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Your Natural Home

Creating a cozy hearth for the family

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These potentially toxic chemicals can be found in many household cleaners. For a safer way to clean your home, check out the post Spring Cleaning with Eco-Friendly Cleaners.

chemical cleaners
Photo By Les Cunliffe/Fotolia

Chlorine Bleach

Usually found in scouring powder and dishwashing detergent. Contains:

Chlorine: Fumes can cause stomach disorders and irritation to eyes and respiratory tract; may cause reddening of the skin


Usually found in window/glass and all-purpose cleaners. Fumes can irritate eyes, lungs; can cause burns or rashes on skin; if mixed with chlorine, creates chloramine gas, which can cause coughing, loss of voice, feeling of burning and suffocation

Drain Cleaners


Lye: caustic; can cause burns to skin and in severe cases, blindness
Sulfuric acid: can cause severe skin burns and blindness

Floor Cleaners


Pine oil: irritates eyes and mucous membranes
Petroleum distillates: irritate skin, eyes, respiratory tract; may cause fatal pulmonary edema, the swelling of soft tissues due to water accumulation
Naphthas: can cause drowsiness, headache, coma and cardiac arrest if inhaled; can irritate eyes, throat and skin

Furniture Cleaner


Petroleum distillates: irritate skin, eyes, respiratory tract; may cause fatal pulmonary edema, the swelling of soft tissues due to water accumulation
Oil of cedar: central nervous system depressant; may cause miscarriages

Toilet Bowl Cleaners


Sodium bisulfate: forms sulfuric acid, can burn skin
Oxalic acid: damages kidney and liver; irritates eyes and respiratory tract; corrodes mouth and stomach
5-dimethyldantoin: forms hypochlorite in water, which can corrode skin and mucous membranes
Hydrochloric acid: fumes are caustic; can burn skin
Phenol: can depress central nervous system and adversely affect circulatory system; corrosive to skin



Ammonia: Fumes can irritate eyes, lungs; can cause burns or rashes on skin; if mixed with chlorine, creates chloramine gas, which can cause coughing, loss of voice, feeling of burning and suffocation
Cresol: damages tissue, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas and spleen
Lye: caustic; can cause burns to skin and in severe cases, blindness.
Phenol: can depress central nervous system and adversely affect circulatory system; corrosive to skin
Pine oil: irritates eyes and mucous membranes

Carpet Cleaner


Perchloroethylene: fumes are carcinogenic; can cause dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, loss of appetite and disorientation
Naphthalene: damages liver; prolonged vapor exposure can lead to cataract formation

Air Fresheners


Formaldehyde: a suspected carcinogen; can irritate eyes, throat, skin and lungs
Petroleum distillates: irritate skin, eyes, respiratory tract; may cause fatal pulmonary edema, the swelling of soft tissues due to water accumulation
P-dichlorobenzene: irritates skin, eyes and throat, can cause liver damage in animal studies
Aerosol propellants: either associated with brain damage or highly flammable

All Purpose Cleaners


Ammonia: Fumes can irritate eyes, lungs; can cause burns or rashes on skin; if mixed with chlorine, creates chloramine gas, which can cause coughing, loss of voice, feeling of burning and suffocation
Ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate: can poison animals and cause damage to internal organs through skin absorption; inhalation can cause dizziness
Sodium hyperchlorite: corrosive to skin and mucous membranes; fumes irritating

Oven Cleaners


Sodium hydroxide: burns skin and eyes
Potassium hydroxide: burns skin and eyes
Lye: caustic; can cause burns to skin and in severe cases, blindness

Laundry Detergents


Enzymes: can cause asthma and dermatitis from large amounts of exposure.

Sources: The EPA;

Lorraine HalstedLorraine Halsted is a freelance writer who lives in Winchester, Virginia, and enjoys writing about environmental issues and natural living. She is an herb grower and a member of the Shenandoah Herbal Society.  


