Most of us, unless we have severe allergies or sensitivities to chemicals, may not be aware of all the chemicals that surround us in our homes.
But whether or not we know it, toxins — substances that are poisonous or harmful to the body — are everywhere, from the polyurethane we use to finish our floors, to the paint on our walls, the glue used for wallpaper, our upholstery fabrics, rugs and even mattresses.
Toxins can also be found in the products we clean our homes with, and in the mold that may have begun growing in the basement and that can spread its tiny spores, unseen, throughout our living space. Even the water we use to bathe ourselves is usually treated with chlorine, a substance that can cause respiratory problems.
What can we do to create safe home environments in a way that works with our needs and resources? There’s a lot of information out there and it can be difficult to wade through it all.
While it’s hard to completely avoid toxic chemicals, we can take action to reduce our exposure. Families have to balance risk reduction with lifestyle issues, assessing their health — whether or not they have an immediate medical need, such as a severely asthmatic child, the age of children, and other factors, such as financial resources. Some will choose not to “green” their entire life at once, others will choose to take a step-by-step approach, changing one area at a time, while others may make significant changes on a variety of fronts.
Whatever your choices are, this article will bring you up to speed on the latest information you can use to help create a toxin-free home. And, you can start with the air you breathe!
Bring in Fresh Air
In a five-year study, the EPA found significantly higher concentrations of 20 toxic compounds inside homes than outdoors. Among these compounds were some linked to cancer and birth defects. To help remedy the problem:
- Open your windows, when possible, to circulate fresh air in your home.
- Use exhaust fans in the bath and kitchen and attic that ventilate outdoors.
- Install air-circulation systems. These systems, which bring in fresh air and then blow it through the house while simultaneously removing stale air, can have a significant impact on the health of your family.
Use Non-toxic Cleaning and Washing Products
Most detergents are formulated from petrochemicals, and may contain bleaches, synthetic whiteners, and artificial fragrances, all of which can cause skin irritations and breathing problems.
- Use non-toxic cleaning and washing products when possible — products that don’t release toxic chemicals into the air. This means chlorine-free products and cleansers with natural cleaning properties.
- Fragrance-free, vegetable-oil-based soaps are a healthier choice.
Visit Earth Friendly Products for more great tips.
Use Paints and Finishes that Don’t Emit Toxins
Most paints and finishes release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — a major class of indoor pollutants — into the home. These paints and finishes may continue to “off gas” — emit toxic gases — for months or years, causing irritations and health problems. In fact, the Air Resources Board of California shows how the emissions from paint continue to contaminate the air in a building over two years later.
- Low- and zero-VOC paints are now commonly available at paint stores, and certain brands of finishes have been developed that don’t off-gas. Be aware that even though the chemicals in these low- and no-VOC paints don’t off-gas, they are still present.
- In addition to paints, most stains, thinners, paint strippers and furniture emit dangerous toxins containing benzene, toluene, xylene, and methylene chloride.
- Avoid spray painting, which leads to the inhalation of even more fumes and particles. If you must spray paint, be sure to use proper protective gear for the type of paint you use. Your local hardware store will be able to recommend the right protective gear.
- Use non-chlorinated solvents, such as turpentine, ethanol and acetone, if solvents are needed.
- Safecoat.com is one option for safe finishes, stains, paints and carpet cleaners.
Purchase Furniture that Doesn’t Release Formaldehyde
Unfortunately, the plywood, pressed wood, particle board and medium density fiberboard, which are used in most furniture today, are generally treated with formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, and can emit fumes for as long as five years.
- To avoid this exposure, it’s best to purchase furniture made of whole wood, glass, metal or chrome.
- Avoid new furniture coated with polyurethane–a respiratory toxin.
- Furniture over five years old that hasn’t been refinished or reupholstered usually does not continue to off gas.
- Wool or cotton, rather than synthetics — which are made with chemicals, are best for upholstery fabrics for furniture cushions.
- Avoid furniture cushions and mattresses made from polyurethane foam/plastic as well as any fabric with acrylic, polyester or polyvinyl chloride, all of which can be toxic to the respiratory system. Polyurethane foam, which can cause bronchitis, coughing, and skin and eye irritations, may also release toluene diisocyanate, which can produce severe lung problems.
Incorporate Cabinets, Counter Tops and Shelving that Doesn’t Emit Toxins
Particleboard, which is typically used for cabinets, counter-tops, and shelving, usually contains formaldehyde. Most finishes commonly used contain toxins.
- Formaldehyde-free fiberboard is available.
- Consider stainless steel cabinets, and make sure they contain no particleboard or only formaldehyde-free fiberboard and that any foam used is non-toxic.
- You can have cabinets custom made by a carpenter out of solid wood. Make sure only non-toxic finishes are used for the wood.
Beware of Clothing and Linens that Contain Toxic Chemicals
Most clothing and linens have been treated with flame-retardant chemicals, which can be toxic.
- Sensitive individuals may have to wash fabrics many times before using to remove some of the flame retardant and pesticide treatments they have received.
- One alternative method of removing chemicals is to soak the fabric in 1 cup lemon juice per gallon of water for 48 hours or more. If sensitive individuals still react to the fabric, put the item back in the lemon juice solution and soak for another 48 hours. Keep repeating until the item does not produce reactions.
- In general, it is healthier to only purchase clothing, sheets and mattresses made of natural materials, such as unbleached cotton, wool and hemp as opposed to synthetics which are made with chemicals. Nevertheless, even natural fabrics can cause problems, as cotton is usually treated with powerful pesticides, and some people are allergic to wool.
