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Use Less-Toxic Products

A photo of a lawn recently treated with herbicides
You can have a nice lawn without resorting
to herbicides and pesticides.

We put ourselves, our families, and our pets at risk when we use herbicides, pesticides, highly corrosive products like drain cleaners, and toxins like ammonia and bleach. Sewage treatment plants don't eliminate these chemicals, and many find their way into our air, water and ecosystems.

Fortunately, there are safer alternatives that work just as well. By choosing a non-toxic option or the least toxic product, you can protect yourself and the environment.

In the Yard

  • Get a lush, healthy lawn without chemicals
    Set mowing height to 2.5 - 3 inches. Leave grass clippings on the lawn. Water slowly and deeply in the mornings, one inch of water once a week at most. Fertilize with 1/4-inch of compost spread on your lawn between mid-June and the end of August. More lawn tips
  • Don't use lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus
    The Dishwasher Detergent and Nutrient Runoff Law prohibits or severely restricts the use of phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizers. A simple soil test will reveal whether your lawn actually needs additional phosphorus. Phosphorus-containing runoff from lawns pollutes our water bodies. Try these DIY tips for a more natural approach to caring for your lawn.
  • Tolerate some weeds
    The goal of having a weed-free lawn is essentially unattainable without resorting to dangerous chemicals. Learn to accept the natural diversity of your lawn. More on controlling weeds
  • Deal with Japanese beetles
    In the early spring, apply parasitic nematodes (HB strain) to your lawn. Water the lawn well before and after application. Don't use beetle traps - they attract more than they kill. Use a hose to spray mature beetles off your plants in the morning when the beetles are less active.
  • Watch for problems
    Many insect infestations and diseases can be controlled without toxins if caught early enough. Patrol your yard regularly, and be sure to look on the underside of leaves.
  • Visit the Be Green Great Lakes Project webpage and patronize green businesses.
  • Avoid traditional deicing products
    Typical deicing salt corrodes surfaces, pollutes groundwater, damages plants and irritates pets' paws. Try clay kitty litter, sand or fireplace/stove ash, which provide traction and help melt ice by absorbing heat from the sun.
  • Add wood ash to your soil
    Wood ash neutralizes acidic soils and adds potassium, but don't use it if the pH of your soil is less than 7. Apply a maximum of up to 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Don't use wood ash for acid-loving plants like azaleas, blueberries or potatoes. Handle with care due to its alkalinity.

