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Avoiding Household Dangers: An Interview With the Queen of Clean, Alison Haynes

by Tom Gates Jan 26, 2009
All you need to know about keeping your crib in order.

ALISON HAYNES KNOWS a thing or two about keeping house, having just released Clean Sweep: The Ultimate Guide To Decluttering, Detoxing and Destressing Your Home. The guide serves as a comprehensive how-to for any homeowner, including many ‘recipes’ for homespun cleaners and beauty aids.

Alison took a few minutes to answer our questions about dangers that might be lurking in our abodes.

As travelers, many of our readers rent apartments, or lead a nomadic existence between houses. What things should we be looking for when checking out an apartment, before deciding to rent it?

One of the simplest ‘tests’ is the nose test. How does it smell? If it smells damp, of chemicals, musty …. these are indications that all’s not well. The apartment may have insufficient ventilation, or be full of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) being emitted from new carpets or furniture — ventilation is the key.

Sunlight also helps keep microbes in check. Look for damp patches and mold on the walls, especially in ‘wet’ areas such as bathrooms and kitchens. Personally, I would also be looking at how I’m going to dry clothes. I’m not a fan of dryers as they are big power munchers and therefore are polluting.

I’ve never owned a dryer and always managed with a clotheshorse or clothes line if I have the space.

Price: $11.01 | BUY

With all of the chemicals swilling through cleaning products, what dangers do they present to the air in our houses?

It is difficult to be precise about the dangers of particular chemicals in cleaning products, but there’s no doubt we should treat them with respect.

Some pose more problems than others: aerosols, for instance, create clouds of tiny droplets that could be inhaled; ammonia produces irritating fumes (so use in a well ventilated space). If they smell, they’re in the air.

For those of us with kids especially, is there any way to tell if the paint on our walls may contain lead?

There are a number of tests, including DIY ones and lab tests. Check with your local authority about what tests are available and which are recommended (this is important as not all may have been approved).

The age of the house and paint may also be an indicator. For instance, in Australia, lead was routinely added to paint before 1950.

Most folks head straight for the pesticide aisle when encountering household pests. What are some more organic, safe ways of dealing with bugs and rodents?

Mechanical means is usually a much safer option. For instance, glue traps for cockroaches and simple spring traps baited with pumpkin or Brazil nuts for rodents such as rats. Preventative measures — such as sealing cracks where pests get in or installing fly screens on windows — can also help you avoid pesticides.

It seems like there are many quick fixes on the market for getting rid of weeds, or growing a garden faster. Do these pose any threat?

You need to be thinking about what effect they might have on other wildlife. If it’s killing a plant, what’s it doing for ladybugs? or birds? or fish, if it leaches into the waterways? Fish and amphibians such as frogs are particularly vulnerable to pesticides such as weed killers and we should be wary of using them.

Is there an easy way to tell if the insulation in our old houses is safe?

Again, this is best dealt with on a local level, with local knowledge about what has been traditionally used in the area. If you suspect asbestos, it is very important you don’t try to deal with it yourself as disturbance can send fibers into the air.

I hadn’t really thought of carpets as potential chemical hazards. Can you explain how they might be?

Many new carpets emit VOCs — volatile organic compounds. These can be hazardous to breathe, potentially triggering allergic reactions and irritations, for instance. It’s the finishes and extras like underlay which are the problem. Chemicals used throughout the house may also collect in the carpet, along with dust mites and fungi.

Are there any plants that can help make the home healthier? I also noticed that you recommended some plants as deterrents to things like mosquitoes and flies.

NASA has examined how a number of plants improve air quality by removing gases such as formaldehyde and acetone. These include common household plants such as the Peace Lily, Boston Fern, and Spider plant. And yes, some plants such as lavender, mint, thyme and rosemary have fly repellent qualities.

An air freshener seems like a quick fix to make things smell good. Are there any dangers in using them?

They usually contain solvents of some sort and sometimes hydrocarbons as well as perfume. One chemical to avoid in air fresheners is para-dichlorobenzene, an organochlorine that can accumulate in the body and is implicated in liver and nerve damage.

Some alternative air fresheners are listed in Clean Sweep in the chapter about the bathroom and include scented candles and bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice. Good ventilation is the best air freshener around.

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