Using Household Ammonia

Dear Margaret, I have a set of your leaflets on environmentally friendly lifestyles, in which you suggest using ammonia rather than washing soda for laundry & cleaning. Recently we had someone to speak to our community garden group about green cleaning, & she was strongly opposed to the use of ammonia. Please can you explain why you recommend it?

It's good to have some feedback.
When I first compiled these leaflets in 1989, I suggested using household ammonia (with precautions) only for cleaning ovens & carpets. In 1994, I learnt that using sodium compounds like hard soap, washing soda & bicarbonate of soda to replace soapless detergents poses it's own threat to the environment. All sodium compounds increase soil salinity, & in areas like the Adelaide Plains, with alkaline water-repellant soil, they also degrade soil structure.
So I decided to replace references to washing soda with liquid household ammonia, & to suggest it as an alternative to bicarb. soda & laundry soap, if the user did not suffer from asthma or any other lung complaint.

There are no perfect decisions. Cloudy ammonia contains a little soap, & it still adds nutrients to grey water. But these are nitrogen compounds, some of which degrade directly into the air, while those left in solution do not harm the soil, & are quickly taken up by leafy plants.

Inhaling the fumes from industrial strength ammonia causes respiratory distress & can damage lung tissue if exposure is prolonged, but observing safety procedures enables people to work with it without harm.
The domestic product is much weaker & less volatile. Although inhaling the fumes should be avoided, if it happens accidentally, they are much less irritating to most people than the fine dust released into the air when using detergents & soap powders, & are easily exhaled, while soap dust sticks to mucus membrane. But for people with sensitive lungs, the best choice is to use no wetting agent at all, or, if washing greasy laundry, Bicarb.soda.

Potash based soap may still be available from large garden wholesalers. This is a soft soap used as a base for sprays, because it dissolves easily in water & contains a plant nutrient. It is no longer sold as a domestic cleanser.

Whatever you use to get your laundry clean, the important thing is not to use a skerrick more than you need to do the job. It is also important to use a weak acid solution as a fabric softener, rather than a commercial variety. Just add a cup of white vinegar or the juice of two lemons to the final rinse. This neutralises the alkaline residues, left by ordinary detergents & alternatives alike, leaves the laundry fresh, reduces the Ph of your grey water, & helps keep the pump of your washing machine from getting stuffed with soap scum & scale.

NEVER mix ammonia with chlorine bleach, or anything containing chlorine - it will give off a toxic gas, and may permanently damage your lungs!

Note: In researching & answering questions about earthwise living, Margaret offers information, opinion, & personal experience, but no quick fixes! Readers should evaluate these offerings in the context of their own situations; they are suggestions, *not* recommendations. Any responsibility for their implementation rests *solely* with the reader.

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