Week of 01/14/2007

Dear EarthTalk: My carpets need professional cleaning, but I don"t want chemicals and fumes in my house. Some companies advertise "safe," but I’m not sure.

—Suzie Franklin DeFazio, via e-mail

Traditional commercial carpet-cleaning solutions contain a cocktail of noxious synthetic chemicals. One, perchloroethylene, commonly called "perc" in the industry, is a notorious dry cleaning additive known to cause dizziness, fatigue and nausea if ingested or inhaled. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also links perc to kidney and liver damage. Another chemical, naphthalene, a solvent manufactured from coal tar, is considered toxic to the human central nervous system and a possible carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These and other harsh chemicals get into the air of a room when applied during cleaning, and can also be ingested by kids who play on the floor soon afterwards. Besides such on-site health threats, carpet cleaning chemicals can pollute local groundwater if disposed of improperly (such as directly down your drain). Wastewater from carpet cleaning requires treatment and/or filtration in order to neutralize contaminants.

Thanks to growing awareness about the potential health impacts of carpet cleaning, a new breed of professional services has sprung up that eschews dangerous and polluting chemicals in favor of more natural solutions. Some of the newer and more green-friendly cleaning solutions used by professional services are plant instead of chemical based, and include such brand names as Bi-O-Kleen, Capture, AFM SafeChoice, NatureClean, SimpleGreen and Seventh Generation"s Natural Citrus Carpet Cleaner.

Most carpet cleaning services are local businesses, and many have greened-up their processes in recent years. If you need your carpets cleaned you should call around and ask questions. If a service doesn"t know whether their cleaning solution is plant or chemical based, or if they don"t have systems in place to treat or transport wastewater responsibly after cleaning, they should probably be avoided.

A few chains also stand out for their commitment to more natural operations. ChemDry, a division of Home Depot, uses carbonating cleaning bubbles instead of harsh chemicals to remove dirt from carper fibers. The company claims it uses a fraction of the water of other services and avoids harmful detergents, solvents and enzymes. Another is Zoots, which operates "green" dry cleaning stores in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States and which was recognized by Inc. magazine in 2006 as one of the top 50 green companies in the U.S.

Keeping carpets clean to begin with is one way to minimize the need for too many professional cleanings. The green living website, Eartheasy.com, suggests spot cleaning carpet stains with a homemade non-toxic solution consisting of equal parts white vinegar and water. The solution can be sprayed onto stains and then sponged up a few minutes later in combination with warm soapy water. Meanwhile, hardier stains might warrant an overnight treatment with a paste made from salt, borax and vinegar, which can be vacuumed up the next morning. For more ideas, Sierra Club Canada"s "Safe Alternatives to Household Hazardous Products" offers a plethora of additional home remedies for spot cleaning carpets.

CONTACTS: ChemDry; ; Zoots; Eartheasy; Sierra Club of Canada"s "Safe Alternatives to Household Hazardous Products" .

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find fashionable clothing brands that use organic materials?

—Trey Muhlhauser, Chicago, IL

Increased environmental concerns worldwide have not escaped the notice of the fashion industry, which has been fast incorporating organic materials into its designs. Materials like hemp and bamboo are coming on strong, but organic cotton is by far the fabric of choice for most green clothing designers. According to Organic Exchange, a nonprofit committed to expanding the use of organically grown fibers, global retail sales of organic cotton products increased from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005.

The problem with traditional cotton—by far the most used clothing fabric in the world constituting a $300 billion global market—is that producers use liberal amounts of insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers to grow it. Analysts estimate that cotton crops use about one quarter of all the agricultural insecticides applied globally each year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seven of the top 15 pesticides used on U.S. cotton crops are potential or known human carcinogens.

Given such problems, choosing organically grown alternatives may be one of the best things consumers can do to help the environment. Luckily, many designers are using such materials to great effect in their newest lines. Examples include Kelly B Couture, Xylem, Turk+Taylor, Blue Canoe, Stewart+Brown, Armour Sans Anguish, Ecoganik, NatureVsFuture, EcoDragon, Gypsy Rose, Maggie"s Organic, Two Star Dog and Enamore, all which are making waves in fashion circles with their cutting edge clothing designs crafted from materials grown without harmful synthetic chemicals. Big players like Levi Strauss, Victoria"s Secret, Esprit, Patagonia and Timberland are also increasingly offering organic cotton products.

Singer Bono, along with his wife Ali Hewson and designer Rogan Gregory, launched their Edun brand in 2005, offering organic cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts made in Tunisia and Peru. A key part of Edun"s mission involves fair wages and healthy working conditions for garment workers in developing countries.

Some online retailers featuring hip clothing made from organic materials include upstarts like ShopEnvi, Bamboo Styles, Grassroots Natural Goods, and better-known outlets like Gaiam. Even Wal-Mart and Target are now stocking a wide range of organic cotton clothing. To find other organic clothing retailers, the online repository of all things green, EcoMall, offers an impressive listing of sources for a wide range of cool, green-friendly garments on its clothing page. Another website, EcoBusinessLinks, provides a listing as well on its Natural Clothing Retailers Page.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Organic Consumers Association has launched "Clothes for a Change," a campaign to pressure major clothing retailers and manufacturers to wean themselves off of traditional cotton and petroleum-derived polyesters and to start using more organic materials. Another key element of the campaign is to educate consumers about the benefits of clothing made from organic materials.

CONTACTS: Gaiam; EcoMall; EcoBusinessLinks; Organic Consumers Association Clothes for a Change Campaign