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Safer Homes and Gardens

You're more likely to be exposed to endocrine disrupting and toxic chemicals in your home or at work than outdoors. Here are things you can do to keep your immediate environment nontoxic.

The National Research Council estimates that about 15 percent of the US population experiences environmental illness and hypersensitivity to toxic materials and chemicals. The National Academy of Sciences expects this to rise to 60 percent by 2010. When you consider that a quarter of a million new chemical substances are created each year, and that worldwide