COMMENTARY: A Lean, Green, Cleaning Machine

Deirdre Imus Talks to E

Deirdre Imus (not to be confused with the Imus she"s married to) may not do her own house cleaning, but she knows the chemical makeup of name-brand cleaning products and the environmental and public health dangers they can cause. And her new book: Green This! Volume One: Greening Your Cleaning (Simon and Schuster, $15.95), is a readable, practical how-to book on ridding your home of toxins.

The world is ready to listen to environmental and children's health advocate Deirdre Imus.

One of the scariest sections of Green This! focuses on the dangers of chlorine. Imus points out that chlorine bleach is almost impossible to find in Germany, which recognizes it as toxic, while lenient laws in the U.S. have allowed chlorine in every segment of our lives: from shower, to swimming pool, to dishwasher to washing machine. Consider this: "The dishwasher opens at waist heights for most adults. But that door is right at the level of kids" mouths, which means those chlorine vapors are going straight into their bodies." The book"s remedies for toxic ills are easy: distilled white vinegar and baking soda, essential oils, lemon juice, and even ketchup factor in. And a glossary lists not-so-well-known chemicals (from dioxin to methylene chloride) to avoid.

Imus"s history as an environmental and children"s health advocate is well-established: She is the founder and president of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology and launched the Greening the Cleaning line of safe, nontoxic cleaners for industrial and retail use (all of the profits go back into research for healthier kids, as do all book proceeds). Her loudmouthed radio talk show husband, Don, clearly wasn"t thinking about his wife"s book release when he disrespected the Rutgers women"s basketball team on April 4, lost his job and stirred up a tornado of negative publicity. The controversy led her to abandon her book tour just as it was about to get underway. But Imus now says she will resume publicity for the book, which has already reached 14 on the New York Times bestseller list (under "paperback advice"), and a subsequent volume on children"s health is in the works. The world may be tired of hearing Don, but apparently they"re ready to listen to his wife.

E Magazine: What is the link between the way we clean and children"s health?

Deirdre Imus: I got involved in all this because of children"s health and seeing the significant increases in asthma, allergies, cancer, autism, learning disabilities over the last 15 to 20 years. A lot in our environment has changed, mainly the amount of everyday toxins that our children are breathing through the air, food, water and soil. Thousands and thousands of toxins.

Why has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to test these chemicals?

There are over 80,000 chemicals that are in the environment, and fewer than two percent have actually been tested for their safety. That"s a lot to keep up with. Some 1,200 new chemicals are introduced in the market every year. To accurately test and categorize all of them costs a lot of money. To me it"s the wrong approach. Let"s have manufacturers prove the safety of these things, and if a product contains chemicals that are already listed by the EPA as a known or possible carcinogen, or known neurotoxin or endocrine disruptor or hormone disruptor, then we need to make sure that those chemicals don"t get into our everyday products. There"s legislation now, the Kids Chemical Safety Act, that asks for exactly that.

It"s difficult to prove there’s a link between toxins and childhood cancer or asthma rates. Did hospitals that switched to your products see improvement?

On the institutional line, we"re now working with more than 200 different clients—50 of them are hospitals—plus hundreds of schools and day care centers and airports. To date, they also have saved money. You go into a school system and the first thing they ask you is, "What is this going to cost?" Even though they know this might be healthier to do, people still unfortunately base everything on money. So far, we"ve seen anywhere from three percent to 75 percent in cost savings. Also, this is all not-for-profit. By implementing the institutional Greening the Cleaning line, 100 percent of those profits go back into the Environmental Center for children"s health and research and education. But ironically, we"re in competition now with all the big chemical companies, and other green companies that are out there.

And lot of chemical companies are using word "natural" to cash in on the green trend.

People don"t always make protecting children"s health and the health of the planet their first priority. These big companies are starting to lose part of their profit margin because of the green movement. Some of these chemical companies who have been out there since the 1930s are now saying that they have a green product. They say, for example, that they"ve kicked the phosphate out and now they"re green. And this is misleading, because the public is still trying to understand what nontoxic is.

With cleaning products, it"s important that it"s nontoxic—that you"re not using ingredients that have been listed as possible or known carcinogens—neurotoxins, hormone disruptors, endocrine disruptors, teratogens. You"re not using familiar ones that we all know, meaning no ammonia, no chlorine bleach, no phosphate, no formaldehyde, no benzene, no toluene, no petroleum-based ingredients.

First, look for a cleaning product that says right on the label that all ingredients are disclosed. That"ll eliminate almost everything. A lot of those famous brands don"t even list one percent of their product. In most cases, it"s all synthetic chemicals, it"s all toxins. With a healthy, green, nontoxic cleaning product, there should only be a handful of ingredients. It has to have a surfactant, which is the sudsing agent that binds the product; it has to have water, and that water should be spring or purified water.

The surfactant should be vegetable-based, from corn, soy, coconut or something like that. If there"s some kind of fragrance in it, it should say "from botanicals" or flowers or plant essence, essential oils. My products clearly disclose all ingredients, and I name about six to seven other companies in my book that also disclose their ingredients.

People look at cars and their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but if we looked at all of our everyday products, all of our personal care products, the amount of petroleum that we use, it"s the basis for most of our products.

And so much of it goes down the drain.

That all goes down your water system when you clean, or any product you use, and then it ends up in our drinking and our bathing water. And it"s affecting all of our fish, and it"s creating problems in the ocean. And then there are CO2 emissions from the manufacturing of these products. So there"s a whole connection here. Something as simple as a cleaning product can have a huge impact on the planet.

The EPA has done studies showing that, because of chemicals, indoor air quality can become five to 10 times more toxic than outdoor air quality. Your home holds these chemicals in so they

don"t disperse. [Changing cleaning habits is] something that"s tangible and realistic for everyone. Not for someone that can afford it. This is for everybody to do. And it shouldn"t cost you any more money.

In reading your book, it seems like distilled white vinegar seems will tackle most jobs.

There are many things it won"t clean, like carpets, and you"d have to put it in spray bottles. But I talk about the way you can, with five core green products (most of which people already have) clean everything in your home. White distilled vinegar is one of them. Baking soda, lemon juice, white distilled vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and table salt. You"re saving money. A good nontoxic cleaner like white distilled vinegar replaces all your chlorine bleach products. The process of making chlorine bleach produces mercury, one of the most toxic elements. Chlorine bleach emits toxic, heavy vapors. It"s heavier than air, so the vapors lie low once they"re released. If you have a baby or toddler and they"re crawling around, they"re breathing in a lot more of that toxin than you are.

And they"re putting things in their mouths.

And they"re mouthing everything. And their cells are turning over so much faster because they"re developing. Why would we want to expose [children] to these toxins? If we have healthy alternatives, it just makes sense, because it"s a way to prevent exposure. We see too much of a link with these neurotoxins, including lower IQs in children. One out of six kids in this country now has a learning disability. That"s an epidemic number. Cancer has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years, specifically brain cancers and leukemia are rising. Those two types of cancers have been linked in studies to high exposure of pesticides. And neurotoxins. There are these connections with pest control and spraying the soccer fields and spraying our schools, spraying everything.

BRITA BELLI is managing editor of E.

CONTACTS: Green This! on Amazon; The Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology