Ants In The Kitchen

photo credit: axialmotion.com

Q:

We got home from our trip late last night. Found a kazillion sugar ants in the house when we arrived. We had them coming in before we left and had put out a few of the ant traps that take poison back to the nest . . . and it didn’t stop them from moving inside en masse. Do you have any healthy solutions? We’ve put sweet pantry items in the freezer and have been spraying Windex on the ones in the kitchen as that kills them (ammonia) and is not toxic. I don’t want to call pest control but I may have no choices left. It is bad.

~Susan, via email

A:

Sounds like you’ve got a good start on cleaning them up. In addition, you can try some ideas (below) from a natural gardening guide which I have on hand. (Also available for download at oregonmetro.gov .) Using silicone sealant at entrypoints seems like an excellent solution in your case. Remember to be patient with the problem; you may be able to irradicate them in a few days with just these simple measures and that would be so much healthier for your family than exposure to chemical killers.
Prevention
Store food in tightly sealed containers. Keep all kitchen surfaces clean and
free of food scraps and standing water.
Physical control
If a line of ants is marching across the kitchen, find the point of entry and
seal it. Use a silicone seal. Use petroleum jelly for a short-term fix until you
have time to do a better job. Remove what the ants are eating and mop
them up with soapy water. Some have found that sprinkling red chili pepper
at the entry point helps discourage ants. Wrap a band of tape, paper or
cotton coated with a sticky substance such as Tanglefoot around the main
stem of outdoor plants to trap ants.
Biological control
Birds, bee flies, humpback flies and thick-headed flies are natural predators
outdoors.
Least-toxic chemical control
Diatomaceous earth, silica gel, boric acid and pyrethrum can be effective.
Diatomaceous earth and silica gel are dusts that kill insects by drying them
out. They are dangerous to breathe, so if they must be blown into wall
spaces, a professional should do the job. Pyrethrum can be combined with
silica gel to give a faster effect; one form comes in a non-aerosol squeeze
dispenser that allows for application in cracks and crevices to minimize
human and pet contact. Boric acid can be used in cracks, but only in areas
not accessible to crawling children or pets. Prepare 1 percent boric acid
solution by mixing 1 teaspoon boric acid, 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
and 2 cups warm water. Store in a clear container. Use on cotton balls
placed in the bottom of a plastic cup or tub with holes cut for ants to enter.
Recharge each week. After three to four weeks, use 1/2 percent solution
for continuous control. You can also use insecticidal soap to drench an
ant colony outdoors or in a crawl space. More than one treatment may be
necessary.

Dish Detergent: Eat It and Breathe It

OK, so I don’t really think you should eat or breathe your dish detergent, but you could be doing so already.

Dishwasher Detergent

It is common for some residue to be left on dishes coming from the dishwasher, and while the dishwasher is running, a great deal of steam is being put out into your home environment. If there are toxic ingredients in your detergent, guess what you’re ingesting and inhaling?

I switched from “standard” Costco brand dishwasher detergent to a natural one a few years ago when I read that cancer patients should have their dishes run through the cycle without detergent to avoid the tax on the immune system. Well, I didn’t think taxing the immune system was a good idea for the rest of us either. So I tried a dish powder from BioKleen. It worked OK. I switched to the Trader Joe’s brand for a better price, and I think that it may be the exact same product (TJ’s uses other manufacturers in some of their private label goods).

After months of using these cleaners, I noted a few things:

  • Pro: there was no bleach odor coming from the dishwasher while it ran.
  • Con: the glasses began to have a white residue build up on the outsides (bottoms), and sometimes had small granules of white powder on the inside.

I could scrub that white film off by hand (totally planning to do this when the kids leave for college . . .) but the granules inside? We might be eating that if I don’t wipe each time. So recently I switched to liquid dishwasher soap.

A friend who had just switched to the BioKleen liquid dishwasher soap warned me that it wasn’t getting her dishes clean, so I bought the Seventh Generation product which smells like grapefruit.

I think it is working well, although I noticed that I have to rinse and brush my silverware clean of stuck-on food, as there are no granules to act as an abrasive for scrubbing them off.

