Mother Earth Living

The Eco Expert Answers Your Eco Questions

Advice for controlling indoor allergies, eliminating skunk smell and cleaning carpets naturally.
By Debra Lynn Dadd
September/October 1999
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My wife has become very concerned about the gas range in our kitchen. It has no hood or vent and she feels its electric ignition may be fueling her allergies. Since we live in an apartment, there appears little we can do to keep toxins at bay except keep the ceiling fan running and the kitchen door open to the back porch. I read in Natural Home that houseplants can reduce indoor air pollution significantly. Are houseplants effective in reducing carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2)? What types of plants are most effective?

All gas appliances can produce combustion by-products. These include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and vapors from various organic chemicals. The most dangerous combustion by-product is carbon monoxide, created when an insufficient supply of air prevents fuels from burning completely. When a generous supply of fresh air is available and fuel is burning properly, there is little danger of poisoning. However, when neither is present—often the case during the fall and winter months when heating systems are in full use and windows are tightly sealed—appliances produce carbon monoxide that can overcome an unsuspecting bystander.

Carbon monoxide starves the body and brain of oxygen. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning imitate flu symptoms: sleepiness, headache, dizziness, flushed skin, disorientation, abnormal reflexes, blurred vision, irritability, and an inability to concentrate. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal. Most hardware and home improvement stores now sell carbon monoxide detectors, which should be used in all homes with gas appliances or heaters.

However, you need not eliminate a gas stove or heating appliance simply because they represent a potential danger. Like fire, gas, too, has benefits when used with adequate precautions. I myself use a gas range because I prefer cooking with a flame.

Here’s how to use gas appliances as safely as possible.

  • Check frequently to make sure your gas appliances are functioning properly. A poorly adjusted gas stove can emit thirty times the carbon monoxide of a well-adjusted stove. Clean clogged stove burners and blocked flues, fix cracks and leaks in pipes, and keep up any maintenance suggested by the manufacturer. Many local power companies will send a representative to your home at no cost to check your appliances.
  • Dilute airborne pollutants with ventilation. A range hood-fan works best—during cooking it can remove up to 70 percent of pollutants—but if your kitchen is without one, open doors and windows and ventilate. Use small portable fans if necessary. We couldn’t have a range hood over our stove, so we installed an openable skylight in our kitchen to draw up pollutants. On rainy days we just open the window a bit.
  • Choose a new-model gas stove with a low-heat-input gas pilot light and electric ignition system, as you already have. These newer models produce significantly fewer pollutants than older ones.

And, yes, plants can remove air pollutants. The best varieties are aloe vera, bamboo palm, common chrysanthemum, dracaena palm, philodendron, golden pothos, spider plant, and schefflera. However, the scientific tests that prove the effectiveness of plants at removing pollutants were conducted with only one plant in a twelve-cubic-foot area. Since the area of an average 9-by-12-foot room with an 8-foot ceiling is 864 cubic feet, you would need seventy-two plants to duplicate these results—a virtual jungle.

Plants are an excellent way to bring nature’s greenery indoors and freshen the air, but don’t rely on a single plant or two to act as an effective air cleaner in a heavily polluted environment. It’s always best to remove the source of pollutants.

More information on the subject can be found in How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office by B. C. Wolverton (Penguin USA, 1997), who conducted the original research on this subject for NASA.

Skunking that Skunk Smell

Our dog was just sprayed by a skunk, and I’ve been desperately roaming the Internet looking for a safe deodorizing formula for the “eau de burned tire.” Can you be of help?

I had once heard that tomato juice is a nontoxic antidote for skunk odor but never had the occasion—thank goodness!—to try it. I’ve heard mixed reviews on tomato juice. A coworker passed on this alternate solution.

1 quart hydrogen peroxide
1/4 cup baking soda
1 teaspoon liquid soap

Place solution on for 5 minutes and rinse. “Amazing!” she says. “Trust me. It works.”

Carpet Conundrums

Can you tell me how to clean my carpets safely and naturally? I’m not certain that I want to use carpet shampoo.

The active ingredient in most rug, carpeting, and upholstery shampoos is percholorethylene, a solvent commonly used as a spot remover. It also is a known human carcinogen, and its immediate effects on users include dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, and feelings of disorientation.

The safest carpeting deodorizers on the market consist of scented baking soda in fancy packages. Unscented baking soda works just as well. To deodorize your carpeting naturally, first make sure it is dry, then sprinkle it liberally with baking soda. By liberally, I mean it should look as though it has been snowed on. You will need several pounds for a nine-by-twelve-foot room. Wait fifteen minutes or longer, then vacuum. Although this treatment removes odors, it won’t remove spots.

