We are all more health and environmentally conscious these days. And, if you’re anything like me, you are probably looking for ways to eliminate toxins in your home, especially if you have children or pets. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s website Tox Town, on environmental health concerns and toxic chemicals, the most common toxins found in our homes are volatile organic compounds. These are lurking in everything from your beautiful scented candles to your aerosol deodorants, pesticides which you might unknowingly track into your home, mould and fungus, plastics and plastic additives such as phthalates, Polyvinyl Chlorides (PVC), bisphenol A (BPA) and dioxins which are found in our homes, furnishings, food and drinks containers, etc.
Read on for my tips on how to detox your home and lead a cleaner, healthier life!
The most prolific and worse offenders that can be found in most homes are volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). These chemicals are released as gases from certain solids or liquids, such as plastics, interior paints and varnishes, cleaning fluids, air fresheners, scented candles, deodorants, new carpets, home furnishings, cigarettes and during the combustion of fuels such as gasoline, wood, coal or natural gas. As you can imagine, our homes and cars (think of that new car smell!) are full of these gases.
In the short term, exposure to VOCs may cause problems like eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory problems. Longer term exposure can lead to these symptoms, plus nausea, fatigue, damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system and, you guessed it, cancer. Vulnerable people, such as small children, the elderly and those with asthma are at the highest risk of developing symptoms. Obviously, this is very concerning. So what can you do to reduce your risk?
Open your windows. One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your family’s exposure to VOCs in your home is to open the windows. According to a study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people spend, on average, 90 per cent of their lives indoors. That is a shocking statistic for many reasons. Studies have found that levels of several of these compounds are, in general, two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. During, and for several hours immediately after certain activities such as paint stripping or varnishing, indoor levels may be up to a thousand times higher than outdoor levels. If you live on a main road you may be wondering whether this advice still applies. The answer is undoubtedly, yes. No matter how polluted the air outside your home is, the air inside is bound to be worse. Thirty minutes per day, per room should do the trick. If it’s cold out, air out each room individually, with the door to the rest of the house shut to avoid letting all your heat escape.
Don’t bother with air purifiers. You might be asking, if levels of VOCs are so high in my home, wouldn’t it be better to use an indoor air purifier? The answer to this is not straightforward and is probably “don’t bother”. Air purifiers do purify the air to some extent, but the actual benefit appears to be negligible.
An air purifier is a machine which claims to ‘clean the air’ or remove contaminant particles such as dust, pollen, pet dander, mould spores, dust mite droppings, smoke particles and other VOCs from a room. There are two main types of home (i.e. non-industrial) air purifiers: active and passive. Active purifiers use electrostatic charged plates to attract and capture floating debris from the air which is held in a statically charged comb. These purifiers remove harmful bacteria and allergens out of the air but not all particles always remain in the comb and these may be deposited on your floors and furniture and in turn end up on you, your children, your pets and your clothes. The plates on these devices must be removed from time to time for cleaning and during this process the owner may be again exposed to the germs and allergens they have trapped. Passive units are safer and more effective as these use air filters (often known as HEPA filters) to permanently remove dust and other particles from the air. However there are two main problems with all air purifiers:
- many harmful particles such as pet dander don’t always float in the air as they are too heavy and purifiers therefore are not able to remove these
- some air purifiers also produce ozone as a by-product. Concentrated ozone, in a confined space, can lead to serious health problems. Therefore the health benefits of removing other harmful particles from the air may be offset by the harmful effects of the ozone produced.
If you still wish to buy an air purifier, then splash out on a low ozone model with a HEPA filter. These tend to be expensive – don’t say I didn’t warn you. And opening a window is still probably more effective.
Buy some plants. It’s not new advice, it’s not ground breaking, but, seriously, it works – plants clean the air. Keep some plants in every room of your house and improve your air quality. Simple.
Get rid of air toxic fresheners and scented candles. I know, I know, this is the wrong time of year to be telling you this! Who doesn’t want their house to smell of pumpkin spice, winter forests and apple pie in the cooler weather? But candles, especially paraffin ones, are extremely toxic. I wish I had known that sooner. Thankfully there is a solution! Beeswax candles are non-toxic and, it seems, might actually clean the air (something about ions – I’m not sure I totally believe this). They are quick and easy to make – once you have all the ingredients, it takes ten to fifteen minutes to prepare one candle, plus a few hours for your candle to set. They are also cheaper than conventional candles and just as beautiful! Click [link coming soon] for my pumpkin spice beeswax candle recipe.
