Last updated 2020-06-26. Last edited 2020-09-14
Please note: this post’s title is changing. It was first titled “Cleaning Detox, Remodel, and Website Reconstruction— Under Way”, originally published in 2019. Then Big House Cleaning Detox— a Case Study”. I’m learning blogging as I go, and will get better at it!
Getting on the same page, from day one
Initial in-home visit
In late 2016 a new client brings me in to clean her house— under remodel, by the way.
Plus she wants my least-toxic cleaning system that everyone in her home can use safely. She’s thinking of my castile soap, baking soda and vinegar solutions I’ve used since 1985. “Green cleaning”, she calls it.
On my first visit I ask if she’s read my services page. The idea is creating conditions for safe, efficient cleaning. Among other things, this means addressing any existing chemical safety issues or clutter.
“I missed that”, she says. “But I need you to clean. OK, I’m on board. So let’s go”!
My site says I’ll clean too, once these issues are addressed. But in real life, I often juggle these elements together.
Yes, I refer clients to Environmental Consultants like Healthy Building Science. and Professional Organizers like Liberated Spaces. a Certified Green Business. But clients, I consistently find, lack time and bandwidth.
Back to our initial visit. The client shows me her “cleaning closet”— big, open shelves in the wardrobe room.
Right off the bat I’m seeing plenty of products labeled “Danger, Toxic, Flammable” and the like. And plenty of disposables.
“We’re clearing everything out for the remodel”, she says. Not only for these shelves, but the many cleaners under sinks, in broom closets, and laundry area.
That leaves us what turns out to be roughly a year. To evaluate every cleaning-related product, and gradually transition the house to the least-toxic, least-wasteful products that work.
A year’s not as much time as we think it is. All squeezed in on top of cleaning. I’ll also be helping with a dog and two cats. Later I’ll take on some P.A. tasks too.
I’ve never taken on a project this size. But put my work apron on, open a few windows, and get to work.
Finding respiratory and skin symptoms in the home
The two Personal Assistants (P.A.) I work with have respiratory symptoms. One has chronic bronchitis, barely suppressing symptoms on the job (2016, pre-COVID). She’s also had asthma in the past. The other has severe throat inflammation and skin irritation “from so much dust here!”
Then there are the cats. One with feline asthma. The other with multiple chronic skin sores— seasonal allergies, the client says.
Could indoor air quality be a factor? I’m thinking about toxic cleaning-related products as a possible source.
Correlation is not causation, I remind myself. And I’m no indoor air quality expert. But it won’t hurt to check around for any toxic exposures. And reduce those exposures when practical.
Assessing over five dozen products for hazards and waste
The Personal Assistants and I check everywhere for cleaning-related products— big cleaning closet, counter tops, under sinks, in broom closets, and laundry area.
A little over five dozen different types of cleaning-related products show up in the house.
For safety purposes we first check for hazard signals. Brands are legally required to include hazard signals on labels to alert consumers to short-term (acute) health effects, along with safe handling instructions. Signals to be extra alert to include:
Even when stored and used safely, some toxic products may emit chemicals even when sealed— as you may notice walking in the supermarket cleaning aisle.
Waste is another issue. So many disposables!
Detoxing in gradual steps
A collaborative spirit is key in our team— the client, her family, and her Personal Assistants. Even the pets, helping me tell the story at least.
The basic, overlapping steps seem simple enough:
- Deep cleaning, removing built-up cleaning residues along with dirt. Again, using the least-toxic products that work. Lighter routine cleaning follows.
- Transitioning the house to practical, least-toxic products that work. This involves researching brands and ingredients. Then field-testing, in this case on the job— I’m here to clean too!
- De-cluttering. In this house it’s cleaning-related supplies. This happens during the transition.
- Safely disposing of now-unused toxic products.
Cleaning safer from Day 1
Initially I prioritize deep surface cleaning, removing built-up cleaning residues along with dirt. The entire kitchen and bathrooms, appliances too. Lighter routine cleaning follows. All using the least-toxic products that work.
