Are these health hazards in your kitchen? The likely answer is yes! Here’s how to change that.
By Diane Small
With the rise of the Clean Eating movement, there’s a new awareness that learning how to cook healthy, hearty meals at home is a great way to care for the people we love. It’s also a great way to bring people together. In fact, the kitchen is the perfect area for entertainment! But what most people don’t realise, is that even if you’re cooking wonderful food for those you love, there may be health hazards in your kitchen you never even thought about before.
Even super-clean kitchens can be secret danger zones. For example, indoor air pollution is made worse by draft-free energy efficient homes, air fresheners and cleaning products. And 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.
Main image: Photographer: @aimeemazzenga Featured on @mydomaine Project Team: @clarekennedyinteriors and @mitzimaynard
Image below: Designed by: @hallworthandheathens
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Unexpected 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. They are also a component of many paints, stains and dyes that people use to colour or treat natural wood worktops. VOCs are also found in several types of plastic based worktops. And 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, granite and marble over other materials for worktops, as none of these release harmful gas. These stones are also super-durable.
2. Smoky, Gassy Air
As mentioned above, cooking with gas can release carbon monoxide into the air if your kitchen isn’t ventilated correctly. But that’s not the only health hazard in your kitchen. Quite often, particle board (which most of the cheaper kitchen cupboards are made of) is full of formaldehyde. Exposure to even small amounts of formaldehyde can seriously affect 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!
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3. Air Fresheners
Another of the health hazards in your kitchen is a commonly used product: air fresheners.
After cooking smelly foods like fish or garlic, a lot of us ‘freshen’ the air with a spray. But did you know many air fresheners contain harmful pollutants called phthalates? It’s not obvious from their labelling that these can hurt your health. However, they are considered highly toxic and can cause asthma, irregular heartbeats, headaches, depression and possibly even cancer.
Luckily, there are plenty of natural ways to make your home smell great. For example, 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.
4. Chemical Cleaning Products
Ordinary household cleaners are another of the health hazards in your kitchen. They contain a wide array of toxic chemicals. In fact, 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 probably eating bits of them! Yep – 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. For example, 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 contain a synthetic polymer called polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE). It’s 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! They can also cause people to develop temporary flu-like symptoms (called “Teflon Flu”). Yipes! 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. The result? Immediate flu-like symptoms and long term lung and tissue damage.
Choose your pots and pans VERY carefully. Aluminium cookware is no better: it has been associated with Alzheimer’s. The best choices? Stainless steel pots and iron frying pans.
7. Plastic Containers & Wraps
Although they’re in pretty much every kitchen, the toxicity of plastic wraps has not 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. Some of these ingredients or additives we know are harmful, like 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’re covering. While the amount may be small, it can build up to toxic levels over time.
BPA and phthalates are both potent hormone disruptors that are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damage.
So what’s the solution?
Try to buy glass whenever possible, for things like water filtering jugs, baby bottles, drinks dispensers and cups. And 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.