It also looks to me like this detergent may be slowly removing some of the white film from my glasses, but I may just be imagining it.

When you look for a detergent, make sure it is free of chlorine bleach, phosphates, and EDTA. All are toxic, both to your home environment/family and to everything living downstream from you.

Dish Liquid (for washing by hand)

Here’s some good news: of all the soaps and cleansers in our homes, the liquid dish detergent we use for washing up by hand is likely the least toxic if it does not have Triclosan in it (the FDA just recently stated that, based upon animal studies, there is valid concern that Triclosan can have an impact on the endocrine (hormonal) system). Otherwise, this can happily wait for replacement until you’ve run out of your current soap.

I have been quite happy with the BioKleen Dish Liquid. Lovely fragrance, cuts grease but doesn’t strip my hands, and foams up well. Get it at 15% off from iherb.com; I get mine through my local food co-op/drop for greater savings.

Tip: In addition to washing up dishes and other kitchen surfaces, dish soap works well to get oil stains out of clothing (think butter and peanut butter stains on kid clothes). Dawn detergent is the BEST for this, as it is an awesome grease cutter, but it’s not a natural product, so if you use it avoid touching it to your skin. Use your dish liquid full strength on the stain, let set for half an hour, rinse in the sink, then launder. Dish liquid is far too foamy for washing machines, so never add it to your load or you may have a huge mess on your hands!

Clean Floors: Bliss to My Feet

I love it when my carpets are freshly vacuumed, and my hard floors are freshly mopped (as they are right now!). Bliss to my feet!

Clean floors are an important part of home health, especially if there are babies in the home who spend a good portion of their time on the floor. Those sweet little hands that crawl on the floor. . . they go right into the mouth, don’t they?

Shoe Removal

In addition to keeping floors much cleaner through the week, shoe removal contributes to a healthy home. Most parents are aware of the hazard of lead from paint, and its toxic effect to children. Since I’ve only lived in homes built after 1978 since becoming a parent, I did not pay much attention to these warnings. Then I learned that children can still be exposed to lead through roadside dirt that has been tracked into the home (roadside dirt generally has a high concentration of lead from exhaust residue which came before lead was banned from gasoline).

Of course, I don’t do a lot of walking along major roadsides. But it did get me thinking about what else might be coming in on my shoes. From the grocery store, and occasional public restroom, to the library and local farm for eggs and milk, my shoes go many places and must have an entire mini ecosystem of bacteria and filth living on them.

And so I began removing my shoes when I enter my home, and requiring my children to do the same. It did help that we moved to a home with new carpet around that time, and the No-Shoes-on-Carpet rule became so ingrained into my children that they are now self-appointed Shoe Police, ordering all to drop their dirty duds.

Large metal bins, placed both near the front and back doors, help contain the pile of little shoes and boots that now reside near the doors.

Cleaning Floors

  • Carpets: vacuum with a strong vacuum. For spots, first blot or scrub with plain water and a terry cloth rag (old wash cloth). If it doesn’t release, use a soap-based non-aerosol carpet/upholstery shampoo. I have had good results on both carpet and upholstery with Howard Naturals Upholstery Cleaner. Equal parts vinegar and water can neutralize urine odors.
  • Hard Floors: Sweep all loose debris from floors, then mop and wipe dry.

    • For vinyl, tile, and varnished wood floors, use 2 gallons warm water and 1 cup of vinegar.
    • For Linoleum floors, use 1/4 cup vegetable oil based liquid soap in 2 gallons warm water.

    I put the solution in a bucket, and wash the floor with a rag while on my hands and knees. I use an old bath towel to dry behind as I go. More difficult than a mop? Absolutely, but a mop is really just a filthy sponge that gets used and reused on floors without cleanings in between. If you have a mop where the cleaning rag can be removed and laundered between use, awesome! Since mine was the old sponge type, I chucked it in favor of a truly clean floor. I always have a laundry load of rags to launder together in hot water and oxygen bleach at the end of cleaning day.

Plastics, the Numbers Game

Plastics are really convenient, especially in the kitchen. However, there has recently been a lot of question about how safe it is for them to be in contact with so much of our food. The nation of Canada recently banned the use of PVC in baby bottles/cups, making it the first nation to officially acknowledge the growing body of evidence that shows plastics areĀ making their way into our bodies.

