Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Indoor air is typically five times as polluted as outdoor air. Issues such as poor ventilation and pollutants from furniture and upholstery, flooring, paint, cleaners and odorizers and dust and dirt can lead to “sick building syndrome.” Health effects can include headache, congestion, nausea, fatigue and memory loss. This article explores how toxins enter our homes, their effects and how to minimize their impact.
Toxins are chemicals that are present in products that we use and that can have negative health effects that can persist, sometimes even without our knowledge. Common sources of toxins include home furnishings, common building materials, cleaners, air fresheners and artificial fragrances, clothing, nonstick cookware, pest control, herbicides and fertilizers. Most of these items are not required to be tested for safety before going on the market and generally, only active ingredients are required to be listed on the label. Unbeknownst to consumers, products can contain harmful contaminants or produce dangerous byproducts.
Toxins enter our bodies via inhalation, absorption and ingestion. Once in our bodies, toxins can accumulate, a process known as bioaccumulation. Toxins can also biomagnify, which means that higher concentrations of toxins can be found as one travels higher up the food chain. The inset table outlines some of the common toxins, their sources and effects.
Toxins put humans, especially children, and ecosystems, especially aquatic species, at risk of the effects listed above and unknown consequences in the future. So what can be done? Purchasing safer products, minimizing your exposure, making your own alternatives, teaching others about the dangers of toxins and advocating for safer products are the main actions that we, as consumers, can take.
To choose safer products, start by researching the product, company and ingredients. Helpful resources include Material Safety Data Sheets and product information clearinghouses such as the Environmental Working Group, Greenseal and Greenguard. The Sustainable Living Center website has links to these resources and more. Be aware of marketing tactics that label products as natural or green. There are no legal parameters for the use of these types of terms and they can be completely arbitrary. When considering remodeling or furniture purchases, be aware that furniture, paint, flooring, and furnishings can off-gas harmful toxins for months. That ‘fresh paint’ smell can be a hazard. To avoid this, research safer alternatives including wood flooring, paint with reduced VOC’s, furniture and cabinets made without particleboard and adhesives and glues that are certified safer.
To minimize exposure to toxins in your home, ensure there is sufficient ventilation and air filtration taking place. Vacuum and dust regularly to eliminate dirt, hair, dander and particulates. Dust in the home is commonly found to contain phthalates and flame-retardants. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter helps trap the dust and keeps it from recirculating in the air. Use higher quality furnace filters and replace regularly. Air purifiers can also be helpful to filter and circulate air. Houseplants provide natural filtration and actually remove toxins from indoor air. Spider plants remove carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, aloe vera removes benzene and formaldehyde and the list goes on.
To make your own nontoxic cleaning alternatives, you’ll need a few basic and readily available ingredients. Distilled white vinegar, borax, baking soda, Castile soap and essential oils are a great start. To make a simple all-purpose cleaner, all you need is to place equal parts water and distilled white vinegar in a spray bottle. Add a bit (15 drops for two cups) of your favorite essential oil and you’re all set! It’s worth noting that we often associate clean with certain smells, usually artificial. Bleach, Pine-Sol and Mr Clean are just a few examples. Be aware that this doesn’t have to be the case and that a strong smelling household doesn’t always mean it is clean. Consider trying a few different recipes to gage their effectiveness. Once you’ve found some solutions that work well for you, share your experience with family and friends, helping to raise awareness of this pervasive threat to human and ecological health.Volunteering and advocacy are additional ways that you can make an impact.
Visit the following websites to learn more:
Toxic-Free Future — toxicfreefuture.org
Safer Chemicals Healthy Families — saferchemicals.org
Retailer Report Card — retailerreportcard.com.
Informed consumers can influence how products are marketed and the types of products that are offered. Start on the path of cleaner indoor air and better health today.
For additional information and links to our workshop presentation and resources, visit the customer resources page at slcww.org.