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Vail Daily column: Is your oven ready for The Big Show?

Cassie Pence
Greener Pastures
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Ovens need to be clean to perform well on Thanksgiving. You don’t want to stuff your carefully prepared candied yams and heritage bird into a dark hole with dried-on goop and ashes from past meals.

But cleaning an oven is nasty business. Most of us hate to clean the oven. So we reach for something quick, and seemingly painless, to free the heart of our kitchen from bubbled over cheese and crinkled potato pieces.

Conventional oven cleaners are quick, yes, but painless? Not so much. Oven cleaners are some of the most toxic cleaning products on supermarket shelves. Many contain neuro-toxic and central nervous system depressants (like ether-type solvents, petroleum distillates and methylene chloride), chemicals that can cause headaches, confusion, and lack of concentration and symptoms of mental illness.



Some oven cleaners even contain butane, a fossil fuel. And many contain high levels of sodium hydroxide, a caustic soda or lye. Sodium hydroxide irritates the skin, eyes, nose and lungs, and when exposed to in concentrated quantities or ingested, it can kill.

Exposure to these harmful chemicals usually happens when you’re cleaning, kneeling before an open oven door, dousing the oven in spray and inhaling it while you’re doing it. The residual chemicals left in the oven seep into your food (and thus into your body) dishing up a second exposure. Mmmm … turkey with a hint of lye, sounds delicious.



When the crew at Organic Housekeepers goes out to clean an oven, we’re equipped with three tools: Bon Ami scouring powder and vinegar and a pumice stone (yep, that same tool you use to soften your feet.) First, we spray the entire oven in vinegar, a natural degreaser. Next we sprinkle the oven with Bon Ami powder, made from limestone, feldspar and baking soda. Finally, we wet the pumice stone and scrub away on the racks and interior until all the grime is gone.

Compared to popping the cap off an aerosol can and pressing a trigger, Organic Housekeepers’ method of cleaning an oven takes a little more elbow grease. But the payback is clear: clean air, healthy lungs and a nervous system that remains uncompromised. Personally, I’d rather work up a sweat.

Annie Bond, the original goddess of green cleaning, has figured out a way to clean naturally without using any elbow grease at all. Bestselling author of “Clean and Green” and a regular contributor to http://www.care2.com, Bond sprinkles baking soda in the bottom of her oven, sprays it damp with a little water and lets it sit to work its magic. The key is to keep it moist. She’ll let it sit overnight, and in the morning, she’ll scoop out the baking soda along with all the oven grime. To remove the white residue, she takes a damp rag and wipes the entire oven clean.



I can feel the smugness coming from those who own a self-cleaning oven. Those magical appliances eliminate the dirty work and the need for harsh chemicals, right? Wrong. Self-cleaning ovens fall into life’s too-good-to-be-true category.

The first time you use the self-clean setting, substantial amounts of acrolein and formaldehyde gasses are released from the oven’s insulation. Both gasses are respiratory irritants, causing sore throats, watery eyes and coughing. Not much is said about the second, third and fourth uses, but my guess is it just keeps de-gassing.

According to the Environmental Working Group, most self-cleaning ovens are lined with PTFE (Teflon), and during the self-cleaning cycle temperatures reach 900 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which Teflon is not meant to perform. So Teflon reacts and emits gasses into the air. It’s hard to say what Teflon does to humans when it off gasses, I didn’t find any facts or research on it, but when birds are exposed, they drop like flies.

Dupont, the creator of Teflon, warns that hundreds of birds die each year from being near the kitchen when the oven is self-cleaning.

For me, that’s the canary in the kitchen.

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She and her husband, Captain Vacuum, own Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company. Contact her at cassie@organichousekeepers.com.


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