There are claims that our homes are chemically toxic environments. A chemically toxic home contributes to a chemically toxic environment, namely our water, soil, and food. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/publications/books/housing/cha05.htm states that; “In the last several years a growing body of evidence has indicated that the air within our homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.“
Consider the following:
1. Americans spend more than 50% of their time at home.
2. Indoor pollution contributes to outdoor pollution.
3. Incidences of respiratory illness such as asthma have increased.
4. Children and pets are more susceptible to the negative impacts of home contaminants.
There are several types of indoor pollutants.
1. Biologic – bacteria, mold, viruses, animal dander, dust mites to name a few.
2. Chemical – carbon monoxide, radon, smoke from cigarettes, cigars, grills, stoves,etc., VOCs (volatile organic compounds) such as paint, varnish, waxes, stains, household cleaners, glues, adhesives.
3. Pesticides and insecticides.
4. Toxic building materials such as asbestos, lead, arsenic.
5. Microplastic particles and fibers in the air and on our food contributes to about 1/3 of all indoor dust. There is also an illness called Sick Building Syndrome defined as a condition typically marked by headaches and respiratory problems from being in poorly ventilated buildings.
There is a mountain of information regarding this topic. This post focuses on toxins that are common to all of us. Some references will be provided at the end for more information and the CDC reference manual provided in the link above has a wealth of information.
We are well-conditioned to handle these dangers from our time spent dealing with COVID. The most important tips are:
a. Wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds using hot water if possible (hand sanitizer only if soap is not available.)
b. Vacuum your carpets and have them shampooed regularly, especially if you have pets.
c. Avoid cross contamination when cooking or preparing food, especially meat and poultry. Wash hands and cutting surfaces with soap and hot water after handling any food, especially animal-based products.
d. Clean mattresses and pillows naturally rather than throwing them out. Reference provided at the end of the post.
e. Use natural solutions to eliminate mold, viruses, and bacteria. Try soap and water first. Use bleach in a dilute solution only when necessary. DIY mixtures are well documented, and they work!
2. Pesticides and Insecticides – avoid using chemical insecticides and pesticides to rid your home of insects and plant diseases. Rodents hate peppermint oil so try placing this oil around problem areas. Try using localized traps, for example, sticky traps for fruit flies and ants.
This is by far the largest group relative to what we use to keep our houses, cars, work areas, etc. clean. Traditional household cleaners, paints, and varnishes contain VOCs. These organic molecules vaporize and become gases at room temperature. Common household VOCs are toluene, styrene, xylenes, and trichlorethylene. These compounds have been linked to childhood illness, endocrine disruption, dangers to pregnant women, and neurological problems. Another very commonly found VOC is formaldehyde, which is used in pressed wood products, preservatives in paints, cosmetics, coatings used for permanent-press quality in fabrics and draperies, and the finish on paper products and insulation materials (and yes, as we all remember, for dissection of frogs in high school Biology). 😝
Enough about the problems. Let’s move on to solutions that help minimize these dangers in your home or workplace. The list below is certainly not comprehensive but hopefully provides a good foundation.
3. Ideas for Minimizing Toxic Exposure
a. Laundry – use an eco-detergent – there are many on the market today. Avoid bleach, and unnecessary washer and dryer sheets intended only to enhance smell, eliminate static etc. Eco-detergent strips are a great option and you shouldn't need anything else. If you need a spot remover, keep it localized to the stain. You can make your own stain remover for clothing and carpets/upholstery. You can use hydrogen peroxide directly in your washer rather than buying commercial oxy products.
b. Cleaning products for kitchen and bathroom including mirrors and glass – Before using harsh chemical products, try DIY cleaners using combinations of baking soda, vinegar, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, magic eraser, tea tree oil, witch hazel and other natural cleaners such as Castille soap. For example, for granite or other stone, use a mixture of ½ cup isopropyl alcohol, a few drops of dish soap and water. You can add essential oils to improve the smell if desired. An example is getting coffee stains out of drinkware. Add baking soda to the container, spray with vinegar and let sit for a few minutes before rinsing.
c. Cleaner for wood surfaces - mix liquid soap (Castille) and water or vinegar and water. Use a soft cloth that is just dampened with this mixture (there is controversy over the vinegar and water solution for wood but I use it on my wood floors).
d. Plants - keep plants in your home – plants clean the air of toxins and greenhouse gases and have the double benefit of being beautiful. See Web MD reference.
