applied wet, yet safe for exposure when it has dried). Nonetheless, Guardsman isn’t a natural product, and it certainly would produce some environmentally unfriendly toxic waste in its manufacture.
Lead in Dinnerware
I recently purchased plates, bowls, and mugs beautifully painted and manufactured in China. A friend brought to my attention that they might contain lead in the paint that could leak into my food. Any thoughts on this?
—Lori Sloan, via email
There is always the possibility of lead in dinnerware glazes, and brightly colored dishware from other countries isn’t the only problem. Most major manufacturers of dinnerware sold in department stores and home décor shops still use lead glazes without labeling them as such.
To prevent lead poisoning, the federal government prohibits the sale of dinnerware that releases lead in amounts greater than 2,000 parts per billion (ppb). To protect against long-term health risks, however, the state of California requires warning labels on any dishware that releases lead in amounts greater than 224 ppb. If you suspect your dishware has a lead finish, you can test it using LeadCheck Swabs, available at most hardware stores or directly from LeadCheck’s manufacturer, (800) 262-5323 or www.leadcheck.com
I’ve found that most potters are aware of the lead problem and generally use lead-free glazes. Buy from local craftspersons and ask what kinds of glazes they use, or puchase clear glass dishware or glaze-free wooden bowls, which can be maintained with natural beeswax products.
DEBRA LYNN DADD is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).