Replace air fresheners with essential oil diffusers. Just be sure to check the labels – some essential oils are not advised if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have small children.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides are known carcinogens – startling statistics. These can cause eye irritation, kidney and central nervous system damage in addition to an increased risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, miscarriage, nerve damage, birth defects and problems with nutrient absorption. What can you do to avoid exposure to these?
Take off your shoes indoors. When you walk outside your shoes come into contact with a whole slew of things we don’t even want to think about…everything from dog faeces to festering rubbish to pesticides sticks to the soles of your shoes and this can be spread on your floors or carpets. Your kids and pets touch the floors and then put their hands in their mouths or lick themselves and are effectively eating weed killer and…yeah, that too. Taking off your shoes when you come in the door is the easiest way to prevent this.
Buy fresh, organic produce. Organic has become almost synonymous with ‘cool and desirable’ in recent years. And it is no secret that organic food is more expensive that conventionally grown food. But not all produce needs to be organic – keep an eye on the ‘clean fifteen’ and the ‘dirty dozen’ (these tend to change year on year) and buy just the dirty dozen organic, where possible. Or buy organic versions of the foods you eat the most.
Avoid chemical based pest control in your home and garden. There are non-toxic versions available. Use these, where possible.
Allow dry cleaning, new furniture and carpets to ‘off-gas’. Remove these from any packaging materials and place outdoors or in a room with the door closed and the windows open for a day or two before wearing or using. This allows any toxic VOCs from the dry cleaning chemicals or new plastic materials to escape, rather than being released in concentrated form in your home.
Mould and fungal toxins
As many as a third of the population is allergic to mould and mould can be found in many homes (including mine!). Fungal toxins can cause a wide range of health problems, including suppression of the immune system and increased cancer risk, with only minimal exposure. To reduce your risk, you can:
- open your windows to allow ventilation of your home
- use a de-humidifier in particularly damp rooms or bedrooms
- keep an eye on any areas that are particularly prone to mould and clean these regularly. Warning: wear a mask while cleaning mould
- keep filters clean in air conditioning, heating and air purification units as well as vacuum cleaners
- turn on the fan and open a window while cooking to minimise humidity levels in your home
- open the doors to any poorly ventilated areas, including cupboards, once a day for at least half an hour, if possible
Ditch the harsh chemical cleaning products. Swap these in favour of eco varieties. Admittedly they are slightly more expensive than traditional cleaning products but I have found they are long lasting and work very well. They also have a very pleasant, mild scent that doesn’t leave behind a chemical smell. No cleaning product will ever be completely harmless to the environment or it just wouldn’t work, but these products cause the least amount of harm both to the environment and to you and your family’s health. Try Ecover and Method brands (owed by the same company since 2012) which have been around since the 1970s and are the products of many years of research. Own brand “eco” products may be cheaper but might not be as environmentally friendly.
Phthalates, Poly Vinyl Chlorides (PVC), bisphenol A (BPA) and other plastics
Phthalates are found in PVC and other plastics and have many uses, including to increase flexibility and strength of these materials. Phthalates are present in household items such as plastic food wrap, plastic bottles, plastic food storage containers, vinyl flooring and wall coverings, baby toys, shower curtains, cosmetics and air mattresses, to name a few. According to Earth Easy phthalates are chemically similar to human hormones and exposure to these may cause endocrine damage, especially in children.
BPA is an industrial chemical which is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. These are often used to make food containers and water bottles. They are also used to coat the inside of metal products, such as metal food tins, bottle caps and water pipes. Some studies have found that BPA can seep into the food or beverages they contain. This is a concern due to possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behaviour and prostate glands of foetuses, infants and children, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What can you do to reduce exposure to these chemicals?
Swap plastic containers and dinnerware for glass, stainless steel or bamboo, especially for children.
