Special Feature: A clean break with chemicals

ENVIRONMENTAL campaigners have been telling us that the chemicals found in cleaning products are both bad for our health, and in the long-run, disastrous for the planet. They suggest using a range of natural alternatives in their place, but do they really

ENVIRONMENTAL campaigners have been telling us that the chemicals found in cleaning products are both bad for our health, and in the long-run, disastrous for the planet. They suggest using a range of natural alternatives in their place, but do they really work?

Ely Standard reporter IAN RAY went back to basics to see if baking soda and lemon juice really are a realistic alternative to our handy spray cleaners.

I MUST admit to being rather sceptical when I first embarked on this little project of mine.

I'd read dozens of times that one can achieve a state of total domestic hygiene with just four ingredients - bicarbonate of soda, white wine vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil - but I just didn't believe it. Why had man invented so many strange-smelling liquids in lurid spray containers if we didn't need them? It had struck me, of course, that man has a tendency to invent things we don't need to help us part with our hard-earned cash, but the idea that cooking ingredients could make my surfaces sparkle and my furniture dazzle seemed on a par with "you don't need to wash your hair, it will clean itself" on the old wives' tale spectrum.

It was with some reluctance, then, that I made my way to the supermarket to pick up my eco-friendly cleaning essentials. The price tag for my shopping trip soon took the edge off this sense of unease, however; the bill was a expenses department-friendly £3.20.

On my return, I started setting about mixing the ingredients to make my surface cleaning paste: some white vinegar, some bicarbonate of soda and a dash of lemon. While it's hardly a class at Hogwarts, there is something rather satisfying about making your own cleaning agents, even though my amateurishness soon became apparent.

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As I poured the liquid on top of the soda crystals, I realised I'd put too much in - the sludge I'd created would be no good to anyone. I then put too much soda on top and it was too dry, and the whole experience reminded me of a disastrous attempt at making batter for Yorkshire puddings when I was a student. Eventually, however, my paste was ready, and I slopped it all over a kitchen work surface. It worked very well. Everything came off and the surface was smooth and shiny to touch.

Next I thought I'd have a bash at the hob, and again it cleaned up a treat - at first. Ten minutes later though, I returned to the kitchen to find that the oven looked as if it had been washed up on the Devon shoreline after the sinking of the MSC Napoli.

It was covered in a powdery, salty deposit and I was going to have to clean it again. I was not impressed with this cleaning solution.

I persevered, however, and moved on to the inside of the oven. This worked real wonders, and was an infinitely more pleasant experience than spraying noxious foam all over an area that my food will be cooked in. It was certainly hard work, and required some of that 'elbow grease' that my dad thinks there's not enough of in the modern world, but this was actually part of the novelty. In my head I fancied myself a participant in one of those programmes where they put a modern family in some ridiculously false historical setting to see how they cope; I was in the 1950s house and the unexpected novelty value of the age of austerity had caught me unawares. Crucially, with this method of oven cleansing, the entire house wasn't filled with foul fumes the next time the oven was switched on.

For my next trick, I decided to give the wooden furniture a polish. I'd read that a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice would do wonders for wooden surfaces, and so I gave it a go. This was a genuine revelation and my coffee table took on an almost preternatural glow with these simple ingredients. It was the same story with the bookcase and the dining table; they looked fantastic after I'd applied my coat of oil.

The next project would be glass about the home. I added one part vinegar to two parts warm water and covered my bathroom mirror with the pungent liquid. I left it for a minute and then took it off with some scrunched-up newspaper, and again, the results were truly amazing. I would have to see if this wonder fluid could work on the most stubborn of smeared surfaces - the shower cubicle.

I have a friend who insists on using a rubber wiper blade to remove the moisture from the cubicle panels before she gets out of the shower, and this seems insane to me. Most of us have things to do and places to go after we have showered, and while I admire my friend's discipline, this is a practice I will never adopt, particularly now I have discovered this new wonder method.

The panels looked near-transparent as a result of my labours, and I have told anyone who will listen about this astonishing discovery.

In conclusion, then, the experiment had proved that using eco-friendly products is an effective way of cleaning the home.

However, it required significantly harder work than your everyday household spray.

It seems to me that taking the time to mix up your own cleaning agents, like using re-usable nappies or making the decision to cycle to work, is one of a number of small but tricky choices we may find ourselves having to make over the next few years if we are to edge closer to becoming a greener and more pleasant land.