Switching off his vacuum cleaner, George Michaels leans down to inspect the filter he's placed in the machine to show me how much gunk has been gathering in my carpet. "Holy cow!" he cries. "You're living in a den of dirt!" Michaels pulls out a tangle of dust, hair and soil flecked with bits of food, and walks over to the kitchen, where he lays the collection carefully on a chair, like a robin's nest he's found in the woods. The treasure is soon joined by two more from the living room alone. "You must save these," he says, shaking his head. "Show your husband what your vacuum cleaner has missed."
I feel like a 1950s housewife sucked in by the pitch of a door-to-door salesman. The nasty "nests" are so shocking I'm even thinking of buying one of the $2000 Aerus Electrolux Guardians that Michaels demonstrates. He's here, ostensibly, to clean my carpets. My mother-in-law's about to visit, and I've responded to a neon-colored flyer for an inexpensive, quick shampooing from Aerus. But because I've neglected to vacuum and move the furniture before Michaels' arrival, he takes the opportunity to show off his full line of products. And he offers a few life lessons about what lurks inside the home; despite the state's great outdoors, that's where most Vermonters spend the majority of the winter. (The average person is indoors about 90 percent of the time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)
Those clumps of dirt in the carpet are missed by most types of vacuum cleaners, especially older models that have lost their mojo or don't allow enough space for airflow. Though I vacuum once a week, the filth has clung to the fibers, hiding from my Dirt Devil while I hum along, unsuspecting. The accumulation can cause asthma and allergies, and that's just scratching the surface. Even worse are the invisible chemicals lurking beneath our feet.
"In the old days, it was thought, it's good for your system, eat a peck of dirt before you die," says Michaels, a cell biologist who began selling Aerus products in the 1990s as a way to supplement his research stipends. "Nowadays we're so molded and melded into chemicals through industry, there's a lot of toxins -- thousands -- in the atmosphere."
Synthetic carpets already contain dozens of potentially hazardous chemicals in their blends; combined with a polyurethane pad, they can release dangerous fumes into the air for years. Enter your home after a day at the office, on the roads or at a construction site, and you bring more toxins -- car exhaust, cigarette smoke, de-icing salt -- inside. According to the EPA, more than 150 toxic substances can be found in the typical home, turning comfort zones into veritable chemistry labs. A recent EPA survey also revealed that indoor air was three to 70 times more polluted than outdoor air. So much for "country fresh."
The EPA recommends that non-smoking couples in cold climates clean carpets every four to six months; if there are children, do it four times a year. Have children and pets? Clean every two months. But beware of how you battle the dander and dust, as many methods can actually do more harm than help. Vacuum cleaners often just recycle the toxins back into the air and also emit carbon dust -- look for models with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA filter, which traps 99.97 percent of airborne particles 0.3 microns or larger.
Washing can be even worse, as many spot removers contain perchloroethylene and naphthalene, and the fumes can cause dizziness, nausea, liver damage and cancer. Traditional "wet" shampooing can turn your living room into a living swamp, as some methods take three to five days to dry. "While it's drying you get blooms of bacteria, fungus and mold and this isn't good for your lungs," says Michaels. "That's why doctors have said don't shampoo if you have babies around, and people get the idea they shouldn't [clean their carpets]."
After vacuuming with the Guardian, Michaels pushes around a Floor Pro, which goes for $800. The upright model releases a light foam, about 2 percent water, which dries in just a few hours or less. "This is a grooming," he suggests.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the Texas-based Aerus has franchises in Vermont and around the country. It is just one of hundreds of companies committed to healthy home care; the Green Mountain State boasts a bounty of green cleaners and designers. Waitsfield architect William Maclay starts from the ground up, designing homes to minimize mold-producing moisture and improve ventilation.
"In talking to clients, you find that people have more health issues, such as allergies and getting sick every winter, than they first think," says Maclay, whose "Vermont Healthy Home" design is an alternative to the state's typically drafty structures. "If you have an old farmhouse, the hot air rises, sucking air from the basement which may have mold and mildew. We look holistically at the home, as a complex organism."
Burlington-based Seventh Generation, meanwhile, produces a line of non-toxic household products that can help eliminate the everyday accumulation of indoor chemicals. The company's offerings include chlorine-free diapers and baby wipes, recycled trash bags and tissue and a mint-oil toilet bowl cleaner. Laundry detergents are made from corn and coconut-based cleaning agents, and are a smart choice considering how often your clothes and bedding should be hitting the washing machine. As many as two million dust mites call your home their home, feeding off flakes of dead skin in cushions, sheets and more. One study found that one-tenth the weight of a 2-year-old pillow is dust-mite feces, which causes asthma and is just plain gross.
The statistics get downright scary. A 15-year study by the National Cancer Institute concluded that women who work at home have a 54 percent higher risk of developing cancer than those who work outside the house. Beyond the obvious culprits of carpets, cleaners, mildew and mold are stoves, heaters, fireplaces and chimneys, radon, asbestos and formaldehyde. The EPA, which has published a 25-page guide to indoor air quality on its Web site (www.epa.gov/iaq) recommends improving ventilation and purchasing air cleaners, where appropriate. But the most effective method is controlling sources: sealing off pollutants, adjusting gas emissions, minimizing woodstove smoke, installing exhaust fans and measuring radon levels.
Those who work in construction, painting or other industries involving lead should change their shoes and clothes before entering the home. Everyone should reduce exposure to household chemicals. And in some cases, dirty may be better -- the EPA suggests keeping exposure to newly dry-cleaned clothes, which have perchloroethylene emissions, to a minimum. For pillows, there are dust-mite-proof cases, and toxin-free alternatives abound.
After Michaels leaves my house -- with my promise I'll consider a Guardian and Floor Pro -- the carpet does indeed dry quickly, and I let the nests sit on the kitchen chair for a while. Hesitant to even wash the counters before investigating the ingredients of my household cleaning arsenal, I make up my mother-in-law's bed, open the windows and go for a walk where it's much safer: outdoors.