Answers to Your Questions About Toxic-Free Living

Safe Shoe Polish?

Question from J. S.

I have a question that’s been vexing me for years.

Is there a safe, commercial shoe polish? My shoes all need polishing, but I keep putting it off because I don’t want to use conventional polish. I’ve asked a number of people about alternatives but have never found anything. I’d really like something specifically for my black and my brown shoes, not just some all-purpose coating. Please help!!! Thank you.

Debra’s Answer

Well, this was not an easy question! I did a lot of research on this and ended up eliminating products claiming to be natural or nontoxic after I actually obtained their MSDS sheets.

There are only two shoe care products I can recommend at this time. I’ll tell you what they are, but I want to be clear that I haven’t actually tried any of these products myself. So if anyone has any experience with them, please email me and I will post your experiences.

I haven’t polished shoes in years. I do wear leather shoes, but not the kind that need to be buffed and shined. For the last three years I’ve only worn sandals here in Florida.

Both of these products are made in Germany from plant-based ingredients. My only caveat is that other such products I have tried have what I consider strong odors, though natural. These are simply the naturally-occurring fragrances of the ingredients themselves.

Tapir Leather Care is a line of plant-based leather care products made with high quality ingredients totally non-petroleum, non-crude-oil, some ingredients organically grown”. The final product retains the natural oil based carbon structure. They have a shoe polish “gives shine and protection…excellent water repellent and dirt/stain remover in clear, brown, red-brown, blue, black, as well as Leather Balm, Leather Oil, and Suede Care products which can be used on all leather products, such as purses and furniture. These can be ordered from Sinan Company .

Livos Snado Shoe Polish is a similar product, available in clear, black, and brown. Unfortunately, at this time, I was unable to locate an internet source to purchase it. If anyone knows of a website that carries it, please send me an email.

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Less Toxic Wood Finish You Can Buy At a Local Store

Question from L. H.

What is the best wood finish I can buy at a local store? I don’t have time to order on-line.

Debra’s Answer

Any water-based wood finish will contain significantly less toxic solvent than oil-based finishes. Most, water-based finishes still contain glycol ether, which is toxic, but considered “less hazardous than most chemicals” type “glycol ether” into the search box at Scorecard Chemical Profiles for more details on toxicity.

If you don’t have time to order AFM AcryGlaze, which does not contain glycol ethers, you can use any water-based wood finishes you find on the shelf. Even though these water-based products contain fewer toxic chemicals, they are not completely nontoxic, so use adequate ventilation and fans.

I’ve been very happy with Flecto Water-Based Diamond Finish, which was recommended to me by my cabinetmaker when I had solid-wood cabinets built for my kitchen. Be sure to get water-based Diamond Finish, not oil-based. Read the label carefully as this distinction is in fine print.

I’ve also used Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish. This, to me, has a stronger odor and needs more ventilation during application, but it will dry to an odor-free finish in two days. Minwax Water-Based Wood Stain can be tinted to fifty colors at the paint counter it is a stain only and still needs a clear protective finish applied over it.

Both of these are available off the shelf in most hardware and home improvement stores.

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Sodium Hexametatphosphate and Oxygen Bleaches

Question from S. H.

Thanks for all the great and helpful information you provide!

Some years ago, you recommended sodium hexametaphosphate for general household use. If you still recommend it, can you tell me where I can purchase it?

Thanks so very much!

Debra’s Answer

I no longer recommend sodium hexametaphosphate. Many years ago I was recommending it because at the time there were no alternatives to chlorine bleach. There’s nothing wrong with using it, but it is hard to find, difficult to purchase, and today there are a number of chlorine-free bleach products–sold even in supermarkets.

The new oxygen-based cleaners work even better than sodium hexametaphosphate. OxiClean! is available on-line and is sold in many stores. Natural Choices Home Safe Products has a full line of cleaning products based on the power of oxygen bleach that contain a higher percentage of active ingredients than the brand-name products.

Oxygen bleaches work by releasing oxygen. Hydrogen peroxide is the active ingredient. Either it is used as an ingredient, or it is released as the product of the reaction of another ingredient when combined with water.

