How to Get Toxic Chemicals Out of Your Home

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It’s the time of year when most people resolve to clean up household clutter and lose excess weight. Whether or not you’ve had success with those resolutions, you might want to look at another issue that directly affects your health–and this resolution may even be easier to keep.

Now is a great time to rid yourself of toxic chemicals including pesticides, phthalates, and PBDE that are commonly present in household products. In recent “body burden” studies, scientists have been finding these chemicals in human blood, urine, and sometimes breast milk. The risk is highest in utero, so pregnant and nursing women should take special care. While this seems like another thing to fret about, the good news is you can unburden your body and protect your children by choosing products that are free of these offending substances.

Keeping toxic home chemicals to a minimum doesn’t have to be hard. To simplify, follow this easy mantra: Be mindful of “P”s (pollutants) and “Q”s (quit using them). Here are three types of toxins found in common home furnishings, along with suggestions so you can make healthier choices.

1. Phthalates

These petroleum-derived plasticizers are commonly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic) soft and pliable and to release synthetic fragrances into the air. Phthalates (pronounced “THAY-lates”) are found nearly everywhere: plastic shower curtains, toys, food wraps, hair spray, fingernail polish, air fresheners, and perfumes. The problem: Phthalates readily evaporate out of the product, and they can be inhaled (through household air and dust) or ingested (when babies chew on PVC toys or furnishings or if you eat food stored in PVC containers or wraps). In studies that test for chemicals in human blood and urine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found that phthalates are now so widespread that they’re believed to be present in every American’s body–and they’re at the highest levels in women of childbearing age.

For some time, phthalates have been known to damage reproductive systems in animals, but in 2005, two human studies raised concern. In a U.S. study, baby boys of mothers who had the highest exposure to phthalates while pregnant were more likely to have smaller genitalia, incompletely descended testicles, and other demasculinized traits. Also, in a Danish study, baby boys fed breast milk with higher levels of phthalates had less testosterone at three months of age, an important window of hormonal development, than boys exposed to lower levels. Other research links phthalates in household surfaces (made of soft PVC) to respiratory problems, including asthma, in children. While there’s no reason to panic, given a U.S. National Toxicology Program panel’s finding of insufficient evidence to date that phthalates are causing human harm, we can take some simple precautions.

Alternatives: Happily, it’s easy to get beautiful non-PVC flooring, furnishings, and countertops made of natural materials such as bamboo, cork, natural linoleum, concrete, ceramic tile, or wood from sustainably managed forests (look for the Forest Stewardship Council label). See The Green Guide and Environmental Home Center for products. Non-PVC toy listings can be found at The Green Guide.

For food storage, use the least toxic, most recyclable plastic containers labeled with recycling codes 2, 4, or 5. Only a few brands of cling wrap are PVC free: Look for Glad Cling Wrap, Saran Cling Plus, and Best Yet Clear Plastic Wrap. Steer clear of PVC wraps from Reynolds and Polyvinyl Films’s Stretch-Tite and Freeze-Tite wraps. (“Stretchy” or “flexible” in the names are a dead giveaway for phthalates.)

To avoid synthetic perfumes that may contain phthalates, read labels on cleaning and personal care products, candles, and air fresheners, rejecting those that list the general term fragrance. The Food and Drug Administration permits this labeling loophole to protect “trade secret” ingredients. Choose cleaners that list specific plant essential oils, which are naturally phthalate free

2. Pesticides

In a 2002 California study, exposure to household pesticides was associated with an elevated risk of childhood leukemia. And, the CDC’s 2005 body burden study found that 90 percent of the thousands of Americans tested had pesticides in their bodies. The pesticide chlorpyrifos (Dursban), which was phased out for residential and school use between 2001 and 2003, was found in children at levels up to more than four times greater than what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Chlorpyrifos belongs to a family of neurotoxic pesticides known as organophosphates, which continue to be phased out of use. They’re being replaced by pyrethroid insecticides, which isn’t a good fix, as these also attack the nervous system and have been found to trigger asthma attacks and skin irritation in sensitive people.

Alternatives: Don’t use synthetic pesticides, including mothballs, in your house or garden. Instead, apply the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which deny pests entry, food, and water, and apply least-toxic controls sparingly, as needed. For example, you could seal cracks and crevices in your house, use boric acid to kill roaches in places beyond the reach of pets and children, and use essential oils such as peppermint to discourage ants. For specific pest-control tips and bait recipes, check the Bio-Integral Resource Center.

3. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDES)

Used as flame retardants in poly-urethane furniture foam and electronics casings, PBDEs have been found to cause brain and nervous system damage, including developmental delays, in fetal and young lab animals. They’re called the new PCBs because of their chemical similarity to polychlorinated biphenyls, industrial chemicals that were banned in 1978, but which persist in the environment and have caused brain damage in utero to babies whose mothers ate contaminated fish and cooking oil. PBDEs have been found in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood.

“American body levels of PBDEs are the highest in the world, 10 to 100 times those found in Europe,” where PBDEs have been banned for up to ten years, says Arnold Schechter, M.D., a University of Texas professor who has found PBDEs in house dust. Sources include crumbling foam in upholstered furniture and plastic computer monitors, he says.

The maker of one common form of PBDE–penta-BDE used in foam furniture–voluntarily stopped making the chemicals in 2004. However, PBDE-laced foam may be used in products until supplies run out, and recycled foam may also contain PBDEs.

Alternatives: Naturally fire-retardant wool and safer fire-retardant chemicals are widely available. When shopping for computers, foam furniture, carpet pads, or bedding such as “eggshell” mattress toppers, ask retailers for assurances that theyre PBDE free. (IKEAs furniture has been PBDE free since 2001.)

Consider replacing worn foam furniture or, at minimum, cover and seal upholstery tears. Furniture and mattresses made with organic cotton, natural latex, and wool can be found at FurnatureLifekindAbundant Earth, and elsewhere. Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, and others are removing PBDEs from their electronics.

Mindy Pennybacker is editor ofThe Green Guide, a print and online publication that helps people protect the environment and their families health through informed product choices and other actions.

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