By Diane Small
With the rise of the Clean Eating movement and with more people developing food sensitivities, there’s a new awareness that learning how to cook healthy, hearty meals at home is a huge first step we can all take towards good health. What most people don’t realise, however is that there may be health hazards in your kitchen you never even thought about before.
Even super-clean kitchens can be secret danger zones: indoor air pollution is made worse by draft-free energy efficient homes, air fresheners and cleaning products. Here’s a scary fact: scientists have found that cooking with a gas cooker in a modern kitchen could expose you to higher levels of pollution than walking through a smog-filled city centre!
So, is your kitchen hurting your health? How can you tell? Here, we tell you what to look for, and give you tips to ensure avoid the main health hazards in your kitchen.
1. Toxic Worktops
Many common household furnishings contain harmful compounds used in the manufacturing process. For example, if you buy a common wood worktop, it may seem like the natural choice, but depending on what it’s coated with, it could contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are carbon-based chemicals that evaporate or diffuse into the air at room temperature, and are a component of many paints, stains and dyes that people use to colour or treat natural wood worktops. They’re also found in several types of plastic based worktops. When you cut and place food on these surfaces, the VOCs can also leach into the food.
For the healthiest surfaces in the kitchen, look for worktops that hold the Green Guard certificate. This helps suppliers and buyers to identify materials that have low chemical emissions. They have approved quartz over other stone materials for worktops as it does not release harmful gas. Quartz is one of the most popular materials as it is the best non-porous material for kitchen surfaces that’s also super-durable.
2. Smoky, Gassy Air
As mentioned above, cooking with gas can release carbon monoxide into the air of your kitchen if it’s not ventilated correctly, but that’s not the only health hazard in the kitchen. Many of the VOCs commonly found in homes such as formaldehyde are classified as carcinogens – and quite often, particle board (which most of the cheaper kitchen cupboards are made of) is full of formaldehyde. Exposure to small amounts are unlikely to cause significant harm, but prolonged exposure could have a serious effect of your health.
Luckily, plants absorb many toxins from the air, release oxygen back into the atmosphere and can help to prevent overexposure to VOCs. Herbs commonly used in cooking can also help to improve air quality.
Even adding a few decorative houseplants to tables or windowsills could significantly improve the quality of air in your kitchen. Orchids and spider plants are particularly adept at filtering out toxins, and they look lovely, too! Alternatively, stop buying dried herbs and dedicate an area of your kitchen for cultivating your own indoor herb garden. Most supermarkets sell herbs like basil and parsley as plants which can then be repotted to fit in with your kitchen. Why not even try growing a few of your own organic vegetables? Tomato plants do well indoors, as do garden greens like rocket or watercress.
3. Air Fresheners
After cooking smelly foods like fish or garlic, a lot of us ‘freshen’ the air with a spray. But many air fresheners available online or in supermarkets contain harmful pollutants called phthalates, yet it’s not very obvious from their labelling that these can hurt your health. As we’ve mentioned in Eluxe before, phthalates are what helps the released fragrance to last longer and are often listed with other more normal ingredients, such as cinnamon or vanilla. However, they are considered highly toxic and can cause asthma, irregular heartbeats, headaches, depression and possibly even cancer.
There are plenty of natural alternatives for your home such as simmering a pot of cinnamon and cloves, or leaving a box of baking soda in a corner (this will absorb smells). Other alternatives include scented oil burners or natural air sprays like those by Citrus Magic. Look for “pure essential oils” on the product label and avoid products that are advertised as having “essential fragrances” or “natural perfumes”.
4. Chemical Cleaning Products
Ordinary household cleaners contain a wide array of toxic chemicals. Researchers in the U.S. identified 133 unique VOCs emitted from a small sample of household products including surface, oven and floor cleaners – and the worst part? You’re eating bits of them! That’s right – if you’re doing the dishes with harsh detergents or wiping the counters with toxic sprays, any time food touches these surfaces, it picks up traces of those chemicals – which you then eat. Just check the label of your dish soap. Does it say ‘harmful to ocean life’ or ‘keep away from children’? Then you shouldn’t be using it on things you eat off of!
To reduce your use of chemical cleaning products, use ingredients you probably already have in your cupboards. To clean surfaces you can use a simple solution of one part white vinegar to three parts water. To clean floors, juice a lemon and add the juice to three-quarters of a cup of olive oil and a gallon of hot water. The juice can also be used to clean chopping boards and wooden utensils.
5. Noxious Vapours
Nasty chemical fumes and vapours from cleaning products, grease, and smoke are released into the air when you cook food in an oven. If you have one, always turn your extractor hood on when cooking. If you don’t, open windows to let in the fresh air and dilute the released fumes.
Another option is to buy an air purifier for your home. Double-check that the unit you choose is appropriate for your room sizes. The physical size of the purifier is usually irrelevant; it’s more about the capacity of the unit that’s important. We love the Andrea Air Purifier, which uses plants as its base, or if you can’t find one of those, look for ones with HEPA filters–these are so good, they’re used in hospitals! Bonus: these air filters can also clean up any pollution that comes from outside, and some of the pollution from cigarettes inside, and during allergy season, they can filter out pollen, too.
6. Teflon (and other non-stick cookware)
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), non-stick surfaces are metal pans (such as aluminum pans) coated with a synthetic polymer called polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon, a DuPont brand trademark.
Toxic fumes from the Teflon chemical released from pots and pans at high temperatures are so strong and nasty, they may actually kill pet birds and cause people to develop temporary flu-like symptoms (called “Teflon Flu” or, as scientists describe it, “Polymer fume fever”). Ingesting particles that flake off scratched non-stick cookware isn’t toxic because solid PTFE flakes are inert.
Manufacturers’ labels often warn consumers to avoid high heat when cooking on Teflon. But EWG-commissioned tests conducted in 2003 showed that in just two to five minutes on a conventional stovetop, cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces could exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases, causing immediate flu-like symptoms and long term lung and tissue damage.
Choose your pots and pans carefully. Aluminium cookware has been associated with Alzheimer’s, so it’s not a great alternative. Instead, use stainless steel or iron frying pans.
7. Plastic and Plastic Wraps
Although it’s in pretty much every kitchen, the toxicity of plastics is not fully understood, nor has it been adequately tested. What we do know is that most plastics contain chemical additives to change the quality of the plastic for its intended use (examples are to make it softer or resistant to UV light). Some of these ingredients or additives we know are harmful, like the plastics chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and the plastic softeners called phthalates. Others, we just don’t know enough about.
We also know that plastics chemicals routinely migrate, or leach, into the food and water they contain. While the amount may be small, it can build up to toxic levels over time, and ultimately has not been proven safe.
BPA and phthalates, however, are better understood. They are both potent hormone disruptors that are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damages.
Plastics are continually changing and there are unknowns. Use them with caution, especially those that are commonly found in our households and have contact with our food and our bodies.
Try to buy glass whenever possible, for things like water filtering jugs, baby bottles, drinks dispensers and cups. When you do use plastics, handle them safely. We suggest that you:
- Don’t microwave food or drinks in plastic containers — even if they claim to be “microwave safe.” Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Microwaves heat unevenly, creating hot spots where the plastic is more likely to break down.
- Check the bottom of the plastic container you’re using. Ensure it is stamped with one of the ‘safe’ numbers (in the picture below) or don’t use it at all.
- Use plastic containers for cool liquids — not hot.
- Don’t reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.
- Avoid old, scratched plastic water bottles. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.
- Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand. This will reduce wear and tear.
Main image: Kitchenmagic.com