Out, out damned spot!
Solution wizard Reena Nerbas makes home life easier – and greenerby Glenda Bartosh
Has something like Tilex sent you
coughing and choking to open a window while you were cleaning your shower? How
about those detergents that make the skin on your hands feel like it shrunk
three sizes after you’ve washed dishes?
If you’ve ever suffered the above or
had your own unique reaction while cleaning something basic around your house,
you’ll be super glad that Reena Nerbas didn’t turn into a fashion buyer or a
children’s book author like she set out to be.
Instead, Reena has become a cool,
contemporary Canadian guru of household solutions — a post post-modern version
of those bastions of handy home tips, like Heloise and Penny Wise, with a zingy,
Reena has parlayed common sense and
curiosity with her degree in human ecology (that’s the study of how people
interact with their environment and nature; it used to be called home
economics) to become the author of best sellers
Household Solutions 1 with
Household Solutions 2
with Kitchen Secrets
; a regular guest on
CBC Radio One (catch her locally on Mark Forsythe’s B.C. Almanac) and CTV’s
Canada AM; and a national newspaper columnist.
All of her work is based on a common
thread: “I’m trying to get people to reduce chemicals in their homes more and
more and to use less toxic products in other ways. I call them ‘household
superstars’,” she says from her home in a small town outside of Winnipeg, where
she lives with her husband and four children — excellent generators of
challenges to test tips on.
“For example, you have peanut butter.
Peanut butter is not just for putting on sandwiches — you can fix your music
CDs with peanut butter. You can take gum out of hair with peanut butter. You
can remove labels from jars with peanut butter. There are multiple uses for
multiple products in the home. You don’t always have to run out to the store
and buy these hugely expensive commercial products that have not been tested
Note the last phrase. Canada is way
behind Europe and even the U.S. when it comes to standards for household
chemicals. There are more than 75,000 untested chemicals in products on store
shelves in Canada, and they don’t have any standards for usage. Even scarier,
manufacturers then take these untested chemicals and combine them with each
other or with other chemicals, so we really don’t know what the effects are.
“Because of an act during the
Industrial Revolution called the Trade Secrets Act, companies don’t need to
tell you what’s in the products they’re selling,” says Reena. “Except for the
corrosive warnings on them, they don’t need to tell you. So we are scrubbing
and cleaning our homes with all these toxic chemicals and not even realizing
what they are.”
Many people also don’t realize they
can be absorbed through skin, so they don’t wear rubber gloves. Then there are
those of us who know better but are too lazy to get the gloves out. Never mind
the problem of breathing in chemical vapours, all in the name of cleanliness.
Decades of advertising, social
conventions and old habits have lured us into this chemical kingdom. Now
doctors caution that we are getting too clean, begging us to stop using
anti-bacterial soaps because they encourage super-bugs and proving that the
epidemic of asthma is, in part, due to hyper-cleaning.
But the great thing about Reena’s
approach to household solutions is that she’s practical, recognizing that we do
live in a world that contains chemicals, and that some of them can be helpful
in unintended applications.
“I’m not an extremist who says never
use dishwasher detergent,” she says. “But I do add baking soda and borax to my
dishwasher detergent so that it uses less bleach and lasts longer. So you can
really reduce your use of chemicals.”
Not only is it better for all of us
and the environment, there’s something enormously satisfying about generating
household solutions — for cleaners, food substitutes or other uses — from
things that are inexpensive, have met FDA standards and you’ve already got
around your house. One such superstar is borax, which cleans by converting some
water molecules to hydrogen peroxide.
Plus if you just need a tablespoon of
something, isn’t it better if that something is peanut butter or vinegar? That
way you won’t be stuck with a whole container of noxious cleaner that sits
under your sink for ages until you figure out how to dispose of it properly or,
more likely, finally toss it in the landfill, where it ends up in the
I’ve just used Reena’s tip for
getting hand cream out of a favourite T-shirt (page 41 of
) by dabbing on some dish
detergent before I washed it (in BioVert laundry soap). If you’re vegan, you
can use flax as a substitute for eggs in baking. You can clean the copper
bottoms of your pots with ketchup (just leave it sit for a while to work) and
you can gently peel band-aids off your toddler’s skin if you first soak the
band-aid in baby oil.
Many of Reena’s tips come from
readers and listeners, with, surprisingly, about half of them coming from men,
and almost all of them coming from people over 30 (young people just aren’t
interested). The rest are her own discoveries, applying her knowledge of
science and chemistry, like this tip for whitening yellowed Corelle dishes that
combines two weak acids and heightens their effect with heat: Put the yellowed
dishes in a big pot with three cups of vinegar and four cups of water, add some
citric acid, which you can get from the pharmacy, boil them for five minutes, and
they’ll look like new.
Don’t worry about buying citric acid.
It’s naturally found in food and if you have some left over, Reena says you can
add it to your dishwasher dispenser to magically remove mild etching from your
glassware. Besides, who knows what else you’ll discover to do with it.
For more tips from Reena Nerbas,
including her famous recipe to remove “impossible” carpet stains, or to order
her books, go to www.householdsolutions.org/
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning
freelance writer who buys 20 Mule Team Borax just to see the cute icon of 20
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