By Lane Vail
For most individuals, odorous chemicals are simply unpleasant. For those that are sensitive and susceptible, however, even common chemical exposures may evoke a toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT) marked by multiple-system symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, autoimmune disease, asthma, depression and food intolerance. Since the post-World War II expansion of petrochemicals, the incidence of TILT has increased dramatically, says Claudia Miller, a medical doctor, researcher and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-author of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes.
“Fortunately, public awareness has also grown significantly in the last few years,” says Rick Smith, Ph.D., a Canadian environmentalist who co-authored Toxin Toxout. “Now companies and governments worldwide are moving toward making safer products.”
We can support progress by leveraging some practical tips in greening our home.
Start somewhere. Many volatile organic compounds (VOC) that include formaldehyde and benzene are concealed in household items such as couches, chairs, particleboard furniture, mattresses, box springs, carpeting, rugs, synthetic flooring, wallpaper and paint. Green TV host and Fresh Living author Sara Snow implores us not to become overwhelmed, disheartened or fearful. “Creating a healthy home is a gradual process that doesn’t require throwing all the furniture out,” she advises. Start by scrutinizing labels and choosing not to bring new toxins in.
For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is widely found to be associated with reproductive toxicity and is found in many waterproofed and flexible plastics. Select PVC-free toys, shower curtain liners and mattress covers.
In the kitchen, avoid potentially carcinogenic perfluorinated chemicals (PFC) found in nonstick coatings of pots and pans. Toss the Teflon when it scratches, says Snow, and upgrade to stainless steel or cast iron. Weed out bisphenols, the DNA-disrupting chemicals found in plastics and epoxy resin can liners. Even “BPA-free” products likely contain alternative and equally harmful substances, according to a recent study published in Chemosphere. Choose clear glass instead of plastic containers.
When remodeling, look for zero-VOC items, Miller says, plus materials free of stain-resistant sprays and flame retardants whose efficacy is questionable. Consider natural fiber rugs like jute or wool. Forest Stewardship Council-certified hardwoods or alternative flooring like cork or glass tile are safer investments in long-term well-being.
Clean green. Conventional cleaners are among the worst offenders, and even some “eco-cleaners” can be deceptively unsafe, says Smith. He recommends avoiding antibacterial products containing triclosan, which proliferates antibiotic-resistant bacteria that prolong and exacerbate illnesses, as well as phthalates, a chemical oil that carries artificial aromas and has been repeatedly linked to cancer and abnormal fetal development. “Even so-called natural fragrances are often complex petrochemicals that outgas and contaminate the air,” notes Miller.
Snow advises formulating products at home using staple pantry ingredients, including distilled white vinegar for disinfecting, baking soda for scouring, liquid castile soap for sudsing, lemon juice for degreasing and olive oil for polishing.
Freshen with fresh air. Americans spend about 90 percent of their time amid indoor air pollutants that are significantly more concentrated than outdoor pollutants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports. “Most energy-efficient homes are well sealed with ventilation systems that recirculate indoor air, so opening the windows helps dilute accumulated airborne toxins,” says Miller. Snow further recommends bringing air-purifying plants into the home such as Gerbera daisies, bamboo palms and English ivy.
Vacuum and dust. Vacuuming with a high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter and dusting with a moist cloth eliminates allergens such as pet dander, mites, pollen and mold, and helps remove phthalates, flame retardants, lead and pesticides that “latch onto house dust and accumulate in dust bunnies,” says Smith.
Weed out lawn chemicals. “Organophosphate pesticides are profoundly neurotoxic,” says Miller, especially to the developing brains of children. Instead try integrated pest management, which involves controlling pests’ food sources and applying non-toxic deterrents. Eliminating potentially carcinogenic herbicides might mean managing more weeds, says Snow, but it’s worth it.
Eat green. “Buying produce as close to its source as possible, from a farmer or farmers’ market, provides threefold benefits,” says Snow—less wasteful packaging, reduced exposure to chemical plastics and greater concentration of health-promoting nutrients. Buy in bulk and favor glass containers or rectangular cardboard cartons.
Take tests. Radon, an invisible, odorless gas that can emanate from the ground and accumulate in homes, annually causes 21,000 U.S. lung
cancer deaths, according to the U.S. EPA. Lead, a neurotoxin that may occasionally leach from home water pipes, can also hide in pre-1978 paint. Testing for both and implementing reduction or precautionary measures is simple, advises Smith. Most hardware stores stock test kits.
Take action. Join with other concerned citizens by launching a pertinent petition at Change.org; campaigning with organizations like the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) or Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SaferChemicals.org); and supporting cleaner, greener companies with family purchases.
Lane Vail is a freelance writer and blogger at DiscoveringHomemaking.com.