Q: How can I unclog a drain without loads of toxins?
-- Karen Overholser, Eugene, Ore.
A: You're so right. A clogged drain is bad enough -- why add injury to insult?
Conventional drain cleaners contain toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in chlorine bleach. The fumes can cause breathing difficulty and nausea; the product can burn your skin.
Furthermore, drain cleaners can react with ammonia, another common ingredient in household cleaners, to produce a form of chlorine gas, used as a chemical weapon in the first world war. Finally, their corrosive action can damage pipes.
So long as no chemical-containing drain cleaner is present in the drain or standing water, try these steps to unclogging your drain naturally.
First, boil 3 to 4 cups of water. Pour one cup each of baking soda and white vinegar into the drain, followed by the water. Wait for it to bubble its way down.
If this doesn't clear a path, it's time for the elbow grease. You will need a plunger, a coat hanger wire, and, for deeper probing, a closet auger, or plumber's snake, sold at hardware stores and goggles to protect your eyes. Once the water has cooled, place the plunger over the drain hole and use firm, even up-and-down strokes until the water drains down.
This may be all you need; if not, the plunger may have sucked the muck back up within reach of a hanger wire, with which you can break it up and fish it out, bit by bit. If you can't feel the obstruction with the wire, probe deeper with the auger, which is longer and more flexible.
If this doesn't work, your efforts will probably at least have made inroads on the clot, and you may be able to dispatch it with greener enzyme drain cleaners such as Earth Enzymes or Biokleen. These live cultures of enzymes and bacteria eat through the organic muck. (Keep out of the reach of children, of course.)
Enzymes don't deliver? Call the plumber. You've earned it.