Last updated 2021-06-14. Last edited 2021-07-21.
I once owned and operated a health-based cleaning service, specializing in households with environmental allergies and asthma. And became a health-based cleaning coach. Then when busy clients needed concierge services and home management support I dove in, integrating healthy home elements into my new work.
For how it all unfolded— grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and put your feet up. My story follows, told in the present tense.
My healthy home journey— on the job
Launching a toxic cleaning service
In 1979 I launch a cleaning service specializing in detailing, for homes and small businesses. And like all cleaning services at the time, plenty toxic.
Why cleaning? My big sister had owned a similar service to fund her next venture. She hired me, and trained me on the job. Awesome trainer! And fun to work with. My passion was deep, detailed vacuuming— I could not get over the before and after.
Where next, after cleaning? Health-related somehow. My first job, at fifteen, was keeping prescription records in a pharmacy— typing out meds and doses from hand-written prescriptions. Then worked as a Nursing Assistant in a hospital and nursing home.
I’d loved caring for patients. And get it about emergency care. But wonder if chronic diseases can be prevented.
I gradually get a few clues when researching for my health-based cleaning service. That a healthy home is key,
“Miracle” products— chemical burns, fumes, and still lots of scrubbing
Toxic cleaners are no miracles, as glamorous ads claim. Even used as directed. Still too much scrubbing! Too many women are reporting the same challenge today.
Plus, one wrong move with harsh chemicals can injure eyes or skin. Or damage surfaces or finishes.
Then there are irritating sprays and fumes. My strict policy— we’re opening windows! Here’s what comes out later, in 2018.
Feb. 16, 2018─Women who work as cleaners or regularly use cleaning sprays or other cleaning products at home appear to experience a greater decline in lung function over time than women who do not clean, according to new research published online in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.American Thoracic Society
Then there’s water pollution. What am I pouring down drains? I later learn that hormone-disrupting chemicals slip through water treatment plants, building up in our rivers and streams. A river in my home town has not been spared. We floated down that river as kids, in tire tubes. Too real! Yes, as if pollution in anyone’s home town isn’t real.
Making non-toxic cleaning work on the job— before anything “green” is a thing
I’m researching professional methods and tools. And field-testing them on the job with toxic cleaners. A big help!
But wait— if professional methods make toxic cleaning work, can they work with non-toxic cleaners? At this point, only one way to find out.
First I try castile soap we’re cleaning with at home and use on our skin. Plus baking soda, Bon Ami and vinegar. Surprisingly they work— in the right combinations, with the right tools and techniques. Check out my post, Clean Like a Pro with Organic Ingredients, to get you started.
Grease— a whole other ballgame! In Don Aslett’s book The Cleaning Encyclopedia I learn that a few drops of dish liquid, diluted in a refillable spray bottle with water, works. And it does! Bye-bye to expensive “all-purpose” cleaners. In a few years I’ll discover Seventh Generation brand that takes the early lead. And Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds— powerful used full-strength.
Meanwhile I keep the changes to myself. And getting more business. So why rock any boats?
I’m not the first— other early non-toxic services
1982, approximately: I discover three similar services across the U.S., and reach out. We share our research, testing and results. One jokingly calls us “the four gospels”— his words, not mine. But events in their personal lives— new babies, new careers— take them in other directions. But I’m sure there are more of us out there!
DIY’ers, too, are likely already onto non-toxic cleaning in their own homes.
Meeting nontoxic living pioneer Debra Lynn Dadd
In 1985, a growing number of “eco-friendly” products are popping up on store shelves. But how to know what’s really safe?
I reach out to Debra Lynn Dadd. Debra, Nontoxic Living Pioneer, is the first to speak about toxics for consumers after Rachel Carson. New York Times crowns Debra the first “Queen of Green”.
After a career as concert pianist, Debra suspected that indoor air pollution was making her sick. She delved into chemistry and toxicology books. Then detoxed her home, diet and body, and eventually healed.
Debra teaches me how to research products myself. I field-test some of these on the job, in her home, for her next book. I then help her cross-reference her work.
Shhh… what happens with unannounced rollout
Responses to my undercover non-toxic cleaning vary— from neutral, to strongly positive, to laughs and more.