- Of course, organic natural fabrics are the least toxic, though some sensitive individuals react even to these, possibly due to the seeds in the fabric.
Check Children’s Pajamas and Flame Retardant Fabrics
For some parents, flame-retardant pajamas are really an issue as the chemicals may be the cause of their kids’ allergies. If this is the case, there are alternatives. One possible solution for pajamas is to purchase snug fitting cotton pajamas. Parent will need to weigh their options according to the severity and cause of their childrens’ allergies and or level of toxin exposure tolerated.
For more information about toxic chemicals in your clothing go to BodyByBlissMedia.com.
Substitute Mattresses Made of Natural Fibers
Most mattresses are made from plastic foam products and polyesters, with a mix of flame-retardant chemicals added. The chemicals in bedding most often cited as potential sources of concern are pesticides, herbicides, fire retardants, stain-resistant solvents, the various substances in synthetic fibers and formaldehyde. This combination may cause breathing, skin and asthmatic reactions.
- Natural cottons and natural latex are better material choices, but can be expensive.
- The Green Guide recommends not purchasing mattresses treated with the fire-retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers — which accumulate in the human body, and can potentially harm fetuses and infants in particular. It suggests buying beds with hardwood foundations, not plywood or particleboard, and an untreated, organic cotton or wool mattress with a natural latex core.
Look Down at Carpets
Toxic gases that emanate from synthetic carpeting have been found to be the cause of many indoor air problems. Synthetic carpeting — made from petroleum-derived plastic fibers — is usually installed with solvent-based adhesives, which emit toxic gases believed to create asthma, dizziness, headaches, and other allergic reactions.
Natural fiber carpeting such as wool, sisal, cotton or jute, laid with solvent-free adhesives, provides a healthier alternative.
If you do use synthetic carpets, ventilate the house continually for about 72 hours after installation.
For some natural carpet options, go to Greenbuildingsupply.com
Explore Healthier Flooring Options
When evaluating flooring, it is helpful to remember that flooring that has already been in a home or apartment over five years may have already off-gassed the dangerous fumes. Therefore, living with it may be fine for you. However, synthetic floors that are older and have deep scratches may be emitting chemicals. In this case, you may want to have a “green” builder evaluate your situation.
Most vinyl building materials are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion and liver dysfunction.
- If possible, avoid finishing your floors with polyurethane — a respiratory toxin. Although water-based polyurethane is somewhat better than oil-based, it is still problematic. But if the polyurethane has been there for over five years, it is much less toxic than when it was new.
- If you want to finish your wood floors, consider using linseed, or other oils, on wood. Don’t use particle board for flooring, as it can emit formaldehyde fumes for five years.
- If you do have particle board flooring, you can seal and cover it with hardwood, cork, ceramic, terra cotta or porcelain flooring.
- When selecting wood flooring, pressure-treated wood is healthier than wood treated with preservatives. Phenol resins emit fewer toxins than urea resins.
- Pre-treated wood is healthier than treating the wood after installation.
- If you do finish your floors with polyurethane, open all windows for at least a week and do what you can to stay elsewhere for that time, especially if you have young children.
- Natural linoleum made from linseed oil is an option for flooring and countertops.
- Bamboo is also healthy flooring alternative.
Avoid Insulation that Contains Formaldehyde and Plastic
Insulation commonly contains formaldehyde and plastics, which should be avoided if possible.
However, insulation made from less toxic alternatives — such as cellulose, cotton, or other formaldehyde-free materials — is now widely available at most home improvement stores.
Read Labels on Art and Hobby Materials and Provide Adequate Ventilation
When using art or hobby materials, many of which emit toxic gases, it’s important to read the labels. Art materials with toxic products have warning labels and usually specify an appropriate childrens’ age range for use. Be sure to heed all product warnings on craft products for your children.
It is always important to have adequate ventilation when using arts and crafts supplies.
For more information on non-toxic art supplies, read this article at Coopamerica.org.
Choose Natural-Fiber Shower Curtains
Avoid most shower curtains, as they are made from PVC. Instead, choose a natural-fiber curtain, made from hemp, organic cotton, or even your old cotton flat sheets.
Choose Furniture and Metal Polishes that Don’t Contain Petroleum
Polishes contain petroleum distillates, which, with long-term use, are linked to cancer. Instead, choose a polish made of natural products.
For more information, go to Pristine Planet.
Avoid Plastic Food Packaging
Plastic packaging is unstable, which means the chemicals can migrate into the food or drink. Some plastics migrate when heated up, others when cooled down, and still others upon contact. If you microwave plastic, it may increase the contamination level.
It’s safest to avoid plastic wraps, #3 PVC and #6 Polystyrene and to substitute glass or metal containers for plastic ones.
Avoid any Pesticides in the Home, as well as Deodorizers with Petroleum-based Fragrances
Avoid any use of pesticides within your house, as they release toxic chemicals into the air. Also avoid deodorizers with petroleum-based fragrances that are released into the air each time they are used.
Have a Healthy Perspective
Keeping our homes free of toxins is a never-ending issue. We’ll always be faced with choices, and depending on our health and wealth, our decisions will differ. But if we keep ourselves informed, and make healthier choices over time, we can gradually create homes that are less toxic and better for our family’s overall health.
Ronnie Friedland is an editor at Care.com. She is also chemically sensitive as a result of mold exposure, and actively practices what she preaches about reducing toxins from her home.