Philip Dickey knows a lot about the domestic arts. A visit to his Washington Toxics Coalition office in Seattle, Wash., may find him polishing the floor with skim milk, or devising some fiendishly difficult-to-remove-after-it's-been-baked-into-the-oven material, jam, say, to test the powers of baking soda and elbow grease.
He is not terribly judgmental about what products people use in their homes. But he does think consumers should know when products are toxic or polluting, and he makes it his business to find alternatives to them. Here are his nominees for the Top 10 household toxics, not necessarily in order of significance:
* Drain cleaners and openers that contain lye and carry a DANGER label. These products are corrosive, which means they will burn any part of your body they touch. And if they don't clear the clogged drain, you may have a sink full of lye to deal with. If the drain is already clogged, try a plunger or rent a mechanical snake to push the clog through. Or pour 1/2 cup baking soda down, chase it with 1/2 cup white vinegar. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then follow with a kettle of boiling water. This dissolves the fatty acids in the clog and washes it down the drain. I know this sounds unlikely, but believe me, it really does work.
Practice preventive drain management by always using a drain strainer and by pouring a little baking soda with some boiling water down it once a week -- or whenever the spirit moves you.
* Toilet bowl cleaners and lime de-scalers that carry a DANGER label. A good brush and a little baking soda or vinegar are all you really need, no matter how gross you think toilets are.
* Disinfectants. Like toilet bowl cleaners, these pack more firepower than the average household needs. A mild, all-purpose cleaner, such as Bon Ami, Castile soap or baking soda, should be perfectly adequate.
* Furniture and metal polishes that carry a DANGER label. These contain flammable petroleum distillates such as kerosene, and accidental ingestion can cause a dangerous condition called chemical pneumonia. Recipes for alternatives can be found in the resources listed below. Or if "homemade" is not your favorite adjective, scrutinize labels of commercial polishes and buy products that don't say DANGER.
* Liquid paint stripper. These are usually volatile organic solvents that are extremely flammable and toxic. Ingredients include methylene chloride, toluene, methyl alcohol and others. They evaporate quickly, their fumes are both acutely and chronically dangerous, and they contribute to air pollution.
Alternatives to paint stripper depend on the job you are doing. Less toxic chemical strippers are one option. For example, 3M makes a product called Safest Stripper. Sanding or using a heat gun is another option. Or you might take the piece to a commercial stripper. If you do use a stripper yourself, talk to someone at a safety supply house about what constitutes appropriate ventilation. They may recommend that you wear a respirator.
* Thinners, solvents and cleaning fluids. Most of these are highly flammable and are strong central nervous system depressants, a fancy way of saying they can make your nervous system go a little haywire. Their harmful effects can be both immediate and long term. And their vapors contribute to air pollution.
Use latex paint and you won't need thinner to wash brushes. For degreasing, try a citrus-based cleaner, or a product such as Simple Green. Spot removal is tricky. If the offending spot is on your $900 silk suit, you should be reading Hints from Heloise. If the spot is on your cotton turtleneck, try one of the many commercial enzyme or detergent-based presoaks or spot removers.
* Wood preservatives. These are pesticides that protect wood against attack by fungi, bacteria and insects. Some compounds used are suspected carcinogens, and others are extremely toxic to fish. Suggested alternatives to wood preservatives are too involved to address here, but they do exist. Check the resources listed at the end of this column.
* Glues and adhesives with WARNING or DANGER on the label. Most white or yellow glues and glue sticks are relatively nontoxic. Most clear glues, including rubber cement, are highly flammable and toxic. Their fumes can lower the speed at which your nerves work and cause muscle weakness and spasms.
If a nontoxic glue can't do the job, use the toxic product very carefully. Buy the smallest container available, and do your gluing out of doors, upwind from your nose.
* Insecticides and herbicides. This category includes a huge range of products, from bug spray to weed-and-feed, and they address a huge range of weed and insect problems.
Did I say Top 10 toxics? I cheated and lumped the last two.
Now check around your house. Did a lot of your household products make the list? Don't panic and pitch them all in the trash. Most experts suggest you go ahead and finish those toxic products you already have, using them sparingly and according to instructions. Keep them out of reach of children, of course, and when the products are all used up, call your trash utility to find out how to dispose of the containers.
Here are a few good sources for alternatives to toxics:
* Bio-Integral Resource Center. For a list of BIRC publications, write P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, Calif. 94707.
* Washington Toxics Coalition. Request a list of titles by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to 4516 University Way NE, Seattle, Wash. 98105.