Chemicals friendly and not so friendly

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

A-Z of chemicals in the home
Compiled by the Total Environment Centre
Choice Books, 1996. 168pp., $15
Reviewed by Dot Tumney

This book aims to address the wider understanding of toxicity as a concept and to discuss the characteristics of materials in general use, with an emphasis on things which have been around since before stringent testing applied to new products. Complacency arises from familiarity, and often the very dangerous does less damage because proper precautions are taken.

"Toxicity" and "hazard" are not interchangeable. Many preparations are useful because they are toxic.

Hazard arises from poorly directed toxic effect, e.g., child eats rat poison, blanket insecticide use leaves a clear field for the most resistant bug or a more aggressive chemical is used than is needed for the job: many things require a clean work surface, but few require a sterile one.

Books like this are needed because, though the advertisers and marketers might not be able to grasp it, the appropriate chemical does what is required cheaply and with the least unwanted effects. (These are also often out of patent.)

The A-Z section describes each item (or group), what it is used for and how it is used, and lists health effects, environmental effects and alternatives. Reading through the lot at one sitting causes the lists of alternatives to look increasingly familiar. The multiplicity of household cleaners currently being flogged divide roughly into the basic with different bells and whistles and the repackaged industrial specialty which is way over capacity for cleaning the bath.

No attempt is made to define levels of "clean" in bathrooms etc. Resisting Pine-o-cleen inspired germ mania is up to you. However, if you're scrubbing away at soap scum with disinfectant or, worse yet, spraying it with new improved mould destroyer, I would suggest putting in new tiles and sealants and saving a fortune in cash as well as regaining the capacity to smell things.

A good surface is easy to clean with a soapy scourer and a quick rinse. This contributes to the reduce part of the environmental 3Rs and also supplies beneficial exercise. n