Human hormones are nearly all manufactured (in our bodies) using fats, so it should come as no surprise that the addition of synthetic oils, such as plastic residues, can interfere with normal hormone processes. We would be wise to avoid these toxins much as possible.

Plastics of all types seem to leach into foods more when they are heated, subjected to harsh cleaning agents, and left in contact with wet or oily foods for extended periods. SomeĀ  safer ways to use plastics:

  • Never microwave. Ever.
  • Don’t place in the dishwasher, rather hand wash with warm water and mild dish soap.
  • Limit exposure to wet and greasy foods. Remember, plastic is made from oil (petroleum), so food grease becomes like a solvent for it, with the residue entering the food. Refrigerate/freeze wet or greasy foods in glass containers, rather than plastic bags.
  • When using plastic wrap over a dish, don’t allow the wrap to touch the food inside.
  • If you can “smell” plastic, you are actually smelling it off-gas. Avoid using actively off-gassing plastic with food, even dry foods.
  • Don’t store drinking water in a plastic bottle. Choose stainless steel or glass for your sports bottle.

Best Choices for Food Storage

The safest material for food storage is glass. Virtually non-leaching, it has stood the test of time. Fortunately, it is readily available, and inexpensive. Canning jars are an easy, flexible solution for pantry, fridge, or freezer. There are also several lines of glass products made specifically for food storage, some with snapping plastic lids (choose from the “safer” list on the lids, and avoid letting the food touch the lid).

Purchasing food canned in glass jars, rather than tin cans, is the best choice when available. Although tin is not considered toxic to humans (it’s a trace mineral we actually need in small amounts), most people in developed countries have elevated levels of this mineral, likely from tin cans. Of even greater concerns is the plastics used to line/seal tin cans; whether they are on the “safer” or “to avoid” lists below, it is likely that there was heat involved in the processing and the food has absorbed some amount of plastic.

Safer Plastic Choices:

Select safe plastics that use polyethylene (#1, #2, and #4) and polypropylene (#5), which require the use of less toxic additives. They also are non-chlorinated. Where do you find these numbers? Turn the item over and look for the symbol.

Plastics to Avoid:

Avoid choosing products that use polyvinyl chloride (#3), polystyrene (#6), and polycarbonate (#7) which often are found in baby bottles or sippy cups.

What to do with these unsafe plastics? If the containers are useful for storage elsewhere (garden shed, etc.) consider reuse, otherwise recycle before they can be accidentally returned to use in the kitchen (baby cups).

Indoor Air Quality: Home Smog

Reports (like this one from the EPA) are that the air inside our homes is likely more toxic than that outside; that’s pretty serious considering what attention is given to city smog reports. Also, it’s serious because this is the air we breathe at least 1/3 of our lives. Since I’m a stay at home mom, for me that’s more like 90-95% of my time.

What causes indoor air pollution?

  • Any kind of toxic chemical that is used in your home (think pest poisons, construction sealants, formaldyhyde off-gassing from your cabinetry, cleansers, detergents, chlorine from hot showers, paint and craft supply fumes, fumes from attached garages, fumes from gas burning appliances, etc.)
  • Molds, mildews (look around window, in showers, under sinks, in basement)
  • Dust (which mites live off of in carpets and bedding)

Yuck! And I live here? Yes, so what can I do?

Obviously, cleaning up our act in regards to chemicals, installing a CO2 detector, and cleaning up problematic mold spots and dust collectors are good starts. (Leave your shoes at the door and wet-mop the floors weekly.) And, living house plants actually clean the air around them as they “breathe.” But to quickly clean up the air in your home:

  • Open the windows. (Wait, it can’t be that simple?)

Yes, if we would just open the windows for an airing for a few minutes each morning, that would change our indoor environment dramatically. I don’t do this on the coldest days as I’m wary of losing the heat, but the rest of the time you will notice that a cool breeze blowing out the stale air for 10 minutes or so doesn’t make the things in the house cold, and the temperature is able to rebound quickly.

So simple. So start.