Since hydrogen peroxide is the active ingredient in all these products, you could also just use drugstore-variety hydrogen peroxide as a laundry bleach. Dilute it in a pint of water before adding it to your laundry, so you don’t get white spots on your clothes. Experiment with different concentrations in different amounts to find the level of whitening you need.

Oxygen bleaches often contain sodium carbonate peroxide also called sodium percarbonate, sodium peroxide, or sodium perborate, all of which are made by reacting molecules with hydrogen peroxide. When these the hydrogen peroxide is released. Naturally-occuring borax also releases hydrogen peroxide into the water.

Like chlorine bleach, hydrogen peroxide does have an antiseptic action. It is commonly used as a topical antiseptic in dilute solutions, and as a water purifier in stronger solutions.

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Safe tile grout and backerboard

Question from B. C.

Thanks to all your tips, my wife is really feeling much better with her MCS. In fact, we’re now carefully considering putting a tile floor where the carpet used to be in the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom. Using your recommendations we have found safe tile adhesives and grout sealers but we can’t find anything about safe grouts.

Can you recommend any products for a chemically safe grout and are there any problems to watch out for in the cement board underlayment materials?

Debra’s Answer

Any grout is fine. There’s a latex additive that has a bit of an odor, but it dissipates quickly as the grout dries. By the time it’s ready to use, there is little or no odor. If any odor remains, it will be gone within a week or so. I’ve laid tile on the floor without the latex additive with no problem. It just makes the grout more flexible and less likely to crack.

The standard cement board underlayment is also fine. Two brand names we have used are Hardibacker and Durock. There is also Wonderboard, which was the first product of this kind.

Do NOT use “greenboard” which is ordinary sheetrock covered with a green coating . Not only does it have a strong odor, but it also falls apart when it gets wet.

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Unscented Talcum Powder

Question from N.M.

I have MCS, and have been unable to find unscented, fragrance-free talcum powder Note the apparent redundancy, since many products that are labeled “unscented” actually contain fragrance, sometimes appearing in the Ingredients list only as a chemical name. I would like to find a source for a safe no mica talcum that has no added fragrance. Can you help?

Debra’s Answer

I could only find unscented talcum powder one place: Birch Hill Happenings. The owner says that it is “100% pure” to the best of her knowledge. It is imported from Australia.

Talc is considered safe enough to be used as an ingredient in nearly one thousand cosmetic and bodycare products. In the past, there has been some question about its safety. It is often stated that talc contains traces of asbestos, however, eighty-five samples of talcum powder studied from 15 countries found that the main detectable mineral impurities were chlorite, mica, carbonates, quartz, and feldspars. Purity varied from 47% to 93%, with powders from Germany and USA having the highest quality. Products from Chile, France, Andorra, Portugal and Colombia were the lowest.

Dr. Hauschka products website FAQ states:

Also, you can just purchase plain cornstarch or arrowroot powder and use that.

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Clean Salad Spinner With Baking Soda

Question from J. B-G

I want to tell you how fantastic baking soda cleans up the salad spinner “cage”!

This salad spinner of mine has been in regular use for about 25 years; periodically it gets hand washed with warm soapy water and after being rinsed, put out in the California sun to be sanitized; but this winter it suddenly got grey looking, sort of like what can happen to laundry sometimes.

Upon closer inspection, I recognized the signs of encroaching mold. Out came the old toothbrush and on came the baking soda, just sprinkled lightly on the bottom at first. After I scrubbed that part inside and out, I rinsed it, then turned the cage on its side and dusted the inside all around before working with the toothbrush inside and out again.

After rinsing, the whole cage looked and sparkled like brand new!

Debra’s Answer

Thanks for your tip!

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Safety of ACQ Pressure-Treated Wood

Question from M S-M

I live in Orford Qc where there is a conservation national parc, a very delicate ecosystem. Unfortunately , it is a very beautiful mountain also and a promotor is now on is way of exchanging the land for another to built around 2000 condos and new golf courses. The builders have already constructedfor the many sidewalks and belvedere in the parc with ACQ wood they say, to me it smells like CCA wood. Suppose moment it is ACQ, is it safe for a prolong exposition to wild life and for the drinking water of the community?