The Flower Recipe BookFrom alliums to zinnias, The Flower Recipe Book (Artisan Books, 2013) by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo acts as a floral encyclopedia, with complete intros to 50 blooms—from the correct pronunciation of flower names to the spectrum of colors they come in, to what’s in season, when, and details specific to each varietal. The Flower Recipe Book provides information on how to arrange flowers with arrangements that run the gamut of styles and techniques, from elegant and structured to wild and lovely, for occasions big and small. Check out the following excerpt for instructions on how to arrange zinnias.

Zinnia Bouquet

hanging zinnia bouquet


• 20 zinnias
• 4 stems of amaranthus
• 2 stems of lupine
• 4 stems of veronica


• Hanging basket

1. Using a hanging basket provides the opportunity to bring an arrangement into an area that may not be suited for a traditional tabletop piece.

2. Trim all the zinnias and fill the basket so that the lower leaves rest at the rim.

3. Trim and add the amaranthus to the front and left side of the basket, allowing the blooms to hang over the rim.

4. Trim and add the stems of lupine to the back right side of the basket so that the spires sit several inches above the zinnias. Finish by trimming the stems of veronica to a similar height and adding two stems to the center and two stems to the back left side.

Excerpted from The Flower Recipe Book by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Paige Green.


Tabletop decorating has never been this much fun! From the sit-down dinners for a few guests or buffets for many, to bridal and abby showers, holiday dinners with the family and al fresco parties at the beach, in
Tablescapes: Setting the Table with Style (Gibbs Smith, 2008), high-end event planner Kimberly Schlegel Whitman shows how to set a tablet he right way.

The following tablescape design is excerpted from “Formal Dining at Home: Harvest Feast.”

Harvest Feast

Neighbors and lifelong friends Gigi Lancaster and Margaret Ryder are true connoisseurs of tabletop finery. They work well together because their strengths (Gigi’s in linens, Margaret’s in floral arranging) are complementary.

 Harvest Feast Table

Together this duo set an elegant rustic table in front of a roaring fire to host an autumn supper. They creatively and effortlessly combined antique pewter, Gien Rambouillet china and Leontine Linens monogrammed napkins. They selected vintage sugar bowls to serve as wine glasses.

 Harvest Feast PlaceSetting

Canadian pewter flatware in the shape of branches and wonderful candlesticks filled with beeswax taper candles were beautiful beside the monogrammed antique pewter charger plates. An artfully designed hydrangea bouquet was the perfect centerpiece.

 Harvest Feast Centerpiece

The china, depicting endangered animal species, reflected their use of organic and natural elements while underscoring their love of animals and whimsy. This eclectic table also included bowls full of clementines, antique wine decanters and silver chalices decorated with hunting dogs.

Harvest Feast Goblet

It flawlessly mixed candles, flowers, vintage collectibles, antique treasures and modern pieces to create a festive and comfortable atmosphere for guests.

Harvest Feast Accent Table

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Tablescapes: Setting the Table with Style by Kimberly Schlegel Whitman and published by Gibbs Smith, 2008. Photographs by Scott Womack from Tablescapes; reprint with permission of Gibbs Smith.


Everyone has different reasons for the way they decorate their home. Many people follow the latest trends or shop for the most affordable solutions to fill the space, but what if more people took their health into account when designing the look of their home? Here are four key aspects to consider when decorating your home to promote the health and well-being of you and your family.

Via Modernize


Choosing colors that are considered mood boosters can have a significant impact on your mood and by extension your overall health. Cool colors, such as blues and purples, have a calming effect and are an excellent choice for bedrooms where your main focus is on sleep and relaxation. For areas of the home where you don’t want to feel sleepy, consider reds or greens: Green promotes concentration making it an excellent choice for a home office and red gets your heart rate up which might be just what you need in a workout room. Whites are great for kitchens and bathrooms as it provides a sense of purity and cleanliness.

