Organic Housekeepers, cleaning with a conscience, saving the earth one tub at a time.Tim Szurgot vacuums tree

Clean meets green with new local business

By Keala Francis/Vail Trail — September 21, 2005

Toxic and clean seem unlikely companions, but often they come together in the household.

Organic Housekeepers, a new local business founded by Tim Szurgot and Mike Matthews, uses organic and natural products to clean homes without the toxins. Eventually, they hope to expand to a “green consulting” practice, helping to educate people on the benefits of a more environmentally-friendly home.

Szurgot, who claims to be neither a business man nor a “radical” green guy, grew up in a family that recycled, composted and was generally aware of the environment. As a kid, Szurgot was known as “Captain Vacuum” and quit his fraternity because it was too dirty. Clean-cut with wind-blown hair, Szurgot now rides his bike to and from his job at Manor Vail, at least in the summer. He and Matthews decided to found the business after Szurgot started receiving calls from a funny article he wrote about cleaning.

“Are we the first to do organic housekeeping?” he asked. “No. That’s how they cleaned for years, with lavender and rose petals.”

Organic Housekeepers does not use solely organic products, but does ensure its products and “secret sauce” homemade cleaners are free of ammonia, bleach and phosphates, all of which have proven ill effects on the environment.

Household cleaners are also hazards in the house as potential poisons. In 2003, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers most recent annual report, there were 211,077 poison exposures in the “cleaning substances (household)” category, which accounted for 15.3 percent of all non-pharmaceutical exposures. Out of that category, 57.3 percent of the exposures were in children under six years old.

Still, tying household cleaners to chronic disease or death is hard. The effect of long-term exposure to household chemicals has too many variables. However, the EPA has estimated that pollutants can be two to fives times higher inside homes than outside. Household cleaners are partly to blame, even when kept in closed containers, which still leak small amounts of gas. Household cleaners are under federal regulation, but simply not reading the labels can be dangerous. For example, mixing chlorine bleach and ammonia, common in many household cleaners, creates chloramines gas, a toxin that irritates the lungs and causes coughing and choking.

Suelena Rivard, a Vail resident and cleaning professional for 11 years, recently compared an environmentally-friendly product to traditional brands, such as 409 and Windex. She found the cleaner just as effective and, as an asthmatic, noticed she did not wheeze after cleaning as she usually does. However, as is often the case, such stories are anecdotal, not scientific.

For Szurgot, the science is not at the heart of the issue. Organic Housekeepers is just one step toward getting back on course to “taking care of the earth.”

“Do I expect to get rich? No.” he said. “Does this feel good? Yes. Am I doing something I’m interested in? Yes.”

Szurgot and Matthews clean the homes themselves and charge $25 to $35 per hour, including all the cleaning products, fairly market rate for traditional cleaning businesses in the Vail Valley. “We really work on scent,” Szurgot said. “Natural products actually have a more neutral smell versus that toxic clean smell from bleach.”

Szurgot and Matthews buy some products in bulk, but mostly make their products from common natural ingredients, including citrus, lavender, rose petals, organic white vinegar and baking powder. The ability to make the products helps bring down operating costs.

For many people, costs are one reason not to go green, which is often associated with paying a premium. For example, a 22-fluid-ounce. bottle of Earth Friendly Products Window Kleener sells for $3.99, compared to $2.90 for a comparable Windex bottle. The cost differential per ounce is only $0.05, but for people on a budget that can add up. Homemade products are substantially less expensive.

Delling Zing, owner of Freshie’s, a local Edwards business dedicated to organic and environmentally-friendly products uses the products he sells and also makes his own. As a demonstration, he sprayed two squirts of a cleaning solution made from hydrogen peroxide and water into his mouth. “Wouldn’t do that with bleach, would ya?” he asked.

The household cleaning products Freshie’s carries include Ecover, Earth Friendly Products, BioKleen, Jason’s Naturals, Green Forest and Seventh Generation. Nature’s Providers, an Avon business, offers a similar selection. City Market also carries some natural products, although not as extensively as the smaller businesses.

The appearance of green and natural products on these traditional store shelves implies people are becoming more interested in alternatives to traditional cleaners, but regulation has not caught up with marketing. Many labels are misleading and even environmentally-friendly products can cause skin and eye irritation if used improperly. Most carry the general warning to “keep out of reach of children” just as traditional products do.

In the past decade, regulation has improved. The Consumer Product Safety Commission now sets federal guidelines. Nonprofit organizations, such as Green Seal, also conduct tests and create seals with labeling standards. The standards are not easy to understand for the average consumer and retailers have asked for stricter standards on organic products, such as organic milk.

Szurgot simply believes getting back to basics will better the environment. He hopes Organic Housekeepers will raise awareness on how to green the home and educate people on how even “safe” chemicals can be bad for “bodies, pets and kids.”

“We’re learning every day,” he said. “But I don’t see many cons.”

The U.S. Military apparently agrees. The “Joint Service Pollution Prevention Opportunity Handbook” reads: “Environmentally preferable cleaners are typically less toxic to human health and the environment.” The list of disadvantages includes additional labor.

Szurgot agreed. “It probably does require a little more elbow grease,” he said.

But would you rather smell bleach or rose petals?

Keala Francis is a contributor for The Vail Trail. She can be reached through tmiller@vailtrail.com

 


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