I am concerned and I asked the promotor during the BAPE hearings yesterday. He said that it is safe and the park authorities also. I am not conviced, since he is using vinyl a lot in other constructions.

Do you have any comments on the safety of ACQ?

Debra’s Answer

ACQ stands for Alkaline Copper Quat. The main active ingredient is copper, which was the main active ingredient in CCA chromated copper arsenate pressure treatment, which was phased out in 2003. Though the copper remains the same, the other ingredients in ACQ are much less toxic than the chromium and arsenic that were used in CCA.

According to manufacturers’ literature on ACQ, quat acts as a co-biocide, providing additional protection from fungi and insect attack that copper alone would not control. Quats are commonly used in household disinfectants and cleaners, and in swimming pools and spas. Quats are biodegradable in soil.

Recently my husband and I were faced with a decision as to whether or not we would use ACQ treated wood for posts to hold a garden gate. At both Lowe’s and Home Depot, free information on ACQ treated wood was obviously displayed. These are interesting documents. On the one hand they say wear a dust mask when cutting, wear gloves when handling, wash exposed areas thoroughly after handling, wash work clothes separately from other household clothing, do not use where it may come into direct or indirect contact with drinking water or where the preservative ma become a component of food, animal feed, or beehives, and do not use for mulch. On the other hand, use recommendations include hand rails, fence posts and decking, and one brand was the winner of the 2002 EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Award!

We were in a situation where we needed two ten-foot 4×4 posts, which are not sold at either Home Depot or Lowe’s. Here in Florida, the choices were ACQ and cedar. We went to lumberyards and started off saying “We don’t want ACQ because it’s toxic” and lumberyard men would look at us blankly and say “No, it’s not.” We would show them the manufacturers’ flyers from Home Depot and they had never seen them before. They were handling and cutting these boards and posts all day long with no precautions and had no concerns whatsoever. Everywhere we went it was the same.

Coming from California, where we would use redwood instead of CCA treated wood, we thought we could just use cedar instead. But we found out that today, cedar is cut too young to have developed the insect-resistance of a mature tree. We were told that if we used cedar, here in humid Florida, the wood would be rotted in three months. The only wood you can put in the ground here and have it last at all is pressure-treated.

We ended up going with the ACQ posts and we’ll be painting them with a water-based exterior latex paint, both to protect the wood, and so we and our guests will not have to touch the ACQ treatment directly when we touch the gate posts. It was the practical choice here.

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Wood Conditioner for Cutting Boards and Bowls

Question from P.S

We’re installing a butcher block counter top in our kitchen. Do you know of a product we can apply to protect and condition the wood? We thought of mineral oil, but you recommend against that in your book Home Safe Home. What do you suggest?

Debra’s Answer

I’ve been using a product called B’s Oil Salad Bowl & Wood Preserver, made by Holland Bowl Mill. It says right on the label that it is made only from natural oils and beeswax. I even called the company, who assured me it was “all-natural”.

We’ve been using it on our wooden salad bowls and cutting boards since I found it in a fancy San Francisco cooking store years ago. Just recently, we used it to finish the wooden top on a kitchen island we built. It really protects the wood water beads right up and we felt good having the beeswax around our organic food. It has no odor, except for the slight sweetness of beeswax.

The Holland Bowl Mill website says it has received many letters from customers telling them B’s Oil is so gentle that they use it as their favorite hand cream moisturizer.

So I was surprised to find out that it is actually made from beeswax and mineral oil! I had a long phone conversation with the owner and made sure he understood that you cannot label a product containing mineral oil as natural. I see he has changed the description on his website after our conversation.

I set out to find a truly all-natural wood conditioner for my wooden salad bowls and cutting boards, and discovered some interesting things even many woodworkers don’t know.

It is important to apply some kind of protection to wood cutting boards and bowls before using them the first time, to prevent staining and absorption of food odors and bacteria, and to keep water from penetrating the wood, which results in warping and cracking.