Although following these general guidelines are a great place to start, it’s also a good idea to keep in mind the colors that flatter you most. If you look terrible in purple, then painting your bedroom or bathroom purple is a terrible idea. Choosing colors that don’t complement you, will likely affect how you view yourself as you’re surrounded by a color that just isn’t working for you.

Feng Shui

The Chinese have been abiding by the principles of feng shui for centuries. More recently, westerners have started paying attention to this idea of promoting healthy energy within your space by making simple adjustments to your home. Feng shui can be daunting at first, as no one wants to hear that their house is doomed due to things they can’t change. For example, having a front door that aligns with a back door is considered bad because all of the energy that comes in the front goes straight out the back. Luckily there are simple decorating solutions to remedy problems like this.

For instance, in the case of the aligned doors, feng shui experts recommend putting a round table with a fresh plant on it in order to capture and circulate the good energy that comes through the front door. Do your research and make small changes where you can and you will create a feng shui-friendly space in no time.


Sunshine promotes happiness and health by providing vitamin D and contributing to your circadian rhythm, but not all areas of your home benefit from a lot of light, especially artificial light. Before electricity everyone simply went to bed when the sun went down or stayed awake by the dim light of a fire. Today we are overwhelmed with sources of artificial light which can actually be harmful to your health. It is a good idea to remove all electronic devices and harsh lighting from your bedroom and install light dimmers in all rooms of your house. Light dimmers are useful not only for winding down in the evening, but are also great for when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. By avoiding full light you will find it much easier to get back to sleep.

happy home
Via Modernize

Creating a Happy Place

Many of us associate certain places we’ve lived or visited with happy memories of childhood, travel or adventure. If you have a lot of happy memories growing up in a home with a red door then consider painting your door red. Each day when you walk through that door you will get a boost of serotonin as you remember a time in your life that brings you joy. Decorating with photos or artwork that brings up happy memories is another way to accomplish this mood-boosting effect. If one of the happiest times in your life was your honeymoon trip to Europe then don’t be shy about decorating an entire room with photos of you and your spouse from that trip, along with any special souvenirs you brought home.

The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to create your “happy place” is not to stress about it! To get started, pick one or two of the suggestions above, start slow, and hopefully you will notice a difference in your health and happiness in no time!


Sonya NewenhouseSonya Newenhouse, Ph.D. is an eco-entrepreneur who enjoys providing practical and creative solutions to help individuals and organizations live and manage green. Her firm, Madison Environmental Group, provides LEED green building and sustainability consulting services. She is also founder and president of Community Car, a car sharing organization in Madison Wisconsin. Currently she is developing NewenHouse, a business that will provide super-insulated sustainable kit homes.  

My favorite days during construction are when there is a lot of activity and there are multiple subcontractors on the job site. I think it’s because I like people and sometimes it gets a little lonely working from home. On these days I especially enjoy the interactions, seeing progress and learning from the trades and crafts people. Eight people are working here today, and I am running construction related errands and overseeing the work. It’s fabulously fun. 


The cabinet makers, Garit and Mike Pedersen, from Washburn, Wisconsin, are installing the kitchen cabinets, hutch, linen closet, bathroom vanity, medicine cabinet and the built-in 6-foot long dining bench that turns into a cot! The electricians are installing light fixtures, many of which I bought for less than $5 each at regional Habitat ReStores (second-hand building supply material stores located in Madison, La Crosse and Hayward Wisconsin). The painter is staining the west wall of the house with a second coat. He has already finished painting most of the interior walls and trim. The tile subcontractor is working on the upstairs bathroom and will tile the 16-inch deep window sills on the first floor. David and Dan are trimming out the interior of the three-season room.  

Because the house is small (970 square feet) it can get crowded for the subcontractors. So this past Sunday I spent the afternoon organizing the building materials, paint supplies and tool boxes to make room for this week’s work and the cabinets. The cabinets and built-ins will occupy most of the first floor when Garit and Mike unload their trailer and bring them into the house to install. You can save money and be more efficient if you clean and organize the job site regularly. The following picture shows the living area before I cleaned it.  

