Last updated 2020-06-26. Last edited 2020-11-12
A big remodel has started for a new client. To help clear the way, she wants to streamline her cleaning supplies— replacing dozens of toxic cleaners with a few “simple recipes”. And have me work with her Personal Assistants to make it happen. A home cleaning detox follows. Along the way I stumble on allergies and respiratory symptoms among the other help, and the pets. As the project tapers off, COVID hits. For how it all unfolds, read on.
Getting on the same page— our initial in-home visit
In late 2016 a new client brings me in to clean her house that’s under remodel.
Among her priorities is to bring in “green cleaning”. By that she means homemade recipes in refillable spray bottles.
Hmmm… I don’t market my service as green cleaning, exactly. And what professional cleaning service has time to fuss with recipes?
That said, I do aim to create cleaner, healthier homes. Using the simplest, least-toxic products that work, and that involve the least waste. So in that sense we’re on the same page.
I ask if she’s read my services page. My first step is creating conditions for safe, efficient cleaning. Chemical safety issues come first, and any clutter. Then other toxic exposures, for example flame retardants that create toxic dust.
“I missed that”, she says. “But I need you to clean. And I’m already good at organizing. OK, I’m on board. So let’s go”!
Getting an overview of the job
The client shows me her “cleaning closet”— big, open shelves in the wardrobe room. And the only spot in her entire home I’d call real clutter.
I’m seeing plenty of products labeled “Danger, Toxic, Flammable” and the like. According to the American Lung Association, Ingredients commonly used in such products are linked to respiratory and other health conditions.
Also boxes and boxes of disposables.
“We’re clearing most of this out for the remodel”, she says. Not only from these shelves, but also the many cleaners under sinks, in broom closets, and laundry areas.
That leaves us 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 I think it is! Squeezed in on top of cleaning and much more.
Working with Personal Assistants, a dog and two cats— and learning new skills
Two Personal Assistants (P.A.) will be on board, whom I’ll be working with to make this happen. When the P.A.s can’t be there I’ll additionally take on some of their tasks. For example day-to-day housekeeping, laundry, sending out dry cleaning, arranging for repairs. And getting the General Contractor and his subcontractors what they need. And helping with moving. And more.
I’ll also help manage a dog and two cats, two of whom are developing serious health conditions. I’ll be among their caregiving team.
All this will mean expanding my skill-set, teaching myself on the job. Making mistakes like everyone, but striving to keep improving. Nothing is about me— it’s all about the job. This mind-set is my North Star. It always sees me through.
Time to put on my work apron, open a few windows (when screens are delivered that we’ve ordered), and get to work!
Stumbling on respiratory and skin symptoms in the home
The other help, and the two cats, have chronic respiratory and skin symptoms. Dust levels may be a factor, even with my twice-weekly extreme damp dusting and HEPA vacuuming. Given two cats and a dog around, and a remodel in progress— these conditions call for daily vacuuming in traffic areas.
Two Personal Assistants (P.A.) I work with, I discover, have respiratory symptoms. One with chronic bronchitis, barely suppressing symptoms on the job (late 2016, pre-COVID). And has previously had asthma. The other P.A. has frequent severe throat and skin inflammation “from so much dust here!”
The husband has an allergy, as I learn later. I don’t ask to what, leaving clients their privacy.
Then there are the cats. One with feline asthma; the other with chronic skin sores— seasonal allergies, the client says. Sometimes five at once, up to the size of a quarter, on his chest, belly, sides and legs.
Health conditions can have multiple factors. Could indoor air quality be among them? If so, toxic cleaning-related products are a possible source.
Correlation is not causation, I remind myself. And I’m no indoor air quality expert. But it won’t hurt to continue checking for toxic exposures. And reduce those exposures when practical.
I’m spared of symptoms. We’ll never know why, but having worn N95 respirators on the job since 1987 may have helped. Plus minimizing toxics in my personal life. Plus my anti-inflammatory diet that helped me escape chronic pain. Doctors increasingly recommend this diet not only for pain, but also asthma and other chronic inflammatory conditions.
Diving deeper— 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, over sinks, in broom closets, and laundry areas.
Over five dozen different types of cleaning-related products show up in the house. But before we can simplify…
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. Heads-up hazard signals 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 unnecessary disposables!
Home cleaning detox— in gradual steps
A collaborative spirit is key in our team— the client, her family, and her Personal Assistants. Even the pets, who will help me tell the story at least.
The basic, overlapping steps for detoxing seem simple enough:
- Deep cleaning, removing built-up chemical 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 chemical 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 existing cat litter with Feline Pine brand. Feline Pine has 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
Donating toxic cleaners to the remodeling crew
After the big home 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. We 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 first mostly-finished section.
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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