In Your Home

  • Unclog sinks without drain openers
    Try to manually remove hair or solids with a metal snake or plunger. Add one half cup baking soda to the drain and follow with a half cup of white vinegar. Wait until it stops bubbling and then pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain.
  • Whiten laundry without chlorine bleach
    Use the less-toxic bleach alternatives or try adding a half-cup of borax to your laundry. Sunshine will whiten cotton and linen, not to mention the energy savings from line drying.
  • Make your windows sparkle without ammonia
    Mix 3 tablespoons white vinegar, two cups of water and one teaspoon of liquid Castile soap.
  • Polish metals with non-toxics
    Polish brass and copper with a combination of lemon juice and baking soda mixed to the consistency of toothpaste. For tarnished silver, place a piece of tin foil in a pot, add the silver, and cover it with 3" of water. Add 1 teaspoon each of baking soda and salt, bring to a boil.
  • Polish wood with walnuts
    Remove light scratches from wood furniture by rubbing walnut meat across them. Then rub the area with your finger to help the oil from the walnut penetrate.
  • Avoid dry cleaning
    Dry-cleaning fluids contain carcinogens, neurotoxins, and respiratory irritants. Clothes that say "dry clean only" can often be safely washed by hand. Avoid clothing that must be dry-cleaned.
  • Remove hard water deposits with vinegar
    Soak your showerhead in undiluted white vinegar for two hours to overnight. Clean deposits off shower walls and glass with an undiluted white vinegar spray and a scrubbing sponge.
  • Clean your toilet bowl a better way
    Pour one cup of borax and 1/4-cup of vinegar into the bowl. Let it sit overnight before scrubbing. Two denture cleaner tablets left in the bowl overnight will help remove mineral deposits.
  • Green your spring cleaning
    Cover the bottom of the oven with a ¼" thickness of baking soda and spray it with water. Leave the mixture on overnight and wipe it off in the morning. No scrubbing required! Use Borax and water to clean the bathtub.
  • Winterize your car with propylene glycol anti-freeze
    It is less toxic for pets, children and wildlife. Anti-freezes based on ethylene glycol are highly poisonous in even tiny amounts, and spills attract animals because it smells and tastes sweet. See U.S. EPA's link in the right hand column for precautions in cleaning up ethylene glycol spills.
  • Try non-clay cat litter
    Clay cat litter has several environmental drawbacks: the clay is often strip mined; it's not biodegradable; and it ends up in the landfill. Litter made from pine, wheat, corn, corn cobs and old newspapers is available. After scooping out soiled litter, compost the remaining litter and use it on non-edible crops.
  • Do a green remodel
    If you're planning a home improvement project, consider hiring a builder certified by the National Green Building Program. See a related link on the right side of this page.
  • Use alternative flooring
    Consider renewable flooring options such as cork or bamboo. Instead of vinyl, use real linoleum, which is made with linseed oil, resins, pigments and minerals. If you don't want bare floors, choose carpeting that can be returned to the manufacturer for recycling.
  • Use EPA-approved products
    Products with the "Safer Choice" label (formerly known as "Design for the Environment") meet USEPA's rigorous standards for performance and safety. For a list of products that qualify, use the related link in the right-hand column. Products for businesses are listed first, followed by products for home use.
  • Rid your garage of toxic products safely
    Dispose of oil-based paints, pesticides, automotive fluids, home chemicals, compact fluorescent bulbs and other household hazardous wastes properly. Check your local government for information about hazardous waste collections in your area.
  • Recycle lead-acid batteries
    The lead-acid batteries used in vehicles must be recycled rather than thrown out because they can leak contaminants. Learn how to recycle vehicle batteries for free.

Environmental and Health Issues with Coal Tar-based Pavement Sealers

A black top driveway with landscaping around it.

Driveway sealers containing coal tar have been used for decades. This kind of sealcoat contains high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which have been identified as "reasonably anticipated human carcinogens", that is, they could cause cancer.

Research also shows that coal tar-based sealers are major contributors to increased concentrations of PAHs in urban lakes. Urban lakes are used for drinking water and to irrigate fields that produce food. USGS studies show that aquatic organisms exposed to high levels of PAHs have stunted growth, liver problem, and difficulty swimming or righting themselves. Due to these concerns, many governments have banned the use of coal tar sealant and many major home improvement stores no longer sell sealcoat products with coal tar.

A little blonde-haired, barefoot girl playing on an asphalt driveway

Asphalt-based Sealants

Whether you're planning to hire a contractor or do the sealing yourself, choose an asphalt-based sealant, which is less toxic. Alternative or "green" sealants contain 1,000 times less PAH than coal-tar sealants.

When hiring a professional to seal your driveway:

  • The contractor should know whether their product is coal-tar or asphalt based. Be sure to ask.
  • If your contractor does not know, or you would like to verify their answer, request the safety data sheet for their product. If it references chemical abstract service (CAS) numbers 65996-93-2, 65996-89-6 or 8007-45-2, the sealant contains coal tar.
  • If "coal tar," "refined coal tar," "coal tar pitch volatiles," "RT-12," "tar" or similar terms appear in the data, the sealant contains coal tar.

When sealing the driveway yourself:

  • Carefully read the label on the sealant. If it references any of the CAS numbers above, the sealant contains coal tar.
  • If the label references any of the terms above, the sealant contains coal tar.