June 12, 2000 12:00 PM

When Amilya Antonetti brought her baby David home from the hospital six years ago, he was hardly in the pink of health. “He was gray,” recalls Antonetti, 33, pointing to a photo of her only child at 8 weeks of age. “They told me sometimes it takes a few days for them to get to their normal color and to just keep rubbing and massaging him.” But the infant’s condition worsened. His constant gasps for air prompted Antonetti and her husband, Dennis Karp, 42, a lawyer, to race him to the emergency room many times. Was it colic? Asthma? Something worse? Doctors weren’t sure. Her lowest point, Antonetti says, came when a physician advised her to “let him go. Try again. You’re young, you can have another one.”

The former AT&T marketing manager wasn’t about to give up. Tracking her son’s attacks, she soon noticed a pattern of E.R. runs on Tuesdays, her housecleaning day. As an experiment the next Tuesday, she skipped cleaning. No attack. In fact, Antonetti recalls, “he got better!”

That simple discovery led the San Leandro, Calif., homemaker to toss her chemical-based household cleansers away—and to start a company to produce nontoxic alternatives. Today her three-year-old Soapworks line features organic ingredients such as coconut oil and white ginger (bestseller: the three-for-$4.99 Natural Touch soap bar). Last year the company cleaned up to the tune of $5 million in sales and now employs over 50 people, many of them parents of kids with environmental sensitivities. “It’s so easy to use healthy alternatives,” says actress Pia Zadora, who persuaded her children’s Santa Monica private school to convert to Soapworks products.

But no convert is more passionate than Antonetti herself. After David blossomed following that chemical-free Tuesday, she tested her hypothesis by cleaning the house as usual. “And bam!” she says. “He was in the emergency room that night. I kept saying there’s gotta be something to this.” But the alternatives—pricey “all-natural” household products she found in health food stores—disappointed her. “He didn’t have a reaction to them,” she says, “but they didn’t clean very well.”

So with her husband’s support, she threw her energies into developing safer suds that actually got the job done. The family scaled down, moved to a smaller house and traded their Mercedes for a used Toyota. Antonetti took to the garage to cook up organic cleaning products. With a little help from her husband’s family, who had been in the soap-making business, and her own Italian grandmother, who used vinegar-based cleansers, she developed a prototype for a powdered soap that she shopped around to merchants. Says Dennis: “Once Amilya puts her mind to something, she’s definitely going to succeed.”

Thanks in part to a stubborn streak that Antonetti, the daughter of Franco, 56, a trucking consultant, and Bette Ann, who died in 1984, traces to her childhood. At age 10, she faced down taunts about her Italian heritage after the family moved to rural Georgia.

That same grit helped her ride out her business’s slow start. After 18 months, she was on the brink of throwing in the towel when Trader Joe’s, a California-based chain of specialty grocers, placed a standing order for Soapworks’ laundry soap. “The customer response has been outstanding,” says Trader Joe’s product manager Annette Davidson. Since then business has boomed, thanks not only to grocery chains but also to the Web site (www.soapworks.com) Antonetti launched in 1997.

Today, photos of children who have benefited from her products line Antonetti’s office walls, along with grateful notes from their mothers. But her greatest reward is her son David’s robust health; the hearty 6-year-old calls Pokémon and his rottweiler dog Babe his favorite things. “I think I’m here on earth to help be on the team that makes a positive change,” Antonetti says. “I’m doing what I was meant to do.”

Shirley Brady

Karen Grigsby Bates in San Leandro

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