How to Spring Clean Safely

Community // February 29, 2016

When winter finally comes to an end, most people become eager to rid their homes of old clutter in one clean sweep. Some homeowners even begin redecorating and start renovations they’ve been dreaming up over the long cold months.

Spring cleaning, however, can expose you and your family to a number of hidden hazards, and you can also unknowingly endanger others by improperly disposing of a variety of household items. Here are a few precautions you should take before embarking on your spring cleaning chores.

Think before you toss. There are a number of toxic materials and substances that must be disposed of properly.

  1. Asbestos — Many homes built before 1970 contain asbestos. Asbestos, a deadly fiber that causes mesothelioma, was used in insulation, floor tiles, home siding and roofing. Linings around ventilation pipes, furnaces, hot water heaters, and other piping were also commonly made with asbestos. Since asbestos is still legal, it may be in newer homes as well. Asbestos becomes dangerous when it’s disturbed in some way, releasing its fibers in the air. Actions like drilling and patching, along with natural deterioration, are a few ways asbestos can get released.The American Lung Association recommends that you hire a certified asbestos professional to take any samples, minimizing potential exposure to you and your family. If asbestos is detected, it’s imperative you hire a certified professional to remove it safely.
  2. Motor oil — It’s illegal in most states to pour motor oil down a drain or on the ground. You must place it in a clean plastic container and bring it to a location that will take care of it for you.
  3. Electronics — Old electronics contain heavy metals like cadmium and lead. Donate or drop them off at a recycling center. Some big retailers will recycle old electronics, including Best Buy and Apple.
  4. Paint — Oil-based paint and other paint-related products are classified as household hazardous waste (HHW) and should be returned to the point of purchase or donated or taken to a local HHW collection facility.
  5. Batteries — No battery is recyclable. Fore more information on where to dispose of a certain kind of battery, call 1-800-8-BATTERY.
  6. Light bulbs — When broken, fluorescent light bulbs, including compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, release a small amount of mercury. Take them to your local HHW facility.
  7. Smoke detectors — Ionization chamber smoke detectors (ICSDs) use a small amount of ionizing radiation to detect smoke. This is a radioactive material classified as hazardous by the Fire Protection Agency and must be mailed back to the manufacturer via ground mail. Or, bring it to your local HHW if the manufacturer won’t accept it.
  8. Mercury thermometers — If broken, mercury thermometers can release 500 milligrams of the neurotoxin mercury. Bring to your local HHW facility for disposal or find an exchange program that will give you an electronic one.

Check labels. Certain harsh chemicals can be irritating to eyes, skin, and the lungs. Make sure to follow any safety precautions on products with any toxicity warnings, which may require you to wear goggles, masks, rubber gloves, and other protective gear. The Environmental Working Group has identified the following ingredients to avoid (although labels aren’t required to disclose all ingredients. Refer to the infographic at the bottom of the page for healthy cleaning alternatives).

  1. 2-butoxyethanol (or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) and other glycol ethers
  2. Alkylphenol ethoxylates including nonyl- and octylphenol ethoxylates, or non- and octoxynols)
  3. Dye
  4. Ethanolamines including mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine
  5. Fragrance
  6. Pine or citrus oil (on high ozone or smog days, compounds in these oils can form formaldehyde)
  7. Quaternary ammonium compounds including alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, and didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride

Keep windows open. Regardless of the products you choose to use, open the windows to both let stale air out and to help ventilate any chemicals you may be introducing to your home while cleaning. This is also an important step if painting with paints that contain VOCs. Consider also running errands to get out of the house after painting while your walls dry.

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