By Chere Di Boscio
We all think that if we live in a city, we are most exposed to pollution when we go outside, but that isn’t always the case. Household products and chemicals can lead to so much indoor toxic build up that scientists have come up with a term for the illnesses these collectively cause: ‘sick building syndrome.’ SBS, as it is also known, can manifest itself in the body in various forms, such as allergies, skin problems, breathing difficulties, or even cancer.
Caused mainly by poor air quality due to chemical pollution, SBS can usually be easily improved with a few changes to what goes into your home.
Here’s our list of what we consider the Top 10 Toxins in Your Home, and how to find alternatives that can transform a ‘sick’ home into a healthier, happier one.
1. Paints and Varnishes
Every house has these; who would want unpainted walls or untreated wood? But some products used to do this are very scary indeed.
It is now well known that some paints include lead, which can lower intelligence in growing children, but almost all paints and varnishes today contain Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs evaporate into the air, and their fumes are inhaled, causing asthma, sinusitis, birth defects, fertility problems, neurological disorders and even cancer.
What to do? Paint falls into two categories: water-based, often referred to as acrylic emulsions and usually used on walls; and solvent, or oil-based paints which tend to be used for a glossy finish (solvents are added to paint to thin the mixture so it will spread evenly). Water-based paints pose fewer risks than solvent-based ones since they should be toxin-free and also lower in odour. An alternative is to try a natural paint such as eco paint, which is solvent, VOC-free and odourless.
Natural paints don’t release toxic fumes. And since brushes can be cleaned with water, there’s no need for white spirit or turpentine — another potential source of solvents. Always ensure the room you are decorating is well ventilated by opening windows. Auro makes a fume free, eco friendly paint, which is completely harmless, and there are many others on the market too, like New Life Paints.
2. Fabric Softeners
Its hard to believe that once upon a time, it was recommended that people rub these on their heads to curb flyaway hair! But Fabric Softeners are full of a dangerous chemical cocktail, including Benzyl Acetate, Benzyl Alcohol, Ethanol, Limonene, A-Terpineol, Camphor, Chloroform, Linalool, Penatene and many others.
The potential harm these chemicals can do is vast and frightening; just a few symptoms include respiratory problems, central nervous disorders, skin rashes, eczema, skin allergies, and cancer.
Are softer clothes really worth the risk?
What to do? It’s easy: add 1/4 of baking soda to the final rinse cycle to soften clothes. Miss the ‘fresh’ smell of chemical sheets? Add a drop of lavender or citrus oil to the baking soda before you put it in.
Aside from cigarette smoke, carpets are probably the worst potential polluters in the home, as they contain a host of environmental chemicals, including flame retardants, anti-stain ingredients, and volatile organic compounds, such as p-dichlorobenzene, a known carcinogen. As for the “new carpet smell” that so many homeowners are proud of, this is simply 4-Phenylcyclohexene, a by-product of a process used in carpet backing, and it has been linked to visual, nasal and respiratory problems.
What to do? Swap fabric carpets for organic cotton, hemp or jute, or better yet, use ceramic tile or hardwood floors with natural rugs, such as Sonya Winner’s gorgeous ones.
4. Baby Products
It’s shocking that some of the most toxic products are aimed at the most vulnerable members of society. For example, baby wipes used by many parents may keep their infants clean and comfortable, but little do they know these are usually highly toxic, thanks to an antimicrobial chemical compound called Bronopol – 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, typically found in baby-wipes. Bronopol is toxic to the skin, immune systems and lungs. Pthalates, which are endocrine disruptors, are also typically found in the wipes.
As for baby furniture, flame-retardants are often used in the foam found in products like cribs, high chairs, strollers and nursing pillows. The chemicals involved are PBDEs or other retardants with bromine or chlorine, which have been linked to sexual and neurological disorders.
And finally, baby bottles and hard plastic toys, which babies often chew on, are full of Bisphenol A. BPA is a main component of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. When this material leaches into liquid or otherwise breaks down, it acts as an endocrine-disruptor, acting as a form of estrogen and therefore possibly leading to the duplication, blockage, or the exaggeration of hormonal responses in babies, as well as interfering with chromosomal reproduction.
What to do? Buy natural baby-wipes that are free of toxic substances, or better yet, use good old fashioned soap and water on a rag like your grandma did! Ensure your baby’s furniture is padded with natural cotton or feathers. Futon shops are a good place to look. Let your baby play with all natural toys made of cotton or wood.
5. Cheap Furniture
We all love a bargain, but did you know cheap furniture can be toxic?
