Roam the aisles of your local natural foods store, or even your supermarket, and you’ll find bottle after bottle of household products that claim to be “green.” Kitchen cleaners and dishwashing liquids — packaged in tasteful, earthy tones from moss to hunter — beckon from the shelves with siren words: Eco-friendly. Natural. Pure.
But just because a product claims to be safe for the environment doesn’t always mean it is.
Enter Amy Todisco. Founder of the online store Green Living Now, the Huntington resident, 44, helps people navigate the extensive and often confusing world of “natural” products. Green Living Now sells about 100 household and personal care items that have met Todisco’s non-toxic criteria. She also publishes an e-newsletter that covers recent news and scientific studies on everything from the effectiveness of different dish soaps to the cough-suppressing powers of dark chocolate.
A former massage and polarity therapist in Massachusetts, Todisco entered the earth-friendly-living arena more than 15 years ago, while she was pregnant. When she learned in a library book that everyday household products were teeming with toxic chemicals, she went on a quest to find out what products were safe. She was surprised to discover that many items in the natural foods store weren’t any better than those in a mainstream grocery store.
Todisco began to write letters to the editor of her local paper. She became an activist to raise awareness about the issue. She also started consulting — making house calls to dispense advice about what products were or were not harmful. “Once I learn something,” she says, “I want to share it with other people.”
When Todisco moved to Vermont seven years ago, Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollander hired her to start and run the Household Toxins Institute, a nonprofit that tested products to determine their safety. She left a year later, believing she couldn’t be impartial working for an organization that was funded by a company — even a green one. Instead, Todisco launched another nonprofit, aiming to hire independent toxicologists to test household products. But she found it difficult to raise enough money. That’s when she decided to try the online retail approach. Four years ago, she started her home-based business Green Living Now to offer vetted non-toxic products, and to educate customers on getting right with the world they live in.
Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, has known Todisco since her activist days in Massachusetts. “I’ve always been impressed with her commitment to environmental health issues and ensuring that no one is exposed to toxic chemicals in the products they use every day,” he says. “I think she’s on the right path in promoting these green products.”
How does Todisco determine a product’s “greenness”? Her method is multi-layered. First, she says, she looks at the container to see what the disclosed ingredients are. This isn’t always illuminating, since manufacturers are only required to list the active ingredients in cleaning products, not inert ones that may be toxic. Even products that do list all ingredients can hide things, Todisco cautions, by giving the broad category of the ingredient or vague references such as “derived from coconut.”
Todisco then gets on the Internet and looks up the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet, which provides more information about the ingredients than does the label. She also uses A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter, as well as the website of the nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group to learn more about various products.
Finally, Todisco takes a look at the manufacturer. She’s uncomfortable with supporting a business that makes both toxic and green products. For example, she notes with a laugh, the Clorox Company recently introduced a line of “natural” cleaning products. “I’d much rather spend money on companies that are, across the board, doing the right thing,” Todisco says.
Her web store caters to individuals who are new to green living, offering basics such as a “kitchen starter kit” with an array of products to make countertops, floors and dishes sparkle. Todisco buys all her products wholesale from various manufacturers. These include natural soaps, sponges and stain removers, hair and body products, and eclectic items such as organic dog treats and shiitake mushroom-growing kits. Her customers come from all over the country, Todisco says; locals can also find her products at Beaudry’s General Store in Huntington.
Testing products independently is the best way to do an impartial job, Todisco finds. “What sets me apart from other people who may consider themselves experts in green living is not being affiliated with a company,” she suggests.
That lack of bias is especially important when dealing with an industry that’s largely unchecked. The Consumer Product Safety Commission — the government agency that regulates household cleaning products — does not test or certify products for safety before they can be sold to consumers, Todisco notes. And there are no regulations regarding use of the terms “green” or “eco-friendly,” nor even common definitions of what these terms mean, she says, adding that only “USDA Certified Organic” is a defined term. As evidence that so-called green products are not always what they seem, Todisco cites a recent study by the Organic Consumers Association that found carcinogenic contaminant 1,4-Dioxane in a number of popular personal care and household products claiming to be “natural” and “organic.” “We as consumers have so little understanding of what’s going on,” she says.
In addition to her web store and e-newsletters, Todisco does occasional telephone consultations with people who want advice on how to green up their homes. She also recently decided to add life coaching to her repertoire in order to further direct people to healthier, happier lives. And she’s finishing up a book, Green Living on a Budget, which, as the title suggests, is about how to be eco-friendly without spending too much green.
But cost is a relative concept. In a comparison of, say, Windex and a natural alternative, the Windex will probably be cheaper, Todisco acknowledges, because synthetic chemicals are cheaper. But consumers can save money, she points out, if we don’t fall for marketing that tells us we need dozens of different products for every surface of our home. “Actually, one product can go a long way,” Todisco insists.
More importantly, she says, when people consider how “all this chemical stuff” will impact their families’ health, and how much that could cost down the line, using non-toxic products may ultimately be the most cost-effective in prevention terms. “It involves,” Todisco concludes, “a different way of thinking.”
Send your oven, drain, and toilet bowl cleaning products packing. They contain lye, which can burn your skin; butyl cellosolve, which is quite toxic; as well as petroleum products and bleach. Instead, use a spray bottle of water and liberally spray the inside of a warm oven, then coat with baking soda. Leave overnight and wipe away in the morning. Drains can be plunged, or use a plumber's snake. To prevent clogs, put one cup of baking soda, followed by one cup of vinegar and then boiling water, down the drain periodically. Also, natural enzyme drain cleaners (such as Earth Friendly and Naturally Yours) are quite effective.
Be gone, antibacterial soaps. Experts now report that using antibacterial products has created supergerms, which are harder to kill with antibiotics. Washing thoroughly, especially under the fingernails, with pure organic castile soap (such as Vermont Soap or Dr. Bronner's) and water does the job.
Ditch "air fresheners," such as air-freshening sprays, candles, carpet powders and plug-ins. Most of these are loaded with toxic synthetic chemicals. Rather than eliminate the odors, they often just coat our nasal passages with an oily substance so we can't smell the offending odors. Instead, grow organic herbs and flowers, dry them and put them in bowls around your home as potpourri. Or put a few drops of pure essential oil, such as lavender oil, into a diffuser. Breather bags of zeolite, a volcanic mineral, are great for taking odors out of basements, closets, and even the car.
Raid your pantry. Baking soda, sprinkled on a damp sponge or cloth, can be used as a gentle, nonabrasive cleanser for countertops, sinks, bathtubs, ovens and fiberglass. Add a cup to your laundry load to eliminate perspiration odors and neutralize the smell of many chemicals. It's also a useful air freshener and a carpet deodorizer. White vinegar and lemon juice are acidic, so they dissolve gummy buildup, eat away tarnish, and remove dirt from wood surfaces. Vinegar is great for floors, especially wood. Just mix one cup of vinegar to five gallons of water.
Cut out conventional dishwasher detergents, especially ones that contain bleach. The chemicals in these detergents come out of the dishwasher in the water vapor during the dry cycle, which is especially bad for children and anyone with asthma or allergies. Also, a chemical residue is left on your dishes, which means you may also ingest some of it. Todisco recommends natural herb dishwasher tablets.