Homeowners, renters can take these easy steps to save both money and the environment

April 22 was “Earth Day,” a good time for homeowners and renters to thank Mother Nature for her bounty and consider some changes that could help save the planet – and some money. I’m devoting this entire column to suggesting some of those changes.

Dear Mr. Meyers: My son’s science teacher told his class that mothballs are made of a chemical that, as it ages, can poison ground water and can even cause serious health problems if a homeowner breathes their fumes on a regular basis. Is this true? We have one or two packages of them in every closet of our home!

Answer: Yes, it’s true.

The active ingredient in mothballs is a chemical that’s charmingly named paradichlorobenzene. The World Health Organization considers it a possible carcinogen, which can affect those who handle mothballs or breathe their vapors on a regular basis. Countless children and pets have been sickened or even died after eating them, in part because they are sometimes mistaken for candy or dry dog food.

Some experts say that a safer but equally effective way to protect your clothes, kids and the environment is to store your outfits in a bug-proof cedar closet or chest. If that option is too expensive, says a representative for the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, slip a few cedar chips (available for $10 per bag or less at most home-improvement stores) into the cover that holds your fancy suit or gown.

“It’s like having a cedar chest or closet, but only costs a few dollars,” a PETA representative said. Others claim that an inexpensive sachet of dried lavender, tucked into one of the garment’s pocket or covering bag, will work just as well.

Here are some other environmentally friendly household tips:

Cleaning floors and stainless steel

Home-economists say that a cup of white vinegar mixed with two gallons of water can remove dull or greasy film buildup on floors, while baking soda or mineral oil is good for polishing stainless steel. Both are safer and cheaper than store-bought cleaners.

Removing mildew

A mixture of white vinegar and salt, or lemon juice and salt, can replace commercial (and sometimes dangerous) mildew removers.

Vinegar, which typically costs only two or three dollars for a bottle, has lots of other money-saving and eco-friendly uses. It’s a biodegradable and effective way to clean a stained or dirty toilet.

My late mother used one part vinegar coupled with three parts of olive oil to make a good furniture polish. Others suggest a mixture of two olive oil and one part lemon juice.

Eliminating fleas

Nearly 70 percent of all American homes have at least one pet, according to the U.S. Census Bureaus. Many of those pet owners pay hundreds of dollars a year for fancy prescriptions, canned sprays, plastic collars or over-the-counter drugs aimed at keeping the little buggers off Fluffy or Fido.

Trouble is, inhaling sprays or simply handling flea medicines can pose risks to both people and their pets. And when those containers or collars are used up, they get tossed into the trash and wind up taking more space in our nation’s dwindling number of landfills. Their residue also can harm the environment.

There are cheaper and more eco-friendly alternatives. Some pet experts say that a small amount of fennel, rue or rosemary added to a pet’s daily food bowl can bust the bugs, save money and lighten the load placed on planet Earth.

Several owners believe that adding a pinch of garlic or onion also can help, but the prestigious American Kennel Club advises against it because it can cause problems in a pet ranging from diarrhea to potentially deadly blood disease.

Exterminating ants

Many insecticides are particularly dangerous to both personal health and the environment, especially when rain or a sprinkler system washes the residue off the grass, down the curb, into the sewer and out to the ocean.

Surveys suggest that about half of all insecticides are sold to combat ants. But simply washing countertops, cabinets and floors with equal parts of vinegar and water on a regular basis can help keep the bugs out of a kitchen.

Several years ago, one of my readers suggested another idea. “You just pour a line of cream of tartar where the ants are entering the house, or even the garden,” she wrote. “They won’t cross the line.”

I recently tried this strategy when ants started streaming from my driveway and into my garage. It worked. The small can of cream of tartar cost me only 99 cents at a local discount store, though experts say that it’s an effective remedy for only some of the 12,000 species - yes, 12,000 - of the six-legged pests.

Eco-friendly fertilizer

You might think that the manure you put on your lawn or garden is chemical-free. But many aren’t, in part because potentially harmful chemicals must be added to kill bacteria and spur the vegetation’s growth.

Most garden centers and home-improvement stores sell chemical-free fertilizers, but the bags can be expensive. Starting a backyard compost heap instead can be a penny-wise, environmentally sound option, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club said. It will also lighten the load on our overburdened landfills because leaves, grass, fruit rinds and other organic waste account for about one-third of all trash collected from single-family homes.

Compost kits can be purchased for less than $100 at most home-improvement or hardware stores, or can be built with a simple wood frame and chicken wire. Their mulch “makes a great fertilizer but doesn’t have the chemicals that store-bought fertilizers [may] contain,” one reader wrote.

“My tomatoes are already popping up, and so are most of my flowers. I saved money, and I think that maybe I did a little bit to save the Earth,” she wrote.

David W. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate Inc.