Chemicals are part of our lives. We treat illnesses, paint our houses, and even clothe ourselves with products that have been developed through chemical research. However, there are reasons to be cautious about our exposure to some chemicals.
Why reduce toxics?
From the foods we eat to how we maintain our yards and clean our homes, we can be exposed to chemicals in many ways. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only a fraction of the more than 75,000 registered chemicals have gone through complete testing for human health concerns. Some chemicals have immediate toxic effects. Others are toxic to our bodies only after repeated, long-term exposure.
Children are especially susceptible to the negative effects of chemicals, warns the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food, and when they play, they crawl and put things in their mouths. As a result, children have an increased chance of exposure to potential pollutants, and because children's bodies are still developing, they may process these pollutants differently from adults. Nursing mothers and women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should also take precautions.
A good principle to follow is always to look for ways to reduce or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals as we go about our daily lives, to keep our homes safe for our children, our pets, and us.
What you can do
Simple changes in our everyday routines can reduce our long-term exposures to low levels of potentially harmful substances—changes in how we choose the products we buy, or the ways we clean our houses and take care of the yard. These changes will not only make our homes safer, they may also save us money.
Consider these helpful ideas for reducing toxic exposures in your home.
Reducing toxics inside your house
Until recently, indoor air pollution has been largely ignored as a source of exposure to toxicity. But studies have shown that levels of harmful chemicals in indoor air may exceed the standards set by the EPA to protect us from harmful chemicals. You can avoid such levels in your home by buying and using products that are free of toxic chemicals whenever possible.
Whenever possible, buy products that are free of toxic chemicals. Alternatives are available. The market for non-toxic household products is growing in response to customer demand.
When purchasing products, take a minute to carefully read the label. Look for products that appear to disclose all their ingredients. "Signal words" will help you spot ingredients that are harmful: caution, warning, danger, and poison ("caution" is least hazardous and "danger" is most hazardous; extremely toxic products must also include the word "poison."). Choose the least-hazardous product to do the job.
- Before you use a product, carefully read the directions and follow the instructions. Be sure to use the correct amount of a product. Remember, you won't get twice the results by using twice as much.
- Select products (cleaners, shampoos, etc.) made from plant-based materials, such as oils made from citrus, seed, vegetable or pine. By doing so, you are selecting products that are biodegradable and generally less toxic. These products also provide the additional benefit of being made from renewable resources. Ask for plant-based products at your local grocery or retail store.
- Choose pump spray containers instead of aerosols. Pressurized aerosol products often produce a finer mist that is more easily inhaled. Aerosols also put unnecessary volatile organic chemicals into your indoor air when you use them.
- Ask for unbleached paper products or products bleached with hydrogen peroxide or oxygen, which produce less pollution during papermaking.
- Avoid using antibacterial soaps. Antibacterial agents, while not directly harmful to you, contribute to the growing problem we face when bacteria mutate to strains that are more drug-resistant. Remember, however, that hand washing with any soap is still vital to maintaining good health.
- Purchase a mercury-free fever thermometer. Many effective alternatives are on the shelves at your local pharmacy. Broken mercury fever thermometers can be a source of toxic mercury levels in your home and discarded products containing mercury contribute to higher levels in the environment. consult your county house-hold hazardous waste program manager to learn where to take your old thermometer. (For information, see www.swmcb.org or www.pca.state.mn.us/waste.)
- Use eye drops, contact lens solutions, and nasal sprays and drops that are free of thimerosal or other mercury-containing preservatives.
- Look for unscented and natural dyes in products to avoid potential allergic reactions.
- Recipes for personal care products using natural ingredients— baking soda, lemon juice, etc.—can be found online: www.care2.com/channels/solutions/self/114.
Remove your shoes when you enter your house. Your shoes can track in harmful amounts of pesticides, lead, cadmium and other chemicals. Keeping a floor mat at your doors for people to wipe their feet on when they enter will also help.
Vacuum carpets and floors regularly. Children playing on your carpet may actually be more exposed to pesticides lodged in the carpet than from the outside, because pesticides break down less readily indoors than outdoors in the sunlight. Use a fine particulate filter, such as a HEPA filter, in your vacuum cleaner, if possible. Otherwise, the dust vacuumed up is redistributed into the air where it can be inhaled.
By cleaning with products like these, you can save money and avoid exposure to toxic chemicals.
Single-ingredient, common household materials such as baking soda, vinegar, or plant-based soaps and detergents can often do the job on your carpet or other surfaces. Soap and water has been shown to keep surfaces as free of bacteria as antibacterial soaps do. If your carpet needs professional cleaning, enlist a carpet service that uses less-toxic cleaners that are low in VOCs and irritants.
- Baking soda works well to clean sinks, tubs and toilets, and it freshens drains as well.
- Vegetable oil with a little lemon juice works wonders on wood furniture.
- Simmer a mixture of cloves and cinnamon or use vinegar and water as a safe and environmentally friendly air freshener. Consider how you can eliminate odor problems rather than just covering them up.