Most clients are too busy to notice. Same detail, same quality delivered.
Clients with environmental allergies and asthma, and young moms, notice on their own. And passionately express how important non-toxic cleaning is to their health and their family’s.
As for allergies and asthma, now I’m deep-cleaning on steroids for dust mites. Vacuuming entire mattresses and box springs, and washing curtains. And moving lots more furniture, cleaning everything inside and out.
Others laughed at best. One elderly client speaks for many: “Don’t believe everything you see on TV”! “Lady, I wish I did see this on TV”, I’m thinking. But otherwise, no quality complaints.
Definitely not a good fit: One new client, upon returning home, yells “This house is filthy!” I have her inspect the entire house with me, checklist in hand. Finding no dirt, all she can say is “Where’s my pine smell ?!^%$#” [Suddenly her spouse arrives home from work. A “knock-down, drag-out” fight unfolds between the couple, unrelated to cleaning. I slip out quietly.] The situation is fixable, but instead I focus on clients who value safe cleaning.
Rebranding as Non-toxic
In 1985 I rebrand mainly as a Nontoxic Cleaning Service, specializing in environmental allergies and asthma.
And getting more business than ever.
Providing bono consulting and referrals— practicing!
I’m spending evenings on the phone, answering cleaning questions for callers with environmental allergies and asthma. And making referrals to other services I’ve vetted. My own little internship. Gaining experience!
At a crossroads— sharing my skills vs scaling my cleaning service
Family and friends urge me to hire and expand. Instead, for big projects I team up with other independent services, which clients pay separately, instead of having employees or sub-contractors. Why not keep things simple?
In any case, I have teaching and book-writing in mind instead.
Creating more opportunities for others, and educating consumers
1985: I start presenting workshops locally, for other independent cleaning services. Industrial hygienists provide health and safety guidance and handouts.
At health fairs I provide education, through the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
My wake-up call— toxic house dust and indoor air pollution
1989 Approximately: Flame retardants cross my radar when I go to buy a mattress. I ignore the matter now. But later it hits mainstream news— cancer, thyroid disruption, obesity, bone loss…
But wait— it’s not only flame retardants, I’m later to discover. Many common household chemicals can harm immune and hormonal systems, as documented in the 2020 book “Non-Toxic: Guide to Living Healthy in a Chemical World”, by Aly Cohen, M.D.
But, hey. Even if you don’t clean, you and your loved ones are still exposed. According to Silent Spring Institute, many toxic chemicals lurk in our house dust.
Discovering Jeffrey Campbell’s work
1990? [Will check this date] Jeffrey Campbell’s book Speed Cleaning, and his catalog The Clean Team, popularizes non-toxic routine cleaning, based on having launched a related service in 1985. Awesome work! Toxic dust isn’t surfacing yet— hopefully in future editions.
Campbell’s professional materials help many start their own services, market, and charge the going rate. Most services now seem to clean in the Speed Cleaning format.
In 2021 The Clean Team lives on. Don’t miss their efficient aprons and refillable spray bottles—with reliable spray heads!
Detoured by chronic pain— and beating it, drug-free
In 1990 injure my back moving what I’m sure is the world’s heaviest sofa. Then a major ankle injury that’s not setting right. Chronic pain sets in, followed by a complete reversal.
During the worst I redesign my non-toxic cleaning systems, testing them on clients. And keep researching product issues and brands.
Long-time clients pull me through. On the job they have me rest on their sofas and beds. One even brings me heating pads. Unexpected bonuses come for days I can’t make it in. Prospects say they’ll wait for me. All a powerful reminder that we value and support each others’ health.
Here’s how I escape living in chronic pain— virtually drug-free. A complete reversal!
Developing and conducting professional trainings
1991- 2001, I conduct five major trainings, collaborating with business incubators.
The women I trained urged me not to train any other services in their area. But after the trainings, a large chain soon moved into the territory, adding green features. With no help from me.
More of the story another time possibly!