I have always been careful to buy ‘BPA free’ plastic containers for storing and reheating food and to for our children’s food and drink tableware. I have always checked that these were dishwasher and microwave safe and have used them carefully, according to the instructions. I thought that I was doing the best thing for our family. Then one day this past summer, my son didn’t finish his pasta, which was in a plastic children’s’ bowl, so I decided to eat it. I usually taste my kids’ food before they eat it to make sure it tastes good and isn’t too hot. But, as my children rarely leave any food on their plates, I don’t usually taste the food at the bottom that has come into contact with the plastic. I shocked when I took a bite! The food had a strong, chemical taste. After that, I noticed a similar taste on my daughter’s baby spoons. I was completely devastated and baffled by this as our plates and bowls were the same ones used by most other parents we know. Since then, I have switched to glass bowls for mixing/ storage in the fridge, bamboo cups, bowls and plates for the children to eat and drink from and child safe stainless steel cutlery instead of plastic. When out, my children still currently have their water in BPA free plastic water bottles as I have I am still researching alternatives – the glass ones are breakable, even when wrapped in silicone (I know this for a fact, I had one myself and my husband dropped it!). I have recently found child friendly stainless steel bottles and I am looking into ordering those as our next step. They are very pricy (at around £23 per bottle) but I am hoping they will last a long time.
Don’t be fooled by ‘BPA free’ products. Products labelled ‘BPA free’ may still contain bisphenol-S (BPS) or bisphenol-F (BPF). These are similarly harmful to BPA and should be avoided, therefore BPA free bottles and containers are not the best solution. Only glass, ceramic, stainless steel and natural materials such as wood and bamboo are completely safe.
Avoid eating food that has been cooked or stored in PVC and don’t microwave your food in plastic containers. Be wary of the dishwasher. I have stopped microwaving our food in ‘microwave safe’ plastic containers and am wary of the dishwasher ever since I noticed a strange white residue on the containers, which I realised was actually damage to the plastic caused by heat. The safest materials to use in the microwave and dishwasher are glass and ceramic. We still use plastic containers for carrying dry or cold snacks and for freezing, but anything warm is served in glass, ceramic or bamboo. If you do have to use plastic containers, do not use them in the microwave and either hand wash them or wash them on the top rack of the dishwasher. It’s best to give these a quick rinse after taking them out of the dishwasher to remove any leftover dishwasher tablet/liquid residue. I find that glass containers are best for anything that needs to be both microwave and dishwasher friendly. Glass cleans easily, is more durable than plastic and does not leach any nasty chemicals into your food. Stainless steel cutlery and drinking straws and bamboo children’s’ tableware are also practical and dishwasher friendly, although these are not microwave safe.
Avoid using plastic wrap and plastic sandwich bags where possible. This not only reduces your exposure to chemicals in plastic but also helps save the environment. Use parchment paper to wrap and transport snacks and sandwiches and store food to be kept in the fridge in glass containers, where possible. If you must use plastic to transport food, avoid plastic bags and instead use re-useable BPA free containers and wrap food in a layer of parchment paper before placing in the containers.
It is also advisable to check baby products, including toys, to ensure these are phthalate free and look for PVC free home furnishings.
Dioxins are chemical compounds formed as the result of incomplete combustion of fuels like wood, coal or oil. Exposure to these can cause cancer, problems with reproduction and development, skin problems and liver damage. These are also present in animal fats. You can reduce your exposure by switching from a wood or coal burning stove/ fireplace to a gas fireplace (be sure to have this serviced regularly) and reducing your consumption of fat.
Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
Teflon is the brand name for an industrial chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is used as a non-stick coating for cookware. PFOA is a chemical used to make PTFE and is present in significant amounts in PTFE products. According to The American Cancer Society, studies on PFOA have suggested that exposure may increase the risk of various cancers, although current research is inconclusive. To be on the safe side, you may wish to replace your old Teflon coated non-stick pans with ceramic coated pans. Stainless steel pans are also safe but aren’t always non-stick. I have recently replaced our old Teflon pots and pans (which, to be fair, were at the end of their useful lives) with an enamel coated cast iron casserole and non-stick, ceramic coated Greenpans. I am very happy so far with the performance of these pans and, with no question around their safety, I have one less thing to worry about. There are also less expensive alternatives, so do your research and shop around.
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