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Air Duct Cleaning

Question from S. J.

[This entry was transferred from the Q&A that was created before this blog existed. There are two questions and one answer.]

The company that services my a/c unit told me that our ducts weren’t sealed properly and it caused dust and mold in the attic to get into the ducts.

The recommendation is that we absolutely have to get the ducts cleaned with high pressure hot water and sanitized with a liquid antibiotic.

I have read some information about ducts cleaning that it was ineffective and dangerous.

Do you have any information you can give on this subject? Any safe alternative to what was recommended? And how would it affect our health if we don’t remove the mold from the ducts?


Debra’s Answer

Having the air ducts cleaned in your central air system is a relatively new service that is being promoted as part of central HVAC maintenance. The EPA has addressed this quite thoroughly on their website “Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?”. The site includes:

To evaluate whether or not you need to have your air ducts cleaned, first it’s important to understand how the air flows through your system. Air to be cooled or warmed usually enters the system through a large air intake vent, often placed in the central hallway of the home. The first thing that happens is that the air *goes through a filter*. If the system is working properly, little if any dust or mold will ever go into the ducts. If, however, ducts have not been sealed properly, dust and mold can get into the ducts and may need to be removed.

The EPA concludes most homes probably don’t need air duct cleaning and the cleaning may actually worsen indoor air quality.

Before getting your ducts cleaned, I would recommend getting a second and even third opinion. When we first moved to Florida and needed to get an air conditioner, the evaluations of what we needed and its costs were up to $10,000. Ultimately we found we could repair what we had by replacing part of the system for less than $1000 and it’s been working fine since.

As for the health effects of mold that may be present in your home…mold is ubiqutous–there is always a little mold in the air and on many surfaces. Molds can easily enter your home by circulating through doorways, windows, and, yes, HVAC systems. But mold spores in the air can also land on people and animals, who can bring them indoors as well. Mold only becomes a problem when it can proliferate because of excessive moisture. Unless you have leaky pipes, a roof that leaks during a rainstorm or other sources of excess moisture, you probably don’t have a mold problem in your home. For more on the health effects of mold, see

> EPA Mold Resources
> National Center for Environmental Health: Mold
> American Academy of Pediatrics: Toxic Effects of Indoor Molds

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Nontoxic garden hose

Question from R. G.

I was wondering if you know of a safe nontoxic garden hose, one that doesn’t leach any toxic chemicals or plasticizers into the water?

Debra’s Answer

All garden hoses are made from either polyvinyl chloride “PVC” or “vinyl”, rubber, or a combination of the two.

Vinyl hoses are the least expensive but also the most toxic, both in use and in manufacture. A number of environmental groups have called even for the banning of PVC because of the environmental effects of its manufacture. And PVC can leach vinyl chloride, which is carcinogenic. How much vinyl chloride ends up in the water as it is rushing through a hose? I don’t know. Probably more leaches into the water sitting in the hose in the hot sun. For that reason, it’s probably a good idea to empty the hose after you turn off the faucet.

As far as I can tell, rubber garden hoses are made from natural rubber, the milky latex of the Hevea tree more about obtaining latex from the tree Though it starts out from a renewable plant resource, by the time it is processed it is anything but natural.

Many chemicals are added to natural latex to improve performance, making natural rubber latex suitable for use in the manufacture of rubber products. Chief among them are chemical accelerators used to speed up the manufacturing process, vulcanizing agents, reinforcing agents, filler, pigments, blowing agents and more some exact chemical names In terms of toxicity, the most dangerous health effect I found was skin allergy.

Whether or not the chemicals in natural rubber hoses leach into the product water and what their toxicity may be, I don’t know. Though rubber hose is heavier and more bulky, it is your best buy for durability. Sears says their Craftsman Rubber Hose is the last garden hose you will ever need to buy. Rubber hose is also more pliable and coils more easily in cold weather than vinyl hose.

Rubber hoses are easily available. In addition to Sears, both Lowe’s and The Home Depot carry rubber garden hoses, and most good nurseries will as well. Rubber hoses say “rubber” on the label. If no material is specified, it’s probably vinyl.

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