e. Makeup and applicators - toss makeup products older than 6 months. Buy only what you will use up in the next six months and buy ‘clean makeup’. Usually, clean makeup is marked as such. Wash makeup brushes in warm soapy water every 3 months.
f. Food - for your fruit and veggies, use a plant based cleaner or a drop or 2 of pure Castille liquid soap in water. Message into the product or let soak in the cleaner mixed with water.
g. Air and water filters- replace as recommended. Although you will have to toss old ones, your systems will work more efficiently with clean filters.
h. Paint, Stains and Solvents - dispose of latex-based paints safely. Most landfills won’t take these unless the paint itself has solidified. You can leave cans open in the sun and they will harden and can be disposed of. For hazardous waste such as oil-based paint, check your state and county's website for how to dispose of these and all other toxic solvents such as acetone, benzene, xylene, window washer fluid, antifreeze etc. The regulations may vary but be sure you know the rules and dispose of these substances properly. Whatever you do, avoid disposing illegally or in ways that will further contaminate the environment. If your home is painted with lead-based paint, it may be helpful to have your home evaluated for lead levels. The same is true for any concerns about mold and asbestos. Do not store these items in your house and try to only buy what you will need so you have none left over.
i. Batteries - Lithium batteries are now in widespread use and cannot be thrown in the trash. Local ordinances must be followed. Make sure you find out what these are before disposing. For alkaline batteries see if you have a local collection site where you can take used batteries. We are starting one in our township. There are locations you can send them to have them recycled properly. Buying collection buckets is relatively inexpensive.
j. Flooring - this may be an expensive proposition but consider removing old carpeting and replacing with wood, vinyl, tile floors which are easier to clean and disinfect. You will avoid being exposed to chemicals used in the carpets and the carpet installation process. This does not imply that other types of flooring have no risk. Ask installers what chemicals are used to lay your floor that might continue to produce dangerous vapors as they age. In addition, find out the chemical composition of the flooring you choose. Each type has their pros and cons and all impact our carbon footprint in unique ways. In general when doing any work in your environment - ask lots of questions about what substances are used. This applies to service providers such as carpet cleaners, power washing contractors, and home builders/contractors.
k. Window Coverings - The flooring issues apply to fabric window coverings. They are hard to keep clean. Shades and blinds are good replacements and easier to clean.
Note: In general, know your contractor. Reputable service professionals will take safety into consideration and will not practice illegal behaviors such as dumping their waste in unsanctioned areas and waterways. They will care about the environment.
k. Smoke and CO Detectors - have a functional carbon monoxide (CO) detector in your home as well as working smoke detectors – carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the air causing affixation if levels get too high. CO is invisible and has no odor.
l. Medications and Supplements - Carefully dispose of medications and other pills, powders or liquids. The goal is to avoid these getting into water supplies or being found by children.
m. Winter Melting Salt- stop using these. They cause harmful salination of water and soil, killing wildlife and fish. Ask yourself how much good they are really doing? If you do use these products, be very judicious with how much you use. Apply very sparingly.
n. Burning - Be judicious about any burning in your home via candles, fireplaces, grills, stoves etc. These all emit fumes that contain toxins often even when not turned on or lit.
o. Sustainability - increase your sustainability practices by reducing or eliminating single-use plastics. Try to buy used products for your home and wardrobe. Consider this when buying food, clothing, fabrics, furniture and just about everything we own. Look at how things you purchase are packaged. It there are layers of unnecessary packaging, avoid buying from this company and even better file a complaint with them or leave a review if you bought the product online and they have review functionality. Buying online is convenient and easy but it does produce packaging waste. I am certainly guilty of this and acknowledge the ease of buying irresistible.
I got a rude awakening recently when I purchased a lighting fixture online. It was packaged in layers and layers of styrofoam. Styrofoam is not recyclable and has few other uses. Even hot beverages are no longer served in styrofoam containers. I am going to increase my in-store shopping and pay more attention to the products I buy online for where they are manufactured and how they are packaged. Keep in mind that the further away (e.g., China, Korea) the product is manufactured, the larger the carbon footprint it leaves regarding all that's involved in transport. At the very least become aware of what you have in your home that, if you were to replace, would provide an opportunity to seek sustainable solutions.
Your home should be your happy place.
So make sure it is a safe space.
How to Give Up Plastic,Will McCallum, Penguin Books, 2019.
Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, Dana Gunders, Chronicle Books, LLC, 2015.