You go organic in the produce aisle, makeup counter, and even at the liquor store to avoid the health impacts of harmful toxins. But what about your home? Could chemicals seeping from household items such as cabinetry, cleaning products, and paints be making you sick?
There’s no place like home to shake off the day’s stress. But consider this: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, indoor concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—just one group of chemicals that are often the source of health problems—are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors.
VOCs (including benzene and formaldehyde, which cause cancer) and other chemicals such as toluene (a reproductive toxin) and 1,4-dioxane (a carcinogen) are present in household products, including paints, varnishes, wood preservatives, cleaning products, and furnishings. The toxic soup can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; nausea; damage to the liver, kidney, or central nervous system; or cancer.
But don’t lose hope: there are plenty of places to procure safer products. Read on to find out which organic, low-toxin, or natural household products should be on your radar.
Traditionally, your kitchen and bathroom cabinets contain formaldehyde, leading to long-term off-gassing.
“It’s almost like you’re bringing in a bunch of buckets of formaldehyde, sitting them in the middle of your house, and letting them evaporate over the course of months and years,” says Mike Reynolds, co-founder and editor of Ecohome.net.
Reynolds recommends doing a Google search for local contractors and asking them if they supply formaldehyde-free cabinetry.
“People are more concerned about health and home, so contractors are following suit,” says Reynolds.
Many paints contain VOCs. Look for low-VOC or VOC-free paints at your home improvement store.
“I would specifically ask when you’re buying paints if the colourants have [VOCs] as well,” suggests Reynolds.
Milk paint and natural paints can be purchased commercially, though recipes can be found online to create your own milk paint. Natural paints are derived from substances such as citrus and balsam, as well as minerals. Milk paint, which is made with milk protein (called casein) and hydrated lime, with natural pigments added for colour, has been used for centuries and is safe, nontoxic, and environmentally friendly.
Reynolds favours natural oil finishes over varnishes. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but now there are some available that don’t contain VOCs. Options include tung oil or linseed oil.
Rest your head on rubber: rubber mattresses are free of glues, springs, flame retardant, and dust mite spray.
“A natural rubber mattress is about as eco-friendly and free of toxins as you can get,” says Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green.
Find these at your mattress retailer, or—as they can cost thousands new—go online shopping or seek out second-hand mattresses on platforms such as Craigslist.
Often, pillows are made from synthetic materials such as petroleum-based polyester.
For an environmentally friendly pillow that won’t off-gas, try kapok pillows, which are made from the silk thread of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) flower.
Other healthy pillow choices include organic wool or buckwheat. Organic cotton, silk, and bamboo duvets are also available at your local eco-bedding, linen, or department store or online.
After being pressured by consumers and advocacy groups, most major cleaning manufacturers now list the ingredients of the products on their websites. Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth advises taking a closer look at two elements: fragrance and disinfectants. Fragrances may be synthetic, and disinfectants may be made of unnecessarily harsh chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine bleach.
DIY all-purpose cleaner
For an easy alternative, try this all-purpose cleaner for surfaces such as countertops, floors, and mirrors from Women’s Voices for the Earth.
- Combine 2 cups (500 mL) white distilled vinegar, 2 cups (500 mL) water, and an optional 20 to 30 drops of essential oil.
- Heat in a glass container in the microwave until barely hot to enhance cleaning power.
Consumers for change
As director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth, Alexandra Scranton has noticed a shift since 2007 when the organization started its advocacy. Back then, companies believed consumers weren’t concerned about the ingredients in their products. Now, companies are advertising that their products don’t contain harmful products, offer safer alternatives, and highlight their natural ingredients.
“It’s very much in response to what consumers are asking for,” says Scranton.
David Suzuki’s Queen of Green blogger Lindsay Coulter suggests using social media to send a “kind and generous” message asking companies about ingredients in their products and why they’re using them.
“Don’t think that you don’t have a say in what products actually end up on store shelves: they’re there because you bought them,” says Coulter.
Quick sweep: 10 of the easiest ways to make your home healthy
- Trade sweeping for vacuuming with a HEPA filter to suck up dust particles so they aren’t released back into your home.
- Take your shoes off outside, leaving behind the outdoor chemicals picked up on the soles of your shoes.
- Dust. Use a microfibre cloth to remove dust—which could contain a variety of chemicals including pesticides, bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates.
- “Start to look with a green lens for all your consumer choices. You might start with looking in your home,” says Coulter. “What are you consuming the most of?” For example, if you eat a lot of apples, ensure those apples are local and organic.
- Avoid fragrance (listed as “parfum” on packaging), which often contains many of the toxic chemicals found in items from laundry soaps to biodegradable dog poop bags.
- Purchase plants. They suck pollutants from your indoor air.
- Nix air fresheners. They’re made of chemicals linked to problems such as headaches, depression, and hormone disruption. Open a window or simmer herbs and spices on the stove to eliminate odours.
- Avoid using Teflon or nonstick cookware, as heating this cookware will release chemicals that may cause developmental harm or cancer.
- Check for radon, a radioactive gas that can lead to lung cancer. Hire a tester or purchase a testing kit—more resources can be found online at takeactiononradon.ca.
- Purge your plastics. Plastics can be toxic—many products, including toys, cookware, and shower curtains, are made from the poisonous plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC).