When we think about pollution, we usually think about smog, smoke, chemical spills, and other outdoor health hazards. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollution now ranks among the top five environmental risks to public health.1 Things like dust, mold, pet dander, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, smoke, and bacteria can all make our indoor environments just as dangerous—often more so—as our outside environments.
Fortunately, you can take steps to lower the toxins in your home. Open windows to circulate the air, get rid of trash and other sources of bad odors, dust and vacuum frequently, and consider investing in a HEPA air cleaner. Finally, avoid the following ingredients for better home health.
- Air Fresheners: Many air fresheners contain phthalates, including those labeled as “all-natural.” (Phthalates are chemicals that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.) According to the Global Campaign for the Recognition of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), indoor air quality experts recommend against using chemical air fresheners and/or chemical room deodorizers of any kind. Find and remove sources of bad smells, use baking soda to neutralize odors, keep windows open when possible, and try adding drops of organic essential oils to cotton balls and place around the house, or use a diffuser. Finally, invest in an air purifier with carbon filtration.
- All-Purpose Cleaner: All-purpose cleaners can contain a synthetic solvent and grease cutter called butyl cellosolve, a hazardous petroleum-based chemical that can irritate skin and eyes, and over time, cause liver and kidney damage. Search for green alternatives.
- Antifreeze: It’s highly flammable, and if you breathe it in, you could end up with headaches, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. If your dog laps up any spills, he could suffer kidney failure and death. Check for any leaks when you pull out of the garage (mop them up with disposable materials), and store any unused portions in a container out of reach of animals and young children.
- Arsenic: Some types of wood are treated with arsenic to prevent rotting. Exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, dizziness, numbness, rash, headaches, and possible liver damage. Some alternatives include wood treated with non-arsenic preservatives and wood that doesn’t require pressure treatment. For existing structures that may contain arsenic (like decks or picnic tables), apply a sealant to the wood at least once a year, and wash your hands after coming in contact with it. If you saw or sand existing wood, be sure to properly clean up and discard the wood chips and dust.
- Asbestos: Asbestos contains toxic fibers that can cause mild to severe lung irritation and/or long-term respiratory problems—and with long-term exposure, lung cancer. To get your own test kit, check out the Pro-Lab Asbestos Test Kit in your local Ace Hardware, Lowe’s, Home Depot, or other home store, and take note: Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos insulation. Be cautious as well with some floor tiles, vinyl floors and adhesives used for installing floor tile as they can also contain asbestos.
- Batteries: Household batteries are perfectly safe unless they explode, releasing toxic substances like lead, nickel, mercury, and lithium. Never throw batteries in a fire, and don’t put regular batteries into a rechargeable battery station. (Attempting to recharge a disposable battery can lead to an explosion.) Replace batteries all at the same time. Mixing old and new can increase risk of leakage. Finally, don’t store batteries in your pocket or purse, as they could leak or rupture if they become overheated.
- Bleach: Bleach can irritate or burn the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Combined with acidic toilet bowl cleansers or ammonia, it creates toxic fumes. Furthermore, the chlorine in bleach can bind with organic material in the marine environment to create toxic compounds dangerous to fish. Use a bleach alternative, or try adding a cup of lemon juice to the wash cycle for whitening.
- Candles: Paraffin-based candles give off potentially toxic chemicals like astoluene and benzene, labeled as probable carcinogens by the EPA. Some candles have metal-core wicks, which can release lead and other harmful toxins, and some imported and older candles can contain lead-core wicks. Oils used in scented candles, as well, are often petroleum-based synthetics. To protect yourself, avoid paraffin-based candles. Purchase those made of natural waxes like vegetable, soybean, or beeswax. Avoid candles in jars, as they don’t get enough oxygen and can cause toxic black soot. Finally, avoid synthetic-scented varieties and use candles scented with essential oils only.
- Carpet Cleaner: Some carpet cleaners can contain an ingredient called “2-butoxyethanol,” which if inhaled or absorbed through the skin can cause blood disorders, liver damage, and kidney damage—even reproductive damage if exposure is long-term. In addition, they can contain perchloroethylene, a known carcinogen, as well as 1,4-dioxane, ammonia, and unknown fragrances. If you clean the carpet in an entire room, your exposure could be high. Look for nontoxic alternatives.
- Dishwashing Soap (Liquid): The Environmental Protection Agency has listed chloroform as a probable human carcinogen—capable of causing cancer. Did you know that if your dishwashing soap contains triclosan, that triclosan could react with chlorine in your water to create chloroform? Many regions use chlorine to clean the water supply, so even if you don’t add the chlorine yourself, it could still be there. Avoid dishwashing soaps with triclosan.
- Dishwashing Detergents (Automatic): Each time you put your dishes through the dishwasher, some residue is left that can later mix with your food. These detergents can contain chlorine-based sanitizing ingredients, as well as phosphates capable of choking off life in our rivers and streams. For a natural alternative, mix equal parts of borax and baking soda and store in a tightly sealed container. Use two tablespoons per load. If you have hard water, double the amount of baking soda.