- Use vinegar and water in a pump spray bottle for cleaning mirrors and shining chrome. Vinegar or soap and water with drying rags or a squeegee also work well for cleaning windows.
- Use reusable unbleached cotton towels, rags, and non-scratch scrubbing sponges for all-purpose cleaning instead of bleached disposable paper products.
- Use dishwasher detergents that are free of chlorine bleach and lowest in phosphates.
- Use bathroom cleaners that are free of aerosol propellants and antibacterial agents.
- Choose organic fruits and vegetables for your family whenever possible. They have been shown to have less pesticide residue.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables thoroughly to remove fertilizer residues.
- Don't microwave foods in plastic containers. Chemicals from the plastic container can become absorbed by food during microwaving. Cover with waxed paper or paper towel instead of plastic wrap to keep food from spattering.
In order to survive, pests need food, water and living space. Remove all food sources through good sanitation and storage habits (i.e., screw-cap jars, zip-lock bags, garbage pails with tight-fitting lids). Block pest entrances to your kitchen by caulking holes, using door sweeps on the bottom of doors, and keeping window screens in good repair. Avoid placing chemical pesticides around your kitchen to kill indoor insect and rodent pests.
- Avoid using no-pest strips. They contain pesticides that are released to the air in your home.
- When storing winter clothing, use cedar blocks or bags of cedar chips hung with your clothes. Avoid mothballs that contain p-dichloro benzene or naphthalene, which are very toxic and also contribute to respiratory problems.
- Consult your veterinarian for non-toxic pest control products for use on pet pests such as fleas and ticks.
- Use non-toxic head lice treatments, including combing, enzyme-based treatments and mayonnaise or oil. See www.headlice.org for more information.
Instead of more complicated detergents, try using a combination of washing soda and borax in your machine. These are usually as effective as more complex formulas and are also usually cheaper.
- When possible, hang clothes to dry outside to avoid using the dryer, which uses energy and depletes resources. In winter, fluff the clothes in the dryer, and then hang to dry indoors. You get the added benefit of increased humidity.
- Avoid bleach when possible. If whitening is needed, use non-chlorine bleach, which is oxygen based and often highly effective.
- Buy clothes that don't need drycleaning or use an alternative called "wet cleaning." Clothes that have been drycleaned emit perchlorethylene, a chemical that can cause cancer. The wet cleaning process uses water so there are no harmful gases emitted from the cleaned clothing. MnTAP maintains a list of cleaners that use the wet cleaning process: http://mntap.umn.edu/drycl/consumer.htm.
Clotheslines: A healthy hangup
Don't rely on dryer sheets for freshening your laundry. Clotheslines are a great way to keep clothes, sheets and towels smelling clean. Fabrics will last longer if they're not tumbled around—after all, isn't dryer lint made up entirely of material from your clothes?
Reducing toxics in the yard
- Mowing your grass to a height of about 3½ inches is the most important thing you can do to improve the health of your lawn. By keeping grass length longer, the roots grow deeper and can reach more water during dry periods. Longer grass also creates shade, making it harder for weeds to get established.
- If you use a lawn service, consider a service provider that uses less-toxic alternatives.
- Test the soil to see what your soil needs. Apply only as much fertilizer as is needed. Soil test kits can be purchased at a lawn and garden store or through University of Minnesota Extension: www.extension.umn.edu.
If your grass grows in heavy clay soil, aeration can be very beneficial. Aeration decreases compaction and allows air and water to get to the roots.
- Weeds such as dandelions can be removed easily by digging them up with a fishtail weeder when the soil is damp.
- Top dressing your lawn with a compost-soil mix will reduce your lawn's water needs and make it more resistant to drought and disease. You will need to fertilize less often, and when you do, you can use less fertilizer.
- Consider replacing parts of your yard with native perennials that lower maintenance and lessen the need for water and chemicals.
- Ask at your garden store for less-toxic alternatives to chemical pesticides to control pests.
Look at reduce.org for more information on Growing a Healthy, No-waste Lawn and Garden.
Building and remodeling
- When building or remodeling your home, ask for building materials and supplies that have the least amount of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. VOCs have been shown to cause cancer or developmental problems. Toxic fumes can come from unexpected sources like new carpet and cabinets.
- Choose no- and low-VOC paints and varnishes when finishing walls, floors and furniture. Make sure you have proper ventilation.
- Ask for carpeting that meets standards for indoor air quality established by the Carpet and Rug Institute. Once a carpet is installed, thoroughly air out the house for at least 48 hours.
- For decks and playground equipment, use reclaimed cedar or redwood, which is naturally resistant to fungus and insects. Or use recycled plastic lumber. Ask about these products at your home improvement store.
- Avoid using "green-treated" lumber, which is treated with the toxic compound copper chromium arsenate (CCA). In particular, don't use it for eating surfaces on picnic tables or children's play equipment. Clean up all scrap treated wood and sawdust and dispose of it properly—it should go to a lined landfill or licensed waste incinerator. Treated wood should not be burned at home for bonfires or stoves/fireplaces.