 The Living Area Prior to Cleaning and Organizing 

This morning Garit and Mike met with David and Dan and me over scones and coffee. I learned about the importance of straight, level walls. If you’re building a new house or remodeling your kitchen make sure the framer double checks the walls where the cabinets will be installed. It’s very difficult for the cabinet maker to make significant adjustments if the walls are not level. Ours are level. 

The Hutch Will Be Installed In Between Stairs And Bathroom Door 

Every week we review priorities, and now the priority is finishing the interior of the house and the storage room as we hope to move in soon. The storage room is above the root cellar and part of the three-season detached porch off of the north side of the home. Outside, we have some siding yet to install, and we need to build the wood awnings over the east entryway and the large south windows. These projects can wait until after we move in.  

The Storage Room With Salvaged Window Before Insulation Install 

The storage room and root cellar are designed to replace the need for a basement. We had to avoid a basement to achieve Passive House certification standards and for many other reasons, such as radon prevention. The 6-by-16-foot root cellar provides tornado protection and is designed with natural ventilation and a partial dirt floor for storing vegetables. Above the root cellar is the storage room, also 6-by-16 feet. Here we will store our camping gear, my yarn and fabric, extra dishes and vases, canning supplies, wrapping paper, and Cecil’s and my childhood mementos. The room will also host a closet for our winter coats and boots, a large file cabinet and our small chest freezer. The storage room is insulated with 6 inches of dense pack cellulous (recycled newspaper) and has a salvaged window installed on the north end and a salvaged door into the three-season porch. The walls are finished with low grade 5/8th plywood (that I’ll paint) and will support 100 linear feet of 18-feet and 12-inch shelving. Cecil will install the shelving in the next few weeks.  

Next week we’ll host another NewenHouse OpenHouse, on Friday July 22, 2011 from 3 to 6pm. The address is 422 Hickory St, Viroqua, WI 54665. If you’re in the area, please join us. If you have questions, contact me at (608) 220-8029, or email me at sonya [at] We’ll take a break from our monthly open houses in August and resume in September. 



Rarely get to enjoy the outdoors? You're not alone. American’s spend 90 percent of their time indoors, as reported by the EPA. It may come as a surprise that the concentration of pollutants indoors are much higher than the outdoors. With so much time spent indoors, it's important to be mindful about what we bring in with us. Additionally, many common products and home furnishings are full of chemicals and toxins that could potentially cause health risks. But you can minimize the level of pollutants by decorating with natural fibers, solid wood and organic upholstery. You don’t have to sacrifice style to be eco-friendly. If you’re ready to take another green step forward, here are a few ideas.

Natural Decor
Photo by Shutterstock

Eco-Friendly Rugs

The number of companies distributing environmentally-sensitive products has grown so much that you'd be hard-pressed to find a product that doesn't have an eco-alternative...and that includes rugs. When shopping for rugs, remember:

• Natural fibers like organic cotton, jute, seagrass, sisal, coir and either untreated or minimally-treated wool are best
• Make sure the rug has non-toxic backing and underlay pads sewn (not glued) to the backing—wool, jute, or natural latex are recommended
• Even if a rug is made from natural fibers, it could have been treated with stain, insect, or flame repellents, so make sure the label says it is organic, untreated, minimally-treated or non-toxic
• Know about certifications that guarantee renewable resources were used

For more details, Apartment Therapy's guide "How To Shop for an Environmentally-Friendly Rug" outlines everything you need to know.