The client and her P.A. continue to use their favorite old laundry detergent, chlorine bleach and fragrance-containing dish liquid. After eight months, when a new P.A. comes on board, we replace those too.
Transitioning the cleaning closet, cat litter, and dry cleaning service
Among the main steps we take in these areas are the following, roughly in the order they happened.
Bringing in a healthy vacuum cleaner— a Miele Cat and Dog canister (for two cats and a dog). I meet the client at the shop, where the owner lets me demonstrate, jumping in with his own expertise as needed. I’m so grateful the client goes with this machine, one we’ll all be using.
Introducing new least-toxic cleaners for the home’s supplies. Virtually all are free of synthetic fragrance too (one sneaks in). And involve the least waste. For now the client still uses two of her old favorites that contain synthetic fragrance. Scroll to the photo below— you’ll find some on My Product List as well.
Creating new systems in cleaning closets, counter tops, under sinks and more. Aiming for efficiency, cost-effectiveness and convenience.
Rooting out unnecessarily-harsh cleaners from the entire house. Also disposable wipes, and other wasteful tools. Many of both contain synthetic fragrance. Some fragrance ingredients may trigger migraines, asthma or other respiratory symptoms, though the jury may still be out.
Preparing now-unused products for household hazardous waste disposal. We close these up in an unused downstairs bathroom, away from the pets.
Replacing the “proprietary” cat litter brand with Feline Pine. With a more transparent ingredient list than the previous brand. Plus fragrance-free.
Update 2019-02-25: Switching the family’s dry cleaning from a hydrocarbon method to a new steam method. And researching the professional wet cleaning method with help from Megan Kalsman, in Small Business Toxics with San Francisco Department of the Environment.
Update 2019-03-20: Always discovering more uses for safe products! For example, tea stains in stainless steel thermoses. So far, baking soda wins out over fizzy denture cleaner or Bon Ami. Quick tip: make a paste with baking soda and soap. Use with damp sponge or stiff brush, or both.
Preparing questionable products for safe disposal
Thanks to Megan Kalsman at San Francisco Department of the Environment for recommending I include information on safe disposal, and sending me a link. It’s too important to wait until my new site is up, as I had planned.
Not down the drain, in the trash, or abandoned outside
Every household has hazardous products. Old containers of household chemicals can deteriorate and leak [like our old chlorine bleach did!], causing dangerous fumes and fires when stored inside your house, or polluting rainwater runoff when stored outside.
When disposed improperly, these products end up in the landfill or down the drain. They can leach toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and groundwater. Workers can be injured when these products are crushed in garbage and recycling trucks or poured down the drain.San Francisco Department of the Environment
Using everything up after all— meaning the remodeling crew
After the big cleaning detox the client’s Personal Assistant arranged for safe disposal at a Household Hazardous Waste Facility.
Shortly after, the construction crew swooped in and used up the outgoing supplies for themselves and their families. Indeed, if I’m correct, cities recommend donating unused products when possible. I just hope they used everything safely! 🙂
Remodeling as a backdrop
A three-story remodel has been underway throughout this project.
Moving out for the remodel, then back
The family’s hunkered down for a year in a small rental where I “hold down the fort” two days per week.
Mainly I’m cleaning, housekeeping, sending out dry cleaning, and taking care of pets. Along with some shopping errands and house sitting. And arranging for repairs between the client, building manager, and subcontractors. And far more— anything the home and pets need daytimes. A bit like an Alfred Home manager, I discover later.
Throughout, I’m researching and field-testing the most promising products. And tweaking systems.
Update 2019, April: After a year away during the remodel, the family’s back in their own home. I’m back there with them, working in the mostly-finished floor.
Providing remote support during COVID
Update 2020-06-26: Since COVID hit, the family’s been working from home. I’ve continued to offer support—remotely— on everything from grout sealers to pest control. For non-urgent matters we use shared Google Docs. Otherwise, emails.
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