Eye on Public Health: Spring Cleaning Surprise

Susan Lamontagne is an advocate for children's health and environmental protection. Courtesy photo

Imagine a Marie Kondo spring cleaning on steroids. Then multiply that ten-fold and you’ll have an inkling of what’s been going on in my house lately. After more than 20 years of patchwork-style spring cleanings, the kind where you donate some old clothes and throw the rest of the crap into boxes and bags to deal with later, an organizational tsunami has hit my house.

I was suddenly motivated — and for the first time in history had the time — to clean out every closet, drawer, cabinet, and box in my home. It started with a large pile of Board of Education materials that had accumulated over the past three years in a corner of my office — out. Next were the financial records clogging my filing cabinets that dated back to the Nixon Administration — shredded. The clothes were easy. If they hadn’t been worn in the last year they were promptly donated. Toys were next. They were not so easy as both my boys are now teenagers, so the departure of some of their playthings symbolized the loss of their childhood.

“You still want this?” I would ask as I held up the marble maze or the science kit or the Tonka trucks while they played on their x-box. “Nope,” said the older one without a glance. When I asked what they wanted me to do with the Pokemon cards and the Legos, the answer was decidedly different: “Might they be worth something someday?” (Their grandfather still bemoans the fact that his mother tossed all of his baseball trading cards and he swears he had a Babe Ruth and a Ted Williams.) Many of the stuffed animals got nothing more than a shrug. Fortunately, some of them came alive during the night and moved from the “donate” pile back to the “keep” bin. No one is taking responsibility for the migration.

When I started to rifle through the basement storage closet, the real fun started. Wrapped in two plastic bags within another bag at the bottom of a giant bin was a journal I had kept shortly before and after the birth of my first child. The reason it was so well wrapped is that it was blanketed with soot from our home fire back in 2006 (thank you again Sag Harbor Village Fire Department!). The contamination didn’t stop the journal from revealing that our memories can be less than accurate.

“Last night you put us to the test with non-stop feedings and inconsolable cries,” reports the soot-covered journal. “You don’t like to be fussed with and diaper changings are a nightmare!” Lines such as these had us in fits of laughter as we have long sworn the kid never cried and was the easiest baby ever. Later on, the journal reveals our son to be a “snacker” who likes to feed for about 10 minutes then fall asleep for 30, only to wake and repeat the cycle.

Our elderly neighbor, Alexandra, told us at the time that this pattern was unacceptable and we had to nip it in the bud. Her advice? “I would stab my babies in the foot with my thumb nail if they fell asleep while feeding,” she boasted. I never heeded her parenting advice and my son remains a snacker to this day.

Now the cleaning is almost complete. Cabinets and drawers are in perfect order. Closets are clutter free. The boxes that remain in the basement storage closet are now labeled and their contents (what’s left of them) neatly arranged. It’s a sight to behold. The house feels better. I feel better. And there is actual science that confirms this.

For one thing, spring cleaning helps to reduce dust, which scientists have discovered is toxic. According to Rachel Dodson of the Silver Spring Institute, dust typically contains at least 45 toxic chemicals including phthalates, a hormone-disrupting chemical, phenols from cleaning and personal care products, flame retardants from furniture, computers, and TVs, and highly fluorinated chemicals from non-stick cookware (we banished non-stick from our home long ago). Children are at particular risk because they tend to crawl and play on the floor. To reduce exposure, Dodson and others say to clean floors with a damp mop and avoid buying furnishings and products treated with flame retardants.

Scientists have also found that cleaning is a proven “de-stressor” that can “improve your mood” according to Reader’s Digest. There are even hundreds of new Instagram channels devoted to the art of cleaning, including “Harriet” who says cleaning can help people to cope with conditions like OCD. But do it now while the skies are gray and the weather is dodgy. Only then will you discover your own spring cleaning surprises and be ready to enjoy the nice weather when it arrives.