Published January 21, 2014
We carefully watch what goes into our mouths and on our bodies—organic this, petroleum-free that. But when it comes to keeping a healthy home, knowing what to do isn't so easy. In fact, the average house may contain as many as 400 chemicals, some of them toxic, many untested, according to a 2009 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Short-term contact with one toxin in small amounts isn't going to kill you. But with so many questionable chemicals swirling around us, "you definitely want to take simple measures whenever possible to lower your exposure," said Phil Brown, director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University in Boston.
And reducing your contact with chemicals— even a little—can yield clear benefits. Depending on your sensitivities, you might experience fewer allergy and asthma symptoms, headaches and skin irritations. Long-term, Brown said, you may even lower your risk of infertility and cancer.
We know what you're thinking: Where the heck do I start? And how much work is this going to take? While some people would have you ripping up carpeting and chucking furniture, we talked to environmental health experts to find low-effort, high-impact ways to minimize your toxic load and boost your health, then ranked them from the super easy to the more ambitious. Try a couple of these, or more, to really clear the air.
Kick off your kicks
Leave shoes at the door to keep out 80 percent of the crud they track in, per ISSA/Interclean. That can include nasty stuff like road sealant, pesticides and lead dust.
Crack the windows
Indoor air can be five times as polluted as outdoor air, so open the windows whenever the weather—and your AC or heating budget—permit.
Dump the dryer sheets
Most coat clothes with chemicals like quaternary ammonium compounds—which have been linked to the development of asthma—and acetone, also found in nail polish remover. Plus, your towels will be more absorbent sans the chemical covering.
Detox your dry cleaning
Remove the bags and air out clothes in the garage or hall for a day or two to shed some of the solvent, called perchloroethylene, that sticks to the fibers. Inhaling it can trigger respiratory and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness and vision problems, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization. You also could go to a "green" cleaner—just make sure they use liquid carbon dioxide or the wet-cleaning method, since other eco-alternatives can be just as toxic, warns Sonya Lunder, EWG's senior analyst.
Trade your vinyl shower curtain for one made of cotton, nylon, polyester or EVA or PEVA plastic. (Not sure if it's vinyl? Look for the number 3 printed on the recycling seal on the curtain or its packaging, or the letters PVC.) In a 2008 study, vinyl curtains were found to release 108 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that become gaseous at room temperature, potentially triggering headaches, nausea, dizziness and irritated eyes and throat. They're also found in most paint, so look for cans labeled as low or zero VOC.
Toss your pesticides
Contact with some formu-lations may lead to nerve, skin and eye damage, headaches and nausea. (They are designed to kill rats and bugs, after all.) So when you have a pest issue, ask yourself whether it's a nuisance or a health concern. If you've got ants, plug holes in your walls and keep counters cleaner. "For agents that cause disease—such as rodents or fleas—call a professional who knows how to properly fumigate and air out your home," said Douglas A. Swift, MD, associate clinical professor in the departments of medicine and environmental health at Tulane University. If you must DIY, try to buy less toxic pesticide brands, such as EcoSmart, and note label warnings. They go from "caution" to "warning" to "danger," in order of toxicity.
Know your plastics
Some plastic containers can leach out a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA), which is known to tamper with our hormones. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA from infant bottles and sippy cups. Then, in 2013, a review of research in the journal Endocrine Disruptors found that it may be associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease and other conditions in adults. So avoid plastics marked with a 7, which may contain BPA, and never put BPA-containing plastics in the microwave or dishwasher; BPAs are more likely to leach out when heated. Buy fresh or frozen foods, and look for glass or cardboard packaging when possible (the lining of cans could contain BPA, too). Doing so is especially important when it comes to acidic and oily foods, which can allow more BPA to leach out. The good news: BPA passes out of the body quickly, so it doesn't take long to reduce your exposure.
Make your own cleaner
For an all-purpose, nontoxic cleaner that gets counters sparkling, try this DIY formula from Lisa Beres, author of Just Green It!: Mix ½ teaspoon washing soda (found in grocery stores), 1 teaspoon natural liquid dish soap and 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle.
Instead of sprays (which add to your chemical load) or feathers (which just kick up more dust), use dry, unscented microfiber cloths, which attract dirty particles instead of scattering them.