Last updated 2020-06-26. Last edited 2021-07-02
A new client, Ava, and her husband are preparing for a 3-story remodel. For the move-out she has me de-clutter her cleaning supplies. Then create health-based cleaning systems for when they move back in. A big house cleaning detox unfolds in the process.
Migraines, respiratory and skin conditions turn up in the home. Clearing out irritating chemicals, and getting windows open finally, seems to bring relief. Next a pandemic hits, and we finish the project virtually.
For how it all unfolds, read on! Names changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
The backdrop— lots of remodeling, and lots of cleaning
A three-story remodel is underway throughout the project.
Working with me are Personal Assistants (P.A.s) and the Contractor. Plus a dog and two cats.
Personal Assistants (P.A.)
Cecilia, the first, has cleaned professionally. And is highly skeptical of anything even remotely “green”.
Ruth, the second, brings expertise in fabrics, surfaces and finishes from her work in building restoration, along with environmental compliance. And is already on board.
Regina (yours truly) who has cleaned professionally too, I become the 3rd P.A., unofficially, when Ruth takes a job in the the couple’s business. I’ve learned much from P.A.s and House Managers, and follow in their footsteps. I juggle the job with cleaning, laundry and dishes. It’s called skills-stacking!
Frank, the Contractor, is present for the entire project. Our rock. I gather new care instructions and user manuals from Frank, scanning as needed. Plus I fetch supplies, haul things, hold things steady, and update him on the owners’ schedules. And get him paid!
We all take turns managing the dog and two cats, two of whom are developing serious health conditions. Soon we’re all care-giving too.
Symptoms in the home— migraines, allergy, respiratory, skin
In the family, Ava suffers from migraines, which may be triggered by certain foods or fragrances. Then there are the cats. One with feline asthma; the other with chronic skin sores— seasonal allergies, Ava says, that seem to worsen in dusty conditions.
Two P.A.s have other respiratory symptoms. Cecilia has chronic bronchitis, barely suppressing symptoms on the job (pre-COVID). And previously had asthma. Ruth has frequent severe throat and skin inflammation “from so much dust here!”
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
Dust levels may be a factor too. Well, there are two cats and a dog around, plus a remodel in progress. With very poor ventilation. Indoor air pollution may be at work.
Improving symptoms — can a house cleaning detox help?
Some symptoms improved after the house cleaning detox— anecdotally. In any case, for such symptoms, health experts recommend reducing exposures to fragrances or other chemical irritants. Learn more at American Lung Association. Plus, check out Hayward Score’s online survey to find out how common such symptoms are.
Initially assessing cleaning supplies
Ava’s vision in hiring me— “Green cleaning. Homemade recipes in refillable spray bottles”.
What Ava’s got now— dozens of conventional products, many labeled “Danger, Toxic, Flammable”, “Avoid breathing spray or mist”, and the like. I’m no toxics expert. But according to the American Lung Association, Ingredients commonly used in such products are linked to respiratory and other health conditions. Such hazards are virtually unnecessary for effective cleaning.
Also boxes and boxes of disposables, Despite the big myth, disposables are virtually unnecessary for convenient cleaning.
“We’re clearing most of this out for the remodel”, Ava says. Not only from her main cleaning closet, shelves, but also from under sinks, in broom closets, and laundry areas.
My to-do list: evaluate every cleaning-related product, eliminate any toxic hazards, and gradually transition the house to health-based cleaning. Somehow all squeezed in on top of actually cleaning. Plus manage pets. Plus, in a few months I’ll be taking on the P.A. role as well.
I tie on my work apron, open a few windows (when screens are delivered that I’ve requested), and get to work!
Diving deeper— assessing over five dozen products for hazards and waste
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…
To eliminate any potential safety hazards we first check for hazard signals. For this I create a big spreadsheet.
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 stored and used correctly, some products may emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Even when sealed— as you may notice walking in the supermarket cleaning aisle.
Waste is another issue. So many unnecessary disposables!
Losing two pets to cancer
During our house cleaning detox, the family loses two pets to cancer. First a dog to massive nose cancer. Then a cat to feline lymphoma. Throughout the best veterinary care we all help in home care-giving, then say goodbye. Not so easy after our bonding.
We can’t know what caused the cancers. But we do know that some chemicals in household dust are linked to cancer. Ava’s phasing out some already, starting with stain resistant coatings on carpets and upholstery.
