It's easy to get overwhelmed when it comes to reducing toxins in your home. Between harsh cleaning products, pesticides, and fertilizers — even furniture and toys! — it seems like there's always another story about something in your house that can harm you. Before you pull up stakes and start searching for a sterile bubble to live in, realize that taking small steps to cleaning up the most prevalent toxins can make a big impact.
“It's not about changing your entire house right now,” says Anca Novacovici, founder of Eco-Coach, a Washington, D.C.-based company that runs home eco-audits. “You only need to change what you can fit into your daily routine and what makes sense financially. I encourage people to pick two things to change now, and then in a month reevaluate and see if you can change more.” Here are the top toxins that may be lingering in your house, water, and yard, and some easy fixes to get you started.
When it comes to outdoor pollution, there's not a whole lot you can do to make a drastic change — but when we're talking about indoor environment, you have some control. “Indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air,” says Tom Kelly, director of the indoor-environments division at the Environmental Protection Agency. “What happens is that the air gets trapped inside and doesn't circulate like it does outside; second, the products you bring into the home can create a soup of pollutants.” (For a thorough booklet on indoor air quality, log on to epa.gov.)
You need to replace indoor air [with fresher outdoor air] once every three hours, suggests Kelly. The easiest way to do that is to open windows and doors. Even if you're not opening the windows, your main heating and cooling systems may help freshen things up if they operate with fans circulating air from outside. To improve indoor air quality, Kelly also recommends using a High Efficiency Particulate Arresting (HEPA) air filter, either a free-standing unit or one installed into your central air system.
Use your nose
“Americans each use an average of 25 gallons of hazardous chemical products per year, most of which are in household cleaning products,” says Jennifer Sass, PhD, senior health and environmental scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The chemicals in cleaning products can lead to headaches, skin rashes, eye irritation, coughing, and wheezing, among other health issues. The easiest way to detect a toxic product? Use your sense of smell. “If your cleanser has a strong odor, it may be releasing toxins,” says Kelly. And you can't rely on labels; cleaning products aren't required to list ingredients, says Denise Robinette, president of the Florida-based HealthyLiving Foundation. “Plus, with labels like ‘nontoxic’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ you don't really know what you're getting,” she cautions. “Look for more specific labels, like ‘fragrance-free.’” Fragrance is there to mask the chemical smell, so products without fragrance are less likely to be toxic, she explains. “If you want a fragrance, use an essential oil instead.”
Test for radon
“There are 20,000 deaths every year from lung cancer due to radon,” says Kelly. A gas produced by naturally occurring uranium in soil and water, radon can get into your house by leaking through areas of lower pressure (such as cracks in your house's foundation). “Radon is highly radioactive and, as it degrades, its toxic decay product attaches itself to dust. When you breathe, it gets into your lungs, where it can potentially maim cells — starting the process of cancer,” says Kelly. Because radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, it's hard to detect, so Kelly recommends getting an inexpensive home testing kit (available at Home Depot, or through the National Safety Council at nsc.org). If your house tests high, you'll need to hire a company certified to reduce radon levels by sealing foundation cracks and placing a collection area in the subsoil or, in some cases, installing a ventilation system. To find your state radon office, go to epa.gov/iaq/whereyoulive.html.
When you think of pollutants, the image of a cozy living room probably doesn't spring to mind. But stain repellents on couches and adhesives in carpet, not to mention fire retardants on mattresses and pillows, can contain noxious chemicals that release into the air. Fortunately, there are easy ways to cut down on such toxins — without breaking your budget. To learn more, check out the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) list of toxic furniture at ewg.org/node/21836; for information on mattresses, visit ewg.org/pbdefree.
If you own a conventional mattress, you may be resting on chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), used to make mattresses fire resistant. Studies have linked PBDEs to developmental problems in children, memory impairment, thyroid disorders, decreased sperm count, and delayed puberty onset. While some states forbid the use of PBDEs (Washington, Hawaii, California, Maine, and others have introduced bans), the Consumer Products Safety Commission recently adopted even stricter federal guidelines for open-flame fire resistance (read: more chemicals). Novacovici recommends choosing a mattress made from organic wool or cotton, or natural rubber latex, though you may need a doctor's note to obtain a fire-retardant-free mattress in some states. Organic mattresses are best, but if the price is a bit high for you, try using a mattress cover made of organic wool or organic cotton, or natural latex to reduce the amount of chemicals you are exposed to, recommends Novacovici.