Parents often think that inexpensive particle-board furniture is good enough for the kids’ bedrooms, where beds, dressers and storage units get the brunt of high-energy playtime activities. The issue is that plywood and particle board – often called pressed wood – are typically made with formaldehyde or isocyanate glues. Both these glues are toxic, and the chemicals are out gassed and then inhaled. What’s more, brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, which are often found in upholstered furniture made with cheap polyurethane foam, have been linked to cancer, neurological impairment and hormone disruption. These chemicals are especially dangerous when used in beds–you spend a third of your life on them!
What to do? Buying cheap or second-hand solid, sustainable wood furniture is a much healthier option–choose fast growing pine or bamboo. But of course, if you refinish wood pieces, use water-based, lead-free and non-VOC paints or finishes! As for your bedding, it’s important to buy one that contains natural fillings and no carcinogenic fire retardants such as Ghost Beds, below. These firm but comfy beds are handcrafted for durability and long-life and are CertiPUR-US certified.
6. Household Cleaning Products
These routinely make the top ten lists of worst household offenders, and no wonder: after the Second World War, petroleum by products and harsh chemicals were marketed as household cleaners for the first time, bringing toxins like ammonia, a strong irritant that has been linked to liver and kidney damage, into the home.
Prior to ‘better living through chemistry’ era, lemon, baking soda, vinegar and soap were typically used to clean the house. Today, products such as bleach and oven cleaners are so strong, they can cause chemical burns and emit toxic fumes that permanently harm the respiratory system. What’s more in the USA alone, more than 150,000 children under the age of five were involved in incidents involving household cleaners in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. Do you really want bottles of products with skulls and crossbones on their labels in your home?
What to do? Use natural household cleaning products. They’re abundantly available these days; either make your own from recipes such as these, or buy brands like Ecover at your local health food shop.
7. Air Fresheners, Deodorants and Candles
Air fresheners, body sprays and deodorants or even some scented candles that “freshen” the air often use phthalates to spread the fragrance. In fact, sprays contain so many toxic chemicals, they have been linked to everything from skin and eye irritation to cancer, but are especially known to cause immediate reactions in some asthmatics and later respiratory illnesses and irritations too. When used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, they can even create a cancer-causing form of formaldehyde.
Although there is a proliferation of ‘natural’ candles made from soy and beeswax with lead free wicks, burning even the purest of substances will create carbon monoxide–something you certainly won’t want to be breathing in at home.
What to do? If you really must scent your home, use orange or lemon oil spray, or a dab drops of essential oils onto lightbulbs. You can use organic diffusers, or burn natural candles rarely, and open a window while you do. As for body sprays: stay away! Use natural roll ons instead.
8. Vinyl Flooring and Shower Curtains
Phthalates are used to soften the plastic that goes into vinyl flooring and shower curtains. This chemical has been associated with causing harmful effects to growth and development in children, and impacting brain functions like learning, behavior and memory. The same effects can happen with vinyl flooring.
What to do? Buy only natural waxed cotton shower curtains, and avoid vinyl flooring altogether–replace with wood or ceramic.
9. Non-Stick Pans and Teflon
Non-stick pans are ubiquitous today, but have only been around for two decades or so. If they are heated to the point where they start to smoke, or have cuts, flakes or scratches on the surface, this indicates they are likely emitting toxic byproducts of PTFE that can cause flu-like symptoms–and potentially worse illnesses, including cancer –in humans.
What’s worse is that the chemical used in non-stick surfaces (commonly known as Teflon) is often used in dental floss to make it glide between teeth more smoothly–which means we are scraping this potentially dangerous material onto our teeth, into our mouths!
What to do? Avoid non-stick cooking pans like the plague – try copper, steel or iron ones instead. There are some ‘eco friendly’ non stick pans that you can try, or just use a bit of oil when you cook–unlike PTFE, it won’t kill you! As for dental floss, what ever happened to good, old fashioned ‘waxed’? Find it, use it.
Of all the 10 Toxins in Your Home, this one could be the most toxic – asbestos was used for decades to insulate and fireproof homes, and it ended up being a huge carcinogen! Today, the scene isn’t much better: BFRs are added to housing insulation materials to meet fire safety codes. These chemicals can accumulate in the body over a long period of time and have been linked to impaired brain development and cancer in humans.
What to do? Use natural, untreated sheep’s wool insulation instead – not only does it keep your home warm in winter and cool in summer, it actually has the ability to filter toxins from the air. It’s easy to buy it online these days, too!