For a general cleaning, rent a “steam vacuum” without the accompanying shampoo. The steam itself will do much to lift dirt and dust. You also can add your own natural soap product.

This subject came up on a recent Natural Home radio show (see page 24 for time and stations). A listener called to say that he cleans his carpets with a citrus-based cleaner that he dilutes with water in a garden watering can. He sprinkles some on the carpeting, then vacuums it up with a wet/dry vacuum.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to suggest you rethink floor coverings altogether. Syn­thetic carpeting is made from complex blends of up to 120 chemicals that can emit hazardous vapors, including pesticides, neurotoxic solvents, and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have amassed stories on the negative health effects of synthetic carpets.

My best recommendation is to eliminate carpeting altogether and instead install hardwood, natural linoleum, ceramic tile, marble, or other stone-tile floors. Washable natural fiber area rugs can be placed on these floors for warmth and decoration. They are easy to clean and do not harbor dust, molds, fleas, shampoo residues, and other creatures that thrive in carpeting. Before my husband and I moved to our current home, we had it inspected for carpenter ants. The house was certified free of these predators, but when we moved in and took up the carpet, we found the floor underneath swarming with carpenter ants slowly eating away our living-room floor.

If you prefer carpeting, choose one made with natural fibers. A good source for natural carpeting and other floor coverings is The Hendricksen’s Naturlich catalog, available from (707) 824-0914.

Controlling Mold

Our house is located in a forest next to a creek, so it is generally damp. During the rainy season we have a real problem with mold. What can we do to prevent it from becoming overwhelming?

Mold is a living organism that re­quires certain conditions to stay alive; a moist, dark, environment with little moving air is perfect. I also live in a ­forest near a creek, and one particularly cold and rainy year I tried to conserve heat by closing the door on my guest bedroom, which contained a bed, books and research papers, and out-of-season clothing. By the end of winter, there was so much mold in that room that it was literally growing on my clothing. My espadrilles and cloth-covered book binders were covered with blue fuzz.

To alleviate the problem, I placed a portable space heater in the room and closed the door. After several hours I peeked in and saw steam rising. The room was like a sauna. After twenty-four hours, however, all was bone dry, and I was able to brush visible mold—which now looked like a dry powder—from walls, clothing, and other surfaces. The moral of the story: If you live in a damp environment that gets little sun, make certain heat circulates completely around the house. Even though this remedy may require more energy use, you need it to keep your home—and yourself—dry and safe. Mold damages both material goods and human health.

Showering Clean

What about those new sprays that promise “you’ll never have to clean your shower again” if you mist your shower area with them daily? Do they really work to keep grout, faucets, and tubs clean—and if so, how? Are they as non-toxic as they promise?

Shower sprays work by mixing with the water droplets left on shower/tub surfaces after you shower, allowing soil, mildew stains and mineral deposits to rinse away as you take your next shower.

The one brand available at my local supermarket advertises itself to be made of “mild, biodegradable, environmentally friendly” ingredients. Looking at the label, however, I found the first ingredient to be isopropyl alcohol, a liquid made from propylene, which is obtained by cracking petroleum. Given that petroleum is nonrenewable and polluting in its extraction, transportation, manufacturing, and disposal, nothing made from petroleum should be called “environ­mentally friendly.”

Isopropyl alcohol is used in many products—everything from after-shave and hand lotions to antifreeze and solvent. Labeled “rubbing alcohol,” it is used widely in every doctor’s office. But this doesn’t mean it is safe. Ruth Winter’s A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (Three Rivers Press, 1999) says, “inhalation of large quantities of propylene vapor may cause flushing, headache, dizziness, mental depression, nausea, vomiting, and coma.” The ­warning on the rubbing alcohol label says “Do not apply to irritated skin, use in eyes or mucous membranes.” I don’t see how you can spray isopropyl alcohol into the air and not get it in your eyes and lungs.

To clean your bathroom tile, try a simple scrub of baking soda for sparkle. If you need to remove mold or mildew, use a mixture of borax and water or vinegar and water. If you have a major mold problem, you probably need more heat or air circulation in your bathroom. Soap scum is a sign of hard water. If you have hard water, your laundry compound probably is sticking to your ­clothing, too, so it’s wise to invest in a water softener. nNH

Debra Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy, natural home environments and author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/ Putnam, 1997).

If you have eco-questions, please write her at Natural Home, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537-5655; or visit her website at www.dld123.com.

Environmentor is used with the permission of the EnvironMentors® Project, an environmental education mentoring program


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