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Thursday
Apr052012

The Smart Home: Simple Steps for Reducing Household Chemicals  

by Jennifer Taggart

photo: www.cgindy.com

Every parent wants his or her child’s home to be safe. But information available suggests that the products we use in our homes can make them unsafe. It seems that hidden dangers lurk everywhere - lead in toys, phthalates in baby shampoo, bisphenol A in baby bottles, and flame retardants in household dust. Of course, the actual health risk posed by these chemicals may be small, and the science is still uncertain about specific health risks for some common chemicals. But, the risk may be a risk you don’t want to take, especially when there are ways to reduce or eliminate exposures to potentially harmful chemicals.

Children are more at risk than adults from toxic chemicals in the home for a variety of reasons. They engage in activities more likely to result in exposure, such as mouthing activities. They also eat and drink more on a body weight basis, and typically a less varied diet. Plus, they are still developing, so exposures can interrupt or interfere with critical development steps.

As a result, you may want to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals around the home. Luckily, quite a number of relatively simple steps exist to reduce your child’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

 

Be Knowledgeable About Lead

Lead remains the number one preventable childhood environmental poison. Lead-contaminated dust in the home from lead’s use in paint and as a gasoline additive is the most significant exposure source for most children. Reduce exposure be being smart about remodeling and know the facts before you start any remodeling project, even a simple sanding project. The EPA has a great deal of information available on its website.  To reduce exposure, have your kids wash their hands regularly. Use wet-wipe techniques when dusting and a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Also avoid tracking in lead-contaminated soils and dirt from the outside by taking off your shoes - that simple step alone can reduce exposure by as much as 65%!

 

Clean Up the Indoor Air

photo: cgindy.comStudies show that volatile organic compound (VOC) concentrations are consistently higher indoors than outdoors, with some VOC concentrations up to 10 times higher indoors.  VOCs readily volatilize, or evaporate, out of solid or liquid products in our homes into the air we breathe.  The smell of gasoline, the scent of a freshly mowed lawn, and pine, lemon and floral scents from household products? VOCs.  However, exposure to some VOCs can result in adverse health impacts. VOCs can cause respiratory distress; skin and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and even more serious ailments and diseases, including reproductive toxicity and cancer.  Formaldehyde, emitted from some engineered woods found in cabinets, furniture and building products, is considered a probable carcinogen, is genotoxic (damaging to genetic material), and also causes eye, nose and throat irritation. To clean up the indoor air, choose products, from furniture and floor coverings to cleaning products, that are lower in VOCs.

Cleaning up the indoor air also means eliminating dampness and mold problems, which can have adverse health effects too. Almost 50% of US homes have dampness or mold problems, and about 21% of current asthma cases in the US are attributable to dampness and mold exposure. So fix water problems, control humidity, ventilate your bathroom and kitchen, and use your eyes and nose to identify potential problems.

 

Ban Conventional Pesticides

istockphoto.comUse of conventional household pesticides - both in the home and in the garden - are linked to a host of potential adverse health effects. Some studies have shown that exposure to weed killers before the age of one causes a four-fold increase in the risk of childhood asthma. For almost any pest, non toxic options exist. Easy solutions are to block pest entrances, remove food sources, and keep the home clean and dry. If you do have a pest infestation, investigate some non-toxic options before using the conventional pesticide. For example, mice are deterred by mint, so mint plants in pots around entrances can deter mice.

 

Skip Synthetic Scents

A recent study found that scented products - products with synthetic scents added - were one of the three biggest sources of chemicals in the home. Well over 3,000 chemicals are used to make synthetic scents - and the scent in a product can contain up 500 different chemicals. The chemicals are linked to a variety of adverse human health effects.

 

Clean Green

Clean like your grandmother did - with pantry staples. Conventional cleaners contain potentially toxic chemicals. Plus, most conventional cleaners contain synthetic fragrance. We have been misled to believe that a clean home must smell like pine or bleach. To clean green, make your own cleaners. A favorite easy homemade soft scrub is baking soda with castile soap. But if you don't have the time or inclination to make your own, environmentally friendly products can be purchased.  Just be sure to read labels.  Look for specific claims and don't be afraid to try new options. For example, soap nuts are a great environmentally friendly option for laundry detergent.  Skip products with warning labels containing such terms as “danger,” “poison,” or “warning.”

 

Personal Care Products

From diaper cream to sunscreen, the products we use on our kids are important. Skin is an organ, and what you apply to it can be absorbed.  One study found that the more personal care products used on infants, the higher the concentration of phthalate metabolites in their urine. So finding safer products is important, but it can be a challenge. Most of us believe the FDA approves cosmetic products and ingredients before they are sold to the public, but that is not true. As the FDA admits, a cosmetic manufacturer may use essentially any raw material and market it without FDA approval, except for colors and nine prohibited ingredients. Plus, many of the terms used to market personal care products are not regulated - natural, hypoallergenic, and earth-friendly are not regulated. Even fragrance-free doesn't mean what you think - it means that the product does not have a noticeable odor, not that fragrance hasn't been added to the product. Unless a product states that its “fragrance” comes from essential oils, it’s probably made from synthetic, petroleum-based ingredients.  It’s worth steering clear of fragrances because they tend to have hormone disrupting phthalates and can trigger skin, allergic, and respiratory ailments. So become a label reader and do your research before buying personal care products. One great resource is Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. For kids, one of my favorite product lines is Earth Mama Angel Baby.

 

Skip Antibacterial Products 

istockphoto.comIt seems like a great idea - reduce germs by using antibacterial personal care and cleaning products. But, antibacterial products have not been shown to have any significant benefit except to the immune compromised.  The commonly used antibacterial ingredient, triclosan, has been linked to adverse human health effects. Studies have found triclosan in our streams and rivers, and in human breast milk.  You don't need antibacterial products. Plain soap and water with good hand washing habits is just as effective without exposure to the potentially harmful chemical. Antibacterial cleaning products are also unnecessary.  Moreover, these products foster the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and thereby do more harm than good in the long run. 

 

Be Smart About Flame Retardants

Chemical flame retardant systems are added to numerous consumer products, from mattresses to electronics, to protect against fire hazards. Unfortunately, flame retardants can be released and adhere to household dust, resulting in exposure. The commonly-used flame retardants have been linked to a host of adverse health effects. But fire safety is important too. So, choosing products that are naturally flame retardant is an option. Wool, cotton and other natural materials are good choices for household furniture and products because of their natural flame retardant properties. Also reducing dust bunnies can significantly reduce exposure to flame retardants in the home.

Jennifer Taggart is a consumer product safety and environmental attorney, mom of 2, author of Smart Mama's Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure from Hachette Book Group USA, and founder and blogger at TheSmartMama.Com.

 


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