- Dry Cleaning: Most dry-cleaning shops use a chemical called “perchloroethylene” (perc) as the primary cleaning solvent. The International Association for Research on Cancer classifies perc as a probable carcinogen, with occupational exposure resulting in elevated rates of kidney cancer.As for so-called “organic” dry cleaning, there is no regulation on the word, so a company claiming to be organic may still use perc. Certifications can also be confusing, as they may just mean that the facility is operating in an environmentally responsible fashion. Right now, wet-cleaning (a system that uses biodegradable soap and water, computer-controlled dryers, and stretching machines) seems to be the least toxic option. If you can’t find a cleaner in your area offering this option, air your dry cleaning outside or in your garage for at least a day before wearing, buy clothes that don’t need to be dry cleaned, and choose spot cleaning and a press when you can.
- Dust: According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), dust that accumulates around the house could contain potentially harmful chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and hormone disruption. It can also contain pesticides in concentrations above government health-based guidelines. If someone in the family lives or works near an industrial plant, floor dust could contain even more toxins. Vacuum frequently with a machine that has a HEPA filter, wet mop tile and wood floors, regularly wipe furniture down with a wet or microfiber cloth, regularly dust your electronic equipment, and consider getting a high-efficiency HEPA filter air cleaner for certain rooms in the home.
- Laundry Detergents: To clean, most detergents use either anionic or nonionic surfactants to lower the surface tension of water. These present low-level toxins to the environment and can cause skin irritation. One common surfactant used in laundry detergents is nonylphenol ethoxylate, which in studies has been found to stimulate the growth of certain types of cancer cells. Purchase organic or natural laundry detergents that are fragrance-free and don’t contain these chemicals, or make your own detergent, using ingredients like borax and washing soda.
- Lead: Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic at even low levels. It can cause gastrointestinal problems, weight loss, and anemia, as well as developmental problems and learning disorders in children.
The main threat of lead in the home comes from wall paint (particularly in homes built before 1978). It can also be present in drinking water if your home has plumbing with lead or lead solder. (Get your water tested.) Lead may be present in PVC plastics, old crystal and glass, some antiques, some painted toys and products imported from China and other countries, and in car batteries. If you have an older home, be particularly careful with paint chips and lead dust, which you can see. Lead-based paint in good condition is usually not a hazard as long as it’s not on areas of high-risk to children like windows and windowsills, doors and doorframes, stairs, railings and banisters, and porches and fences. If you suspect lead, you can get a paint inspection which can give you the lead content of every painted surface in your home. Properly ventilate your home when renovating, and don’t store beverages in old crystal decanters. Never break the seal of car batteries, and be especially cautious when charging them—they can explode.
- Mold: Mold is a fungus that can cause health problems like allergies, inflammation, and infection. It can also encourage respiratory ailments, skin rashes, body aches and pain, headaches, and mood swings. Make sure your bathrooms and other moist areas are well ventilated, launder area rugs regularly, and thoroughly clean water-damaged carpets. Check behind dressers and in corners of closets to be sure no mold is collecting out of eyeshot.
- Pesticides: Products like bug repellants, rose and flower sprays, weed killers, lawn care products, soap sprays, ant and roach baits, flea shampoos, and mouse and rat bait stations can all contain pesticides. Exposure to lawn and household pesticides have been linked to birth defects, brain cancers (in children), and leukemia. Children are most at risk. Read labels, and choose non-toxic versions of these items to protect your family and pets.
- Plastics/Plastic Linings in Cans: A lot of plastics contain bisphenol-A, or BPA—a chemical used to make plastics, but which has been suspected of being hazardous to humans for decades. More recently, it’s been linked to breast and prostate cancer. Found in the resin used to line food cans, BPA has been detected in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans tested by the Centers for Disease Control. To avoid BPA, limit your exposure to foods in cans or plastic containers. Buy frozen, fresh, or glass-stored foods instead. If microwaving, use glass or ceramic containers, or plastics marked with a #1, 2, 4, or 5, which don’t contain BPA. Don’t cover food with plastic wrap—use a paper towel instead. Finally, choose stainless water bottles, glass, or BPA-free plastic baby bottles.
- Shoes: Where did you walk today? What did you step in? Take a moment to think about all the places you’ve been, and then imagine all those places coming inside your home, for that’s what happens when you wear your shoes inside. Recent studies have found heavy concentrations of coal tar (a known carcinogen) in family driveways, and we all know how particles and debris can get trapped in carpets; so to protect yourself and your family—especially if you have small children crawling on the floor—leave your shoes at the door.
- Smoke: Secondhand cigarette smoke has been linked with health problems like cancer, reduced lung function, coughing, lung infections, increased asthma attacks, heart disease, and middle ear infections in children. Studies also show evidence of a link between secondhand smoke and breast cancer, and have found that children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker’s chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.2 Other studies show that secondhand smoke is associated with disease and premature death in nonsmoking adults and children.3
If you smoke, quit. Until then, be sure to keep all smoke and cigarettes out of the home and out of your car.
- Tap Water: City water or well water can be contaminated with small amounts of toxins, including chromium VI, which has been classified by the EPA as a carcinogen. In fact, a 2010 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found measurable levels of chromium VI in the tap water of 31 out of the 34 American cities sampled.4 To protect yourself, use a water filter on your faucet or invest in a household drinking water purification system, which often includes reverse osmosis to trap chemicals. Beware of bottled water, as it is often no more purified than tap water and can contain harmful chemicals that have leached into the water from the plastic container.
- EPA Indoor Environments Division, Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools: Actions to Improve IAQ (September 1999).
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coordinating Center for Health Promotion, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2006.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010.
- Chromium-6 is Widespread in U.S. Tap Water: Cancer-causing chemical found in 89 percent of cities sampled. The Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/chromium6-in-tap-water.