I tell both pets I’ll strive to help their kind and their families in any small way I can. And thanked them for teaching me so much. Still missing my buddies!
House cleaning detox— the basic steps
The basic steps for detoxing seem simple enough:
- Ensuring all existing cleaning products are used and stored safely.
- Gradually transitioning the house to practical, least-toxic products that work.
- De-cluttering. In this house it’s cleaning-related supplies during the transition.
- Safely disposing of now-unused toxic products.
- Deep cleaning, removing old, built-up cleaning residues along with dirt and dust. Again, using the least-toxic products that work. Lighter routine cleaning follows.
Transitioning the cleaning supplies, cat litter, and dry cleaning service
A collaborative spirit is key— between the client, her family, the P.A.s, and the Contractor. Even the pets, who help me tell the story at least.
Among the main house cleaning detox steps are the following, roughly in the order they happen.
- Bringing in a healthy vacuum cleaner— a Miele Cat and Dog canister (for two cats and a dog). I meet Ava at the shop to demonstrate how I use the machine. The shop owner jumps in with his own expertise as needed. I’m so grateful Ava goes with this machine, one we’ll all be using.
- Researching safer brands of cleaning-related products, and their ingredients.
- Field-testing to find the least-toxic products that work in this house. In this case, testing on the job, aiming for efficiency, cost-effectiveness and convenience. Additionally, all new products are free of synthetic fragrance too (one sneaks in!). And involve the least waste.
- Having Ava and the P.A. try the more promising product replacements. The only difference Cecilia and Ava notice is lack of fragrance—
- Creating new systems from what’s working. Gradually integrating them into cleaning closets, counter tops, under sinks, and more.
- 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 a transparently-labeled pine brand. It’s just pine, and fragrance-free. We later switch to non-clumping pine formula, with only mineral oil added.
- Update 2019-02-20: 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.
- 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.
Coming up with transitional set of supplies, customized for this home
Ava and the P.A. quickly adopt the safer brands among the categories they use, for “all-purpose”, dish liquid, dishwasher. The P.A. quickly adopts the laundry products too.
It helps that the safer brands work the same way their conventional counterparts do— conveniently. No fussy recipes to learn! Bringing in better tools is part of the answer— I’ll write about that another time.
By the time the family moves out and then back in again, the transition is complete. The most hazardous product we’re all using— Ava too— is non-chlorine bleach, in this case hydrogen persoxide bleach at around 4% strength. We’re practicing all safety precautions.
Preparing hazardous 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 our big house cleaning detox, I arrange for safe disposal at a Household Hazardous Waste Facility. A Personal Assistant packages them up per City requirements.
Shortly after, the construction crew swoops in and takes the outgoing supplies home to their families to use up. Indeed, cities recommend donating unused products when possible.
Adding the Personal Assistant role
My new cleaning-related P.A. tasks
For each type of the following cleaning-related tasks I strive to find safer approaches, as each come my way, Including the following.
- Laundry. Learning proper care of natural fabrics, along with quality synthetics and blends. And safer bleaching. Plus new spaceship machines!
- Dry cleaning pickup / drop-off, using the new less-toxic steam method.
- Inventorying, shopping, taking in deliveries, re-stocking. I’m integrating least-toxic products, with ordering links, directly into the “Household Inventory” Google Sheet, adding a new columns for more product information.
- Recycling, composting, trash. Getting access to the outside bin area is somewhat tricky with a major remodel underway. In any case, we’re reducing bag waste. For trash and recycling we’re re-using bags when possible. For composting we’re using non-GMO “Compostable” bags vs “Biodegradable”.
- Bed-making. Keeping sheets and duvet covers perfect, with a dog and two cats who make their homes there.
- House-sitting and pet-sitting. More pet messes! Especially when pets are under home medical care.
- Getting plumbers and appliance repair persons in. Participating in solving puzzles: First a dishwasher drainage issue, then washing machine vibrations rattling the downstairs neighbors. I arrange repeat repairs until work-around solutions are that require my attention.
Please note: Other P.A. tasks I performed are missing from this list, as they’re not related to cleaning.
Providing remote support during COVID
Update 2020-06-26: Since COVID hit, the family’s been working from home. I’ve continued to provide 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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