The calendar says it's spring. It's time to open windows and let the fresh air in.

But oh, those windows. They're so dirty. Looks like it's spring cleaning time.

April 22 was Earth Day, a day to support environmental protection.

So do you know what is in your cleaning products? Are they safe for the environment?

Jenifer Rituper, an environmental educator at the Monroe County Environmental Education Center, said, "What we use goes into our septic systems. What doesn't dissolve in the septic goes into the ground. Toxics go into the earth and then goes into our streams."

She said that commercial cleaning products can be very dangerous. Some can cause skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes and chemical burns. Some can be associated with chronic or long-term effects such as cancer.

The most dangerous cleansers are drain cleaners, oven cleaners and acidic toilet bowl cleaners, according to Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition. Ingredients with high acute toxicity include chlorine bleach and ammonia, which produces fumes that are highly irritating to eyes, nose, throat and lungs. They should not be used by people with asthma or lung or heart problems.

"Ammonia and chlorine killed soldiers in World War I. Now we use ammonia and chlorine in our homes," Rituper said.

Rituper said that she watched a movie about a family that goes on a nontoxic journey that changed her whole way of thinking about the products we buy.

Rituper advised us to check the ingredients of our cleaning supplies. Products that list the following ingredients should be avoided: ammonia, 2-butozyethanol/ethylene glycol butyl ether; ethoxylated nonyl phenols (NPEs); methylene chloride; naphthalene; silica; toluene; trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA); xylene; bleach (sodium hypochlorite); phosphates.

When mixed with acids that are typically found in toilet bowl cleaners, bleach reacts to form chlorine gas. When it is mixed with ammonia, it can create chloramine gas, another toxic substance. In the environment, sodium hypochlorite is acutely toxic to fish. The chlorine in bleach can also bind with organic material in the marine environment to form organochlorines, toxic compounds that can persist in the environment.

Rituper said the best nontoxic products to use are baking soda, lemon juice, peroxide and vinegar, (which kills 99 percent of germs).

"Put baking soda in an old Parmesan cheese container. Shake it on the surface you want to clean and use a microfiber cloth," Rituper said.

Tests have shown that washing counters and other surfaces with soap and water removes most bacteria.

Rituper said not to use antibacterial soap because it contains triclosan, which kills bacteria. Some reasons not to use it are it's no more effective than conventional soap and water, it has the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria and heavy use of antibiotics can cause resistance.

Studies found that if triclosan appears in rats, frogs and other animals, it interferes with the body's regulation of thyroid hormone. If this is the case in humans, too, there are worries that it could lead to problems such as infertility, artificially advanced early puberty, obesity and cancer.

Children with prolonged exposure to triclosan have a higher chance of developing allergies, including peanut allergies and hay fever, as a result of reduced exposure to bacteria, which could be necessary for proper immune system functioning and development.

When we use a lot of triclosan in soap, that means a lot of triclosan gets flushed down the drain. Research has shown that small quantities of the chemical can persist after treatment at sewage plants, and as a result, USGS surveys have frequently detected it in streams and other bodies of water. Once in the environment, triclosan can disrupt algae's ability to perform photosynthesis.

Detox your home recipes

ONE SIZE FITS ALL CLEANER

1 cup water

1/2 cup vinegar

10 drops of essential oil

Modify it with any of over a hundred essential oils to get the job done. Use cedar oil in the bathroom to fight mold and mildew or geranium oil to create a cleaner/bug repellent for the patio furniture. Use lemon oil and lavender oil for antibacterial qualities. Best used in a stainless steel or glass bottle. Shake and spray away. Microfiber cloths are suggested to make cleaning a snap.

INVISIBLEWINDOW CLEANER

1 cup vinegar

5 cups water

1 tablespoon isopropyl alcohol

Mix in a spray bottle, use newsprint to ensure streak-free windows.

AUTOMATICDISHWASHER SOAP

cup white vinegar

1/2 cup Castile soap

4 drops tea tree oil

1/2 cup water

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Put it in a glass jar. Use 2-3 tablespoons per load.

JENIFER'SLAUNDRY SOAP

1 bar natural soap, grated

1 cup washing Soda (Ex. Arm & Hammer Washing Soda)

1 cup Borax

Use 1-3 tablespoon per load

NONTOXIC BLEACH ALTERNATIVE

3 quarts water

cup lemon juice

1 cup hydrogen peroxide

use 1 1/2-2 cups per laundry load

(Color-friendly version: substitute white vinegar for the peroxide.)

ANTI-STATICIN DRYER

Try using a crumpled piece of tin foil. Really!

Cleaning expert Annie Berthold-Bond recommends cleaning tubs, showers, toilets and countertops with the following solution: a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of washing soda, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, teaspoon liquid soap, 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle. Or Bon Ami.

Choose low-impact products

If you don't want to use these homemade cleaning solutions, try choosing products with the lowest impact on your health and environment. Rituper said to read your labels. Some key things to look for are:

1. Most labels offer signal words such as danger, warning or caution. They provide some indication of its toxicity. Danger or poison are typically hazardous; warning means moderately hazardous; caution means slightly toxic. Choose products that are nontoxic enough that they require none of the signal words.

2. Look for specific ecological claims. For example, "biodegradable in 3-5 days" holds more meaning than "biodegradable." Most substances will eventually break down if given enough time and the right ecological conditions. Claims like no solvents, no phosphates or plant-based are more meaningful than ecologically friendly or natural.

3. Choose products made with plant-based, instead of petroleum-based, ingredients.

4. To reduce packaging waste, choose cleaners in the largest container sizes available. Seek out bulk sizes. Select products in bottles made with at least some recycled plastic. Choose concentrated formulas which contain only 20 percent or less water.

Some other useful cleaning tips are:

*To clean toilet bowls, pour one cup of borax and cup distilled white vinegar or lemon juice into the bowl. Let sit for a few hours, then scrub with toilet brush and flush.

*To clean shower tiles, use a toothbrush and a baking soda-water paste to remove mildew and stains. Rituper says she likes using a stainless steel scrubber to clean her shower stall soap scum.

*Oven cleaning can be easier if you line your oven with aluminum foil. Remove grease and charred food residues by soaking the surface overnight in a mixture of water, baking soda and soap. Then scrub off with baking soda and a soapy sponge. Or a paste of washing soda may do the trick. Whenever you use washing soda, be sure to wear rubber gloves.

Good-smelling cleaning solutions

If you want your homemade solutions to have a fragrance, use essential oils. They are nontoxic and some have antibacterial qualities. There are more than 100 natural essential oils available at local health food and grocery stores.

*Lavender: Gets rid of odors and fungus and bacteria. Use in your bath.

*Eucalyptus: Is antiseptic, disinfectant, insect repellent. Mix with vodka and water to make a natural air freshener.

*Geranium: Adding a little to a standard air freshener mix helps repel flying insects that congregate around doors and window screens. Also helps to keep crawling critters away.

*Lemon Oil: Adds luster to your wood surfaces; added to cleaner, gets rid of water stains and dirt disappears. Marble and granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are a snap to clean with a little lemon oil. One Japanese study concluded that using lemon oil as a key ingredient in an office air freshener decreases worker error by more than 54 percent.

*Lemongrass oil: Anti-fungal and also used as an antidepressant.

*Tea Tree Oil: Combats mold and mildew and toenail fungus.

*Cedar Wood Oil: An antiseptic.