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EPA's cleanser ratings

Unsafe
* Inorganic or metal phosphates
* EDTA or ethylenedifaminetetraacetic acid
* Butyl or 2-butoxyethanol.

Safe
* Alkyl polyglycoside
* Isopropanol
* Glycerol

Cleaning tips
On its Facebook page, the Times Free Press asked readers to offer their homemade cleaning tips:

* Mitch N. Sherra Kinder: "Equal parts water and white vinegar plus a teaspoon of Dawn in a spray bottle. I use it to clean counters, windows, storm doors, blinds, painted trim work, quick cleanups/spills on wood floors, vinyl floors, toys, microwave inside and out, inside and outside the fridge, solid surface stove top, appliances, food/drink spills in area rugs, tubs (plus a bit more Dawn on a rag). For pesky fruit flies I use a bit more Dawn (a tablespoon) in the spray bottle and spray down the areas where they fly and land and it works great."

* Brooke Radovich: "Vinegar and water mix cleans windows, especially if you smoke in the house or car. It cuts through the film and dirt."

* Anne Whyte Walters: "Sprite takes stains out of carpet."

* Candy Holmes: "Alcohol cleans mirrors and windows with no streaks."

* Aleshia Curtis: "Vinegar and vegetable oil mixed makes a good furniture polish. It's the only thing my grandmother ever used and she used it to clean her walls tables and even wood chairs."

* David Swinford: "Use newspaper instead of paper towels. This probably helps the Times Free Press."

It may be hard to believe there is a connection between washing underpants and destroying a river, but sometimes there is.

Many brands of detergents contain inorganic or mineral phosphates which, when they travel from a city sewer to a river, can cause blue-green algae to grow. That bad algae kills the green algae fish eat, so the fish die.

And for those who care about children as well as fish, here's a scary little tidbit from the Environmental Law Institute report on cleansers commonly used in K-12 schools.

"Many would be alarmed to learn that when used as directed, Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser, a product commonly used in both schools and private homes, released more than 100 air contaminants, including chloroform, benzene and formaldehyde," the report stated.

The good news is, as you prepare for the annual rite of spring cleaning your home, it's fairly easy to find detergents that are phosphate-free and toxin-free in stores all over Chattanooga. And one local company, Colonial Chemical, even creates the ecofriendly ingredients for national "green" brands.

Whole Foods, for example, uses an Eco-Scale program that employs independent analysts to rate how ecofriendly a cleaning product is.

"The better on the environment, the higher a product's rating is," says David Mead, grocery team leader for Chattanooga's Whole Foods.

Mead explains that the store does not stock products the analysts rate as red, the lowest ranking on the Eco-Scale. Next comes orange, which means the product contains no ingredients that have the potential to release formaldehyde and also has no phosphates, chlorine or synthetic colors, nor is it tested on animals.

A yellow-rated product has all those virtues plus the analysts determined it is gentler on the environment and uses 100 percent natural fragrances and no petroleum-derived thickeners. The top rating of green means the product has all the positive attributes and contains no synthetic, petroleum-derived ingredients at all, instead using plant and mineral-derived ingredients.

"The rating is on the label; it looks like a small circle with the four colors inside it and an arrow points to the color the product is ranked," Mead says.

But some labels can be confusing for a customer who isn't a chemist.

The array of green products Whole Foods had on its shelves this week included Ecos detergent with the key ingredient of cocamidopropyl betaine, which sounds as ominous as any petrochemical, but it's derived from coconuts and is earth-friendly and skin-friendly.

Check it out

Method Squirt and Mop's label describes the floor cleaner as "non-toxic and biodegradable" but directs customers to its website for a list of ingredients. But when you click on the word "ingredients" on the website, there is no list for each product, just a list of 10 ingredients used in various Method products, including an aloe moisturizer and benzisothiazolinone, which is described as a synthetic biodegradable antibacterial substance.

But the nonpartisan, nonprofit Environmental Working Group grades the product "F: Highest Concern. Potentially significant hazards to health or the environment or poor ingredient disclosure" on a scale where A is the highest mark. Method's almond-scented Mop and Go fared a bit better than the ginger-scented with a D grade.

The Mrs. Meyers product line gets a report card that looks like a hard-partying frat boy's. The lavender surface wipes, honeysuckle dish soap and Iowa Pine Countertop Spray each get a C, but her bathroom cleaner in basil or lavender or lemon verbena toilet bowl cleaner win B grades while her laundry detergents fail with an F. Mrs. Meyers touts it products as being free of parabens, phthalates, chlorine and formaldehyde. It is unclear why EWG's annual product guide gave such a hodgepodge of marks, and the group wasn't able to give an explanation.

"The EWG researchers in charge of our spring cleaning guide are out of the office this week and unavailable for interviews," EWG Communications Director Monica Amarelo said when contacted for an interview. She declined to answer any questions about how consumers might judge label ingredients for eco-friendliness.

Environmental activists often express concerns that there is no governmental agency with the manpower and time to police cleaning-product claims. But there are a couple of third-party certifications that consumers can look for on labels.

EcoLogo is owned by an Illinois company and probably has the more-recognized symbol, a half-green half-white circle with the letters UL above a green leaf. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commends EcoLogo for its "rigorous scientific testing, exhaustive auditing."

Also look for a label with the Green Seal -- a blue ball with a green check mark across it and "Green Seal" above, which is administered by a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.

The EPA also recommends Design for the Environment's certification process; just look for DFE on the label.

Locally friendly

David Anderson founded Colonial Chemical, Inc. in Chattanooga in 1987. It makes biodegradable, ecofriendly ingredients for formulators who mix them together to create cleaning products for companies like Seventh Generation, United Pet Care and actress Jessica Alba's Honest Co., which is booming so rapidly she plans to launch an IPO this year.

For Honest and United Pet Care, Anderson creates ingredients gentle enough for a puppy or a human baby as well as good for the earth.

"Mildness is important for consumers to look for," Anderson says, noting that some ingredients are kind to the planet but hard on the skin, eyes and throat.

"Biodegradable means the ingredient is not harmful to aquatic life and it will break down. Bugs used in sewage plants will eat a biodegradable ingredient, so it is gone and not lingering in the ecosystem for years."

Anderson's team of chemists use botanical and mineral-derived ingredients, but he is skeptical about Grandma's DIY cleansers that whip together astringents like witch hazel and rosemary; they probably don't have the antibacterial or disinfectant power that modern Americans demand.

"Before a label can legally claim to be a disinfectant, it has to have passed measurable and repeatable tests with results that are peer-reviewed by the scientific community," Anderson remarks. "I don't think I've seen a witch hazel bottle with a label that claims it has done that."

But he does concede that those old school ingredients can make whatever is scrubbed down shinier, cleaner and sweeter-smelling, so when a formulator wants them added into a biodegradable ingredient, he readily does so.

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.

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