Many of us are aware of the devastation of rainforests, the effect of pesticides on ground-water and soil or toxic emissions from manufacturing plants. So maybe we eat lower on the food chain, buy organic food at the co-op and sign petitions to stop companies with regressive environmental policies.
If we want to effect progressive environmental changes that will promote world health, we may be missing a major area of focus. Environmental scientists claim that the real risks to our health and the environment are much closer than outdoor pollution. In fact, your greatest exposure to toxic chemicals is in your own home.
Depending on the climate you live in (think Minnesota), you could spend up to 90 per cent of your life indoors. We know air can be more polluted inside that out when it results in “sick building syndrome,” creating allergies and environmental illness brought on by synthetic building materials and poor air circulation from airtight windows.
Yet we may not be aware of many sources of indoor pollution: cleaning products, home decoration materials, plastics and dust. The average person can inhale up to 40 pounds of dust per year and this dust contains airborne soot, dirt, molds, animal dander, as well as harmful heavy metals. Many of these common materials in the home have been implicated in conditions ranging from allergies to cancer.
Among the major indoor pollutants are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are gasses that are dispersed by cleaning products, building supplies, carpeting and other common items around the home. The most dangerous is formaldehyde, partly because it is so widely used. People exposed to high amounts of formaldehyde may experience headaches, itching eyes or throat.
Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogenic substance. Formaldehyde is very common in fabrics, furniture (foam cushions) and carpets, potentially making our homes a virtual chemical closet. Clothing and most sheets may have a formaldehyde-based finish, added to make fabrics wrinkle or flame resistant. We spend one-third of life in our beds with our faces pressed to our pillows making many of us at risk for overexposure. Almost all polyester/cotton blend fabrics are finished with formaldehyde.
Vinyl plastic, another common household substance, releases polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which also is carcinogenic. Products made with PVCs include soft plastic toys, floor tile, food packaging and shower curtains (to name a few from a very long list). PVCs often contain “plasticizers” that make them flexible and these easily can be digested because water, oil, or heat can dislodge them. This is one reason you may wish to avoid microwaving food in soft plastic containers.
Before you feel you have to declare your home a toxic waste dump, you can take plenty of simple steps to make you home safer for yourself and environmentally friendlier, too.
ACTION STEPS FOR A NATURAL HOME
- Use recyclable and reusable resources like glass jars instead of plastic containers to store food. Instead of plastic bags, use cloth.
- Grow more of your own vegetables or buy fresh, rather than consuming canned or frozen vegetables that come in packages. Buy fruits and vegetables loose and avoid using plastic or paper bags.
- Reuse or recycle everything you can. Compost kitchen vegetable scraps and organic waste to make great organic fertilizer.
- Don’t empty medicines, chemicals, paints or toxins down the sink. Dispose of them safely through your community’s hazardous waste pickup programs to help keep our water supply cleaner.
- Use a washable cotton cloth for wiping spills, rather than using disposable paper towels.
- Use a plunger or enzyme product, rather than a lye-based drain cleaner to deal with grease or food particles in the drain.
- Make an oven cleaning solution out of liquid soap, borax and water, instead of chemical aerosols that degrade the earth’s ozone layer and expose you to lung-irritating lye and ammonia fumes.
- Dishwashing liquid is responsible for the most household poisonings because scents are attractive to children. Try a dish soap without artificial dyes, fragrances or strong detergents.
- Locate cleaning storage space away from the kitchen to avoid products coming in contact with food preparation areas.
- The bathroom is often a repository for dangerous medicines, products that contain synthetic ingredients, fragrances or aerosols (deodorants, hair spray, perfume, shaving cream). Replace them with healthy alternatives that use more natural ingredients.
- Make your own all-purpose cleaning products for tub, tile, sink and toilet, or buy nontoxic commercial preparations as an alternative to aerosols, detergents, artificial fragrances and ammonia (a lung irritant).
- Prevent mold and mildew by keeping area dry and air circulated. Wash walls and tile with borax, a natural mold inhibitor.
- Launder clothes with natural soap products rather than petro-chemical detergents containing bleaches, synthetic whiteners and artificial fragrances which could cause flu and asthama-type symptoms.
- Fabric softeners leave a residue that doesn’t wash out, which could cause allergic reactions. Refrain from using fabric softeners in your natural fiber laundry. If you use a fabric softener, unscented sheets rather than liquid are safer. Baking soda can be added during the rinse for fabric softening.
- Scouring powders with bleach can produce chlorine fumes. Sprinkle baking soda, salt or borax on a sponge for scouring.
- Replace plastic shower curtain with cloth to lower your risk of inhaling dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- Look for furniture made without pressed wood or synthetic materials (plastic, foam) to limit exposure to VOCs.
- Houseplants can help clean the air. Aloe vera, philodendron, English ivy, corn plants and spider plants have been proven to help remove gasses from the air.
- It’s easy to make your own furniture polish and avoid petro-chemicals and synthetic fragrances. Use plain mineral oil or is you like lemon scent, mix 2 cups mineral oil with 1 teaspoon lemon oil.
- You can deodorize carpets with unscented baking soda applied liberally to a carpeted area. Vacuum after 15 minutes. Baking soda is also a good grease remover for a carpet. Leave on one hour. If you want to shampoo rugs or carpets, look for a product without perchlorethylene, a solvent that is a known carcinogen.
- Paint wall surfaces with a low VOC paint and avoid installing vinyl wallpapers to limit exposure to VOCs.
- Replace all synthetic sheets and blankets and use natural and untreated fabrics without formaldehyde finishes for bedding.
- If possible, sleep on a natural or natural fiber-filled mattress, rather than a synthetic mattress.
- Wool, down or cotton quilts are preferable for cold nights to keep you warm and comfortable. Electric blankets and other electric appliances close to your body (alarm clocks, radio, lights) emit electromagnetic radiation that isn’t fully understood, but may disturb the sleep process and affect long-term health.
- Use reusable cotton cloth diapers with natural-fiber diaper covers. Disposables are made from synthetic fibers, plastics and deodorizing chemicals that are not healthy for baby’s skin. Even if you elect to join a diaper service, your baby will be more comfortable with cotton cloth diapers.
- Federal law requires children’s sleepwear to be flameproof, but there are natural-fiber alternatives available (natural and organic cottons) to sleep in rather than wearing synthetics treated with formaldehyde finishes.
- Kids put toys in their mouths. Look for wood, cotton or wool and limit plastic, acrylic and vinyl toys. Seek out basic toys that stimulate creativity, instead of gimmicky synthetic toys.
- Personal care products for babies contain as much potentially hazardous ingredients as those designed for adults. Look for natural baby oil, talc-free baby powder (talc may be contaminated with carcinogenic asbestos) and herbal salves.