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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 commercial cleaners

Question from J. S.

Can you direct me to nontoxic commercial cleaners?

I am chemically sensitive, and I would like to promote safe cleaners to my medical providers.

Debra’s Answer

Yes. There are three that I know of. Naturally Yours products are made from natural ingredients; Safe Source products are made from nontoxic petrochemical ingredients; and Soy Clean products are soy-based.

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Nontoxic Outdoor Grill?

Question from B.R.

I want to purchase an outdoor grill for my husbands birthday. Is there anything that would be nontoxic?

Debra’s Answer

The burning of all fuels produce combustion by-products and smoke, which make food taste delicious, but are harmful to breathe. So regardless of which type of barbecue you choose, try not to breathe a lot of smoke.

There are basically two types of grills: gas and charcoal.

My husband and I barbecue over a small, inexpensive, portable charcoal grill. The point for us is to cook over the natural wood flame. We use a simple chimney-type starter rather than toxic lighter fluid, and we burn only natural wood briquets that have not been treated with any chemicals.

I’m not a fan of gas grills. They are more expensive to purchase, they require the purchase of propane gas for fuel, they are large in size, untilizing a lot of metal, which is very polluting to the environment, and in the end, it’s not much different than cooking over a gas stove indoors.

You can read more about healthy barbecuing in my book Home Safe Home on page 309.

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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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Household Lubricant

Question from S. L.

Greetings! And thank you so much for your valuable service.

Any tips for a non-toxic, odor free or at least low odor lubricant for household uses such as oiling door hinges and windows? Food oils go rancid and we would like to avoid petrochemicals if possible.

Looking forward to your response. Thanks.

Debra’s Answer

Use jojoba oil. You can purchase it at natural food stores or online from many sources. Just type “jojoba oil” into your favorite search engine and you will find many possibilities.

Many years ago I dated a man who sold air filters to people who were sensitive to chemicals. He used jojoba oil to oil the machines.

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Natural Black-out Curtains

Question from T. A.

We need black-out curtains for our baby’s room, but I can’t find all natural material. All have some polyester, or vinyl, in them.

Debra’s Answer

Readers ~

I tried to find all-cotton black-out curtains or even black-out fabric, to no avail. All contained polyester.

When I couldn’t find an all-natural solution for her, T wrote to me and said, “I suppose i’ll just leave the piece of black wool material that i taped to the window in place.”

I suggested that she have that black wool sewn into her curtain as a liner, and that’s just what she’s going to do.

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High Cocoa Dark Chocolates

Question from C. W.

I’m wondering if you could recommend a dark chocolate bar plain that is at least 74% cocoa. I don’t know how to “read” the labels to tell. For instance this Hershey’s Dark Chocolate I have here Ingredients: Sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter etc. I would think cocoa would be at the top of the list?

I want to try to put this article to the test:

Debra’s Answer

The percentage of cocoa is listed on the label for dark chocolates that contain significant cocoa. Not on Hershey’s because I don’t think they make one with that high a percentage. If sugar is listed first, then there is more sugar than cocoa, which means the cocoa is less than 50%. If you are looking in a regular supermarket for a high cocoa chocolate, check the labels of good “bittersweet” chocolate bars. These will be sweetened with refined white sugar, but a very small amount.

I suggest going to a good natural food store in your area and look for a natural brand. Dagoba 74% bittersweet is one that I know meets your needs.

Natural brands are often made with organically grown cocoa and sweetened with evaporated cane juice the whole sugar direct from the cane unrefined instead of refined white sugar. You might also try cacao nibs, which are 100% chocolate and no sugar. These taste a little odd at first, but I like them. They would be the best if eating chocolate for the health reasons you cite above.

Another option is to mix up your own chocolate using cocoa powder. You can mix a little with butter, cocoa butter, or coconut oil and any sweetener you want.

For more on chocolate, visit Debra’s List: Organic, Shade Grown, Fair Trade Chocolate and especially read my article “Choosing Healthy Chocolate”.

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Cotton Lunch Bags

Question from M. B.

Love the newsletter. I cannot wait to buy the revised edition of your book!

I have a quick question – are there alternatives to vinyl lunch bags? My nine year old son has a vinyl lunch bag the cooler type that really needs to be replaced and we hate the smell of new vinyl. Paper bags won’t do, he really needs a lunch bag that stays cold for 4+ hours. No school lunch program yet, either. Help!

Thank you so much for all the GREAT info!!

Debra’s Answer

I don’t know of any natural fiber lunch bags that are insulated, but there are a number of nice cotton lunch-bag size bags available online–some are even made with organically-grown cotton and reasonably priced too. What I would do is get a cotton bag and then insert one of those cold packs that you can refreeze. See if that works well enough for you.

Browse the cotton lunch bags on Debra’s List

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Inexpensive Water Filters

Question from S. M.

I read your tip about avoiding water stored in plastic containers. We’ve been using a Brita pitcher as an inexpensive solution for the water we drink at home. The problem is that the Brita pitchers are plastic. Is there an alternative that is comparable in cost?

Debra’s Answer

I think the answer to this question is no.

I looked at the price of Brita pitchers and they range in price from $10-$35. There just aren’t water filters in that price range that are very effective.

There are really two major concerns about Brita pitchers. I’m going to give you the data I was able to get so you can make your own decision.

First, you were concerned about the plastic. In answer to another question about Toxic Plastic Water Bottles, the plastic in question was polycarbonate. I called Brita and they told me that the plastic used to make Brita pitchers is either styrene acrilonytrile or styrene methyl metacrylate. These plastics are entirely different, and I don’t think they are safer. I’ve included some links at the end of this answer that talk about the health effects of styrene, but what I’ve learned over the years is that when you combine chemicals, their health effects change–for better or worse. I wasn’t able to find anything on the health effects of these specific chemicals. And the form of the plastic also affects how much it will leach. We know styrene leaches from styrene foam cups and fast food containers. Does it leach from a hard plastic water pitcher? I don’t know. Tests probably have never been done. My educated guess is that some kind of plastic is leaching from the container.

My other concern about these pitchers is whether or not they are removing pollutants from the water. They remove chlorine, but do not remove chloramine. So you need to find out if you have chlorine or chloramine in your water. If it’s chloramine, it’s not removing it. Most communities now have chloramine, so check and find out.

Brita filters are designed to remove lead, chlorine, mercury, and sediment. That’s it. If you don’t have these in your water, there’s no point in using one.

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