Cleaning for health — getting the lowdown from the experts
In 1995 I read Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health, a groundbreaking book by Michael A. Berry. Among my take-homes: remove pollutants (vs only visible dirt) and eliminate cleaning residues. Must re-read! Big thanks to John Stewart, founder of Healthy Choice Carpet Cleaners, for passing it along to me. John also enlightens me further about indoor air quality. And his own health-first method.
Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health is a classic reference work that is helping to transform the commercial cleaning industry.Cleaning Industry Research Institute
Meeting Mike, a major influencer in my work and life
1995 Met Mike at a water quality event. Water quality— a passion we share. He becomes a big part of my life.
Mike tips me off about factors in cleaning— like design, building materials, finishes, plumbing and more. Not only that, but water pollution and water treatment too. That’s as a General Contractor, with a background as a Water Quality Engineer. Love how builders and engineers make me think— more ways to look at things!
Throughout my projects, Mike challenges my thinking— and shares his skills. Plus has me using more tools, fixing p-traps, and more.
Most importantly, Mike helps create more time for me to write, by helping around the house. Shopping, cooking, dishes. Even throughout my injuries, he keeps me moving forward with my work.
Maybe most importantly, Mike teaches me writing skills. He’s been trained in technical writing— the perfect teacher! Much of it translates over.
Working with the City of San Francisco
1995 worked with campaigns for the City of San Francisco.
The first project is to reduce household hazardous waste, producing educational materials titled Garbage Cans, Garbage Can’ts.
The second is a booklet titled “Clean It! Safer Housecleaning Methods that Really Work”!, to reduce water pollution. To publicize the book I’m filmed on the job, for Channel 4 Evening News. The booklet is adopted by several nearby cities, and is no longer in print.
Detoxing and de-cluttering
By 2010 I’m developing more healthy home services on the job. That means detoxing cleaning closets and under sinks. Plus de-cluttering. The purpose is to reduce sources of indoor air pollutants, and simplify cleaning.
In 2016 my first biggest home cleaning detox project arrives, as part of cleaning operations. I jump in!
Wearing two new hats: Home Concierge and Home Manager
Starting in 2016 I accidentally become a Home Concierge and and Daytime Home Manager, teaching myself many new skills on the job.
I say accidentally, because the previous Manager leaves the job. And I already have most of the skills it takes. Previous cleaning clients requested the same tasks from me— I jumped in then too. I just haven’t valued that experience until now.
The challenge— teaching myself new skills on the job. And pulling it all off on top of cleaning.
I take every opportunity to integrate safer, healthier approaches into my new role. For example, finding pine cat litter, safer dry cleaning, and more — stories for another time!
Google Docs is another new skill I teach myself, to report my work on the cloud. Then more Google apps. I’ve tested Asana first, and like it. But the client prefers Google. I help onboard the next Manager with the same.
COVID Shutdown projects
2020– My main client suddenly must work from home, in a tiny space during a remodel. So suddenly I can’t work onsite. I provide all the support I can virtually.
Throughout the shutdown I mainly work in the city home of another client while she and her family stay in their country home. An old Edwardian with five bedrooms, two studies, and three bathrooms, on two floors. I spend several days per visit de-cluttering, organizing, and deep-cleaning, reporting via Google Docs. And developing inventory / ordering tools on the cloud.
During each stay I dedicate an extra day to fine tune my systems for use there and with other clients. On my own time, of course.
My next new hat: Coach another House Manager
2021 I coach another Home Manager who’s landed a new employer. Managing three of his properties requires new skills right off the bat, so she reaches out to me for support.
We take a “just-in-time” learning approach. This 2021-07-22 Wikipedia page describes it to the T.
After helping the Manager buy and use a new laptop, I help her set up basic privacy and security settings: strong passwords, two-factor authentication, multiple local and cloud backups, recovery keys, and recovery accounts. Plus how to avoid malware and phishing. And who the good local IT and security experts are.
Sharing my research skills comes next. For example, for Integrated Pest Management, heater replacement with filter, and issues with ionizers. And toxic-free rug pads for use with radiant heating. And more. My cleaning and healthy home research over the years covered each of these. So I’m ready!
What’s coming if all goes well
2021 Meanwhile I’m quietly updating my site and blog. And developing an email newsletter. A book is in the works too! A better email sign-up button coming…