Natural Window Treatments

Design and architecture magazine Freshome explains that natural light and healthy living go hand-in-hand; natural light helps the human mind, body and spirit connect with the outdoors. Additionally, the Lighting Research Center reports that natural light can even improve health and increase comfort and productivity. Of all the places you should find comfort, your home is perhaps the most important. Instead of blocking natural light from coming through the windows with heavy, dark-colored draperies, look into green and eco-friendly shades that are designed with sustainable materials like bamboo and grass, which still allow natural light in, but reduce glare and heat absorption.

Sustainable Furniture

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, many commercially-produced couches and other upholstered items are filled with harmful toxins including flame retardants that can pose serious risks to health. But did you know that you can buy toxin-free couches, beds and other furniture? More and more furniture makers and manufacturers are changing their standards to make products non-toxic, but the changes will take time. If you're in the market for new furniture now, check out this guide from the NRDC to see where the recognizable brands stand (e.g. La-Z-Boy, IKEA) in their transition away from flame retardant use. To make the search for sustainable products easier, the Sustainable Furnishings Council website allows you to search for eco-friendly companies in four categories: materials, furnishings, stores and designers. Aside from upholstered furniture, anything made from wood should be either recycled or FSC-certified, which means the forest it came from was managed in a way that did not disturb the natural ecosystem.

Lauren Topor is a multimedia journalist and alumna of Arizona State University. Her professional work has appeared in notable publications, including HuffPost Arts & Culture. When she's not writing you can find Lauren training for her next marathon or posting to her blog.


Whenever I travel, I notice a distinct difference between traditional homes and our new high-efficiency home. Because I have lived in older, less-efficient homes for most of my life, it required a bit of adjusting when we first moved in. Our new home is heated primarily from the sun, occupants and household appliances such as the stove, refrigerator and hot water heater. Despite living in Maine, our home has no furnace and just a few baseboard heaters that turn on periodically. After living in the house for over a year, I've picked up a few tips on living in a high-efficiency house.

South Facing Window 

Open the Curtains on South-Facing Windows for Free Heat

Our house has a solar orientation and relies on passive solar gains for heating during cool weather. With three very large windows and a door, most of our glazing is south-facing. It’s very important to have the curtains or blinds open to capture this free, clean and abundant heat source, especially during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest. Even during bright cloudy days, our home warms up without using the heaters. The windows also allow daylight to stream in, making supplemental lighting unnecessary most of the time.

Change Filters on the Ventilation System  

Our house is virtually airtight. To maintain the indoor air quality, we rely on mechanical ventilation. Our home has a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system that brings fresh air into the home and captures the heat before venting stale air out. These systems can recycle up to 95 percent of the heat and run by default, although occupants can boost the system to bring in greater quantities of fresh air when needed.

The intake air on our heat recovery ventilation system is filtered before it enters the home. We vacuum our filters every three months and replace them every six to 12 months. The filters are easy to access, making this a simple task.

High Efficiency Homes 

Use Higher MERV Filters When Necessary

Air filters have a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV rating) between 1 and 16. Higher numbers correspond with a greater percentage of particles being captured through the filter. Ventilation systems that have air filters typically have different MERV rating options.

For people with pollen allergies or who live in areas with considerable air pollution, it’s recommended to use a filter with a higher MERV rating. Our heat recovery ventilation system has a MERV 13 filter available, which can remove auto emission particles, mold, pollen, lead dust and spores.

Avoid Back-Drafting Flues

Many homes rely on exhaust fans to remove odors, moisture and fumes. Although they’re typically effective, they have some drawbacks. One potential issue is that they can create a negative pressure in the home because air leaves without the system, supplying intake air. Makeup air to equalize the pressure enters through cracks, holes and gaps in the building envelope.

In some cases, this can mean back-drafting your woodstove, fireplace and gas hot water heater or furnace. This causes fumes to enter the home, contaminating the indoor air. It’s most common with atmospherically vented combustion appliances. If your gas appliances are vented in this manner, follow these directions to test if it’s properly exhausting fumes.

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental and health journalist with an MBA in sustainable management. She lives in a net-zero house in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.

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