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I Tried to Detoxify My House and Then the Ants Arrived

An attempt at detoxification is burdensome and surprisingly messy, but when pests arrive the will to go without chemicals is put in danger.

fatherly logo The Experimental Family

There’s a slight vinegary tinge to the air in the house, and while the floor and countertops are clean and tidy, their shine is slightly dulled. The same thing could be said of my family. We are also clean, tidy, and unpolished. We all smell the same; it’s a kind of delicate, barely-there soapy scent — nothing to write home about. I dry myself off, reach for the natural deodorant and the pad out of the bathroom, leaving ghostly footprints through the bedroom after stepping in a mound of diatomaceous earth and past the ants climbing the wall.

This is the reality of living a chemical-free lifestyle, which my wife and I had decided we wanted to do in order to protect our children. To be fair, the kids seem basically fine. The problem? I’m losing my mind.

I launched into the chemical-free family project about a month ago after reading a book by Dr. Robert Brown, called Toxic Home / Conscious Home. Brown’s argument for removing the toxin from the home resonated with me. I’m not a totally crunchy person, but I do spend a lot of time reading about the science of childhood and the reality is that we expose our children to a lot of harmful chemicals. I’d already banished plastics from my home because I have two boys and BPAs are estrogen mimics that could mess up their hormones. I didn’t want to go overboard, but I did want to be thorough. Think of the kids!

I started the toxin-free home makeover in the cleaning cabinet. I went to throw away all of the chemical-laden surface cleaners and felt a pang of wastefulness. But also, I was confronted with a conundrum: If this stuff isn’t in my house, it’s in a landfill. And that can’t be good for the environment, right? How could I dispose of this stuff ethically? Not having the answer on hand and too lazy to do the research I decided it would be fine if I simply used my house like a toxic waste storage facility. I’d put them away. It would be fine, as long as I didn’t use them.

In lieu of these cleaners, I made Dr. Brown’s concoction that included a cup of vinegar, some lemon, and water. This, I was assured by the internet, would do all what other cleaners do. And, in fact, this toxin-free cleaner did a pretty good job. It didn’t leave everything as shiny as I preferred, but I trusted my surfaces were clean. The problem was that my house smelled like vinegar.

“Ew, what’s that smell?” my 5-year-old would ask, distressed, as he walked into the kitchen.

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“That’s the smell of me saving your life,” I replied. At this point, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Still, the kid had a point. It was a weird smell. Luckily for me, my wife is a collector of essential oils. So we added a bit of cedar oil into the mix. Sadly, that just made it smell like we were in the business of pickling cedar trees. Never-the-less, we pressed on, lifting our toxic burden.

I tackled the bathroom next. I didn’t have as much problem with throwing out the shampoos and soaps. They were exceptionally easy to replace. All it took was a BPA-free bottle of pure castile soap and we were good to go. But, again, this had the unsettling effect of removing my family’s standard scents. Instead of my boys smelling like sweet, fruity kid soap, they smelled like castile soap. Instead of my wife smelling of her lovely perfumey smell, she smelled like castile soap. I did not realize that this would mean anything to me until it happened. It was like taking away our identities or something.

Other parts of the bathroom proved more problematic. Ever tried to get a kid to brush their teeth with a chemical-free natural toothpaste? You can tell them you’re saving their life all you want, but it isn’t going to make them stop crying.

At any rate, we did reach a kind of toxin-free equilibrium, resigned to our new ways and getting used to the strangeness of the dull shine and odd smells. But then, the ants arrived in the bedroom.

My first sign something was wrong was hearing my wife yelp from behind the closed door.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Gah!” she replied.

Eventually, she managed to blurt out that the bathroom was full of black ants. I did not think that upon inspection I would consider that an understatement. We were under siege. Worse? They looked like carpenter ants.

My immediate reaction was to go full hellfire toxic insect bomb. You know, like the kind of extermination where you put a tent over the house and live in a hotel for a week. Barring that, then at least a massive can of insect killer that would require me to don a mask and gloves. But, no. We were committed. We had to think of the safety of the children. We had to fight ants with organic ant stuff. That led us to the diatomaceous earth: safe for animals, safe for humans, deadly for ants. She bought a bag and sifted the stuff around the bathroom. I’m here to say it was deeply unsatisfying watching those ants crawl through the white powder, not even issuing a twitch. Apparently, they had to take it back to their nest.

“Maybe they eat it and it just slowly rips apart their insides,” my wife daydreamed.

A few days later, there are still ants. Fewer ants, sure, but they’re still around. I’m willing to be patient, but I’m also thinking I might have a can of ant killer somewhere in the garage. Maybe, I’ll just give it a quick spray. Surely it won’t hurt anyone but the ants. Right?

I think it’s important to note here that I would really prefer to lead a toxin-free lifestyle. In the end, it can only be good for me and my family. I don’t want to place my children at risk of poor health outcomes. That’s why I quit smoking. It’s also why we try to eat a fresh-cooked balanced diet most of the time. But the difficulties in making those choices are easily managed.

That said, going completely toxin-free feels like way too much of a hassle. There’s already a ton of stuff I have to figure out as a parent, I do not want to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how clean my house looks or waiting for ants to die. The better way, it seems to me, is to place my energy in those areas that have positive effects on my family’s health. We’ll keep eating right, and we’ll get outside as much as possible. But I want my counters and my family to shine. And I want to kill these ants.