Clean Up Your Act
Homes, not businesses, are today’s big water polluters

by Tara Aronson, Wednesday, April 29, 1998, San Francisco Chronicle

Having a scientist scour under one’s sink and the nether reaches of the garage for potential groundwater-polluting products probably isn’t something most of us would welcome with a smile.

The fact is: We’re all guilty.

If you use more than water to clean your home; to exterminate ants, aphids or fleas; or to wash your car, you are probably a Bay Area water polluter.

In the Bay Area, whenever you pour leftover pesticides or oven or toilet bowl cleaner down a drain in your home, it can flow untreated into Bay Area waters. And when you wash your car in the driveway? Guess where that soapy water ends up.

Twenty-six years ago, the Clean Water Act was passed to establish a legal framework for the restoration of the nation’s waters by setting standards for the protection of wildlife, recreation and drinking water sources. The primary target was industry -- those smog-spewing processing plants that were the worst water polluters in the early 1970s. The Clean Water Act has been successful -- businesses have made great strides in reducing the amount of pollutants they release into waterways.

Problems close to home

Now, however, there’s a new focus in the fight against water pollution: changing the habits of the average homeowner.

Today, residential pollution is the No. 1 source of fouled Bay Area waterways, according to Sharon Gosselin, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Storm Water Management Agencies Association. The group has joined forces with the Bay Area Dischargers Association to prevent further pollution of Bay Area waterways.

To heighten awareness of how we all inadvertently contribute to water pollution, Gosselin offered to walk through my house and point out potential pollutants. If you want to help fight water pollution, do this tour in your own home.

``The good news is, because we’re the cause, we can also be the solution,’’ Gosselin explained as she eyed beneath my kitchen sink. ``We have the power to really make a difference through our daily actions.’’

Pollutants get into the creeks, the delta, the bay and the ocean in two ways, she said: through storm drains, which carry pesticides, soaps or auto fluids washed off our lawns and driveways untreated into waterways; and home drains, which empty into treatment plants that were only designed to treat human waste.

Beneath the sink, Gosselin locked onto a container of Kleen King, a copper pot cleaner. I felt a stiff lecture coming on.

Instead, Gosselin noted that copper-pot cleaner looked like it had seen better decades and said simply: ``Lots of people have cleaners under their sink that look like they were passed down from Mom. If you want to get rid of it, take it to your neighborhood household hazardous materials collection facility. Don’t pour it down the drain.’’

Moving on, she grabbed my bottle of Simple Green. And frowned.

``People use this stuff outside, thinking that because it has `biodegradable’ on the label it has the seal of approval to go down storm drains,’’ she said. ``It can still be toxic to organisms in the water and shouldn’t go down the storm drain.’’

Safer alternatives

A one-gallon plastic jug of white distilled vinegar met with approval. ``This is an excellent example of a good alternative cleaning product,’’ she said. The bottle of drain cleaner, on the other hand, should be saved for those times when other measures, such as a plumbing snake, don’t do the trick.

More important than the products in a home is how they are used, Gosselin said. ``Try a less-toxic alternative cleaner first, but if you need to use (more toxic products), make sure you use and dispose of them properly so they avoid our waterways.’’

Noting the absence of pesticides, she asked about pests in my home.

Ants, I confided, are a recurring nightmare. And my jug of vinegar is here for more than just cleaning. I pour it down ant holes that fester too near the kitchen door and spray the pests with vinegar when they dare cross the threshold on my countertops.

Her environmentally friendlier solution: Pour boiling water down the hole outside; caulk to keep them from wandering in. ``The best solution is to keep them from coming inside in the first place,’’ she said. ``Baits and traps are great, because you can just toss them in the trash.’’

If you must use pesticides, inside or out, buy ready-to-use instead of concentrates. And try the least-toxic products, such as dehydrating dusts, insecticidal soaps, boric acid powder, horticultural oils and pyrethrin- based insecticides first. Clean and rinse all equipment over your lawn or garden, not on paved surfaces or down indoor drains, where they can flow freely into waterways. ``If you’re spraying outside, or you’ve hired someone to come out, be aware if rain is in the forecast. If so, cancel your appointment or plan to spray yourself later,’’ she said. Pesticides can be easily washed off your garden greenery and flow down the nearby storm drains.

Inspecting the garage

In the garage, Gosselin applauded our metal drip pans, which can be moved and cleaned up safely if our car is leaking. The proper method of disposal: Soak up the spill with sawdust or cat litter, sweep it into a bag and put it in the trash. Repair a leaking vehicle promptly to help keep fluids out of storm drains. ``Don’t hose down the area to clean it up,’’ she said. ``Any materials that are washed off the ground and into gutter and storm drains enter our local waterways untreated.’’

What about washing the car? Instead of sprucing up your wheels on a driveway or street, where soapy water may flow to a storm drain, wash your car on a lawn or unpaved surface, she said. Then dispose of leftover soapy water in a sink or toilet, not on your driveway, where it will flow into the street and down the storm drain. If you use a commercial car wash, choose one where water is recycled.

As Gosselin continued her once- over of my home and garage, she approached the leftover paint from last month’s baseboard refinishing with caution.

``Latex paint should be used whenever possible,’’ she said, noting that this water-soluble variety makes paint thinner and solvents unnecessary. Whatever type of paint you’re using, simply cover the brushes at night when a job is in progress, saving a thorough water wash for when the job is complete.

Clean latex paint from brushes and containers in a sink; filter, settle and reuse thinners and solvents for oil-based paints. Dispose of unusable paints and thinners, thinner residue and paint strippers at a household hazardous water collection site. Empty, dry paint cans, however, may go in household garbage. (Remove the lids first.) As my walk-through came to an amicable end, I was rather surprised by how painless it had been. There are no right or wrong products for preventing water pollution, just correct or incorrect methods for using and disposing of them.

Preventing water pollution at home

Here are some tips from the Alameda Countywide Clean Water Program, the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association and the Bay Area Dischargers Association.
  • Send dirty cleaning water down a sink or toilet, not into a street, gutter or storm drain.

  • Clean up spills, lawn and yard clippings with a broom, not a hose.

  • Make sure trash can lids are tightly closed and recyclables are secured to prevent them from blowing into storm drains.

  • Dispose of any potentially toxic products -- such as leftover pesticide and yard chemicals, oven cleaner, drain cleaner, motor oil or paints -- at a household hazardous waste collection facility. Never pour potentially toxic products down in- door drains or street gutters.

  • Recycle or dispose of oil and other automotive fluids properly.

  • Rain and overwatering wash chemicals off lawns and yards into storm drains. Spray only when rain is not in the forecast, and turn off sprinklers.

  • Control pool algae by regulating chlorine levels and by using a pool cover to block sunlight. Don’t use copper-based algae control products.

  • Pick up animal wastes and dispose in a garbage can or a toilet.


Bay Area Storm Water Management Agencies Association and the Bay Area Dischargers Association. Call toll free (888) 229-9473 for information or the location of the nearest household hazardous water facility.