Rethink the wall-to-wall
When considering a new carpet, know this: Carpets can release toxins for their entire life, but especially for the first six months to a year. “A lot of the chemicals in carpets aren't necessarily in the carpets themselves but in the adhesives they are installed with,” says Novacovici. “Ask for adhesives that aren't formaldehyde based.” Also, look for those without chemical flame retardants or stain-resistant chemicals, because these also can contain PBDEs. When shopping, look for the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus; these indicate that a product has tested low for unhealthy volatile organic compounds (VOC), which release into the air throughout the life of the carpet. It's important to ventilate rooms well within the first few months of installing carpets, says Novacovici. What's more, once you have carpet, “it can act as a sink for household chemicals, which then release into the air,” she says. If you have carpeting, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which is designed to trap 99.97 percent of particles, including many health-hampering chemicals, says Novacovici.
For couches, carpets, and rugs, look for ones that aren't manufactured with stain-preventing chemicals that contain perfluorinated chemicals (PFC). These release into the air over the lifetime of the product, says Sass. If you do have some pretreated furniture, you're not doomed: Remember, it's all about getting fresh air into your home so you're not constantly breathing in the chemicals, says Sass.
There are more than 260 contaminants — including chlorine, lead, and pesticides — found in tap water, according to the EWG. Luckily, it's easier than ever to make the water you drink and bathe in safe. First, find out how your water quality rates by checking out the EWG's National Tap Water Quality Database at ewg.org.
Lose the heavy metal
Lead can get into drinking water a number of ways, but one of the most common is via old pipes, says Kristin Marstiller, senior program manager of home and community partnerships and initiatives at the National Safety Council in Washington, D.C. “If you have an older home, you may have lead in your water, either from the old pipes themselves or from the lead solder that was used on pipes in the past,” she says. You don't necessarily have to replace your pipes if you suspect lead, though. Installing a home water-filtration system may be effective (visit the National Safety Foundation website at nsf.org to find out more about household water-treatment options).
Depending upon your locale, your drinking water may contain varying levels of health-compromising chlorine, toxic metals such as mercury and lead, and pesticides and microbes such as salmonella and cryptosporidium, says Sass. To remove these, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends using a water filter with NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certification.
Drinking a cool glass of H2O isn't the only way waterborne toxins can get into your body. For example, your skin readily absorbs chlorine — a possible carcinogen — when you shower. The chlorine levels in most tap water are high enough that your exposure during a 10-minute wash can equal as much as if you were to drink eight glasses of chlorinated water, particularly because warm water opens your pores and increases absorption. Novacovici suggests using a filter on your shower faucet head (average cost: $30).
You may think that what's outside won't harm you inside your home, but if your kids play in the yard they can be exposed to various chemicals — including fertilizers, pesticides, and lead in the soil — that they end up trekking indoors. Recommended yard products include those by NaturaLawn of America (nl-amer.com).
Know your green
“Don't rely on the word green when you're looking for lawn-care products,” says Sass. “You have no idea what's really in the products.” The easiest way to decipher the level of toxicity, says Sass, is to read the ingredients: If you see a lot of chemicals with long, complicated names that you would need a PhD to understand, be wary of the product. Instead, look for those that contain recognizable ingredients.
Don't go bare
Anything from nearby bridge construction (which often involves lead) to lead-based exterior paint can release this unhealthy metal into the soil, where it accumulates, says Marstiller. “If your kids play in the soil, they can get exposed.” She recommends covering any bare soil with grass, mulch, or gravel, which create a barrier, keeping contact to a minimum while playing or working outside.
How to pick an eco-friendly detergent
The terms green, earth-friendly, and even nontoxic are everywhere these days — but because laundry and dishwashing soaps aren't regulated the same way foods are, labels don't really tell you what you're getting, says Jennifer Sass, PhD, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A quick way to determine if your detergent is safe is to read the “what happens if you swallow this” warning. “If it says something like ‘go immediately to the emergency room,’ then you know it's probably not made of garlic,” says Sass. “If you can pronounce or recognize the ingredients listed, that's a good thing.” A few buzzwords you can trust: chlorine free, phosphate free, and nonpetroleum based.
Because kids' smaller systems are more susceptible to chemicals, the recent reports on lead and other toxins in toys are even more troublesome. But plastic and painted toys aren't the only issue. Go to healthytoys.org to see how your tot's toys fare, and follow these do's and don'ts when choosing new ones.
Look for natural fibers, including organic and undyed materials such as wool, cotton, and hemp.
Choose solid wood toys versus those made with particleboard or pressed wood, or those that have glued parts. The glues often contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Go with washable items. If you can throw Teddy in the wash, you can get rid of toxins, as well as dust mites, which contribute to children's asthma and allergies.
Don't trust every plastic toy. Plastic toys can contain toxic phthalates, which are used to soften vinyl and have been linked to prostate problems, breast cancer, and hormonal disorders such as early-onset puberty.
Don't go for painted items. While some painted toys are safe, recent recalls have focused on leaded paints. In 2007, Mattel recalled about 250,000 toy cars and more than 900,000 character toys that were found to have lead paint.
Portland, Oregon-based freelancer Megan McMorris has written for Self and Real Simple. Since writing this article, she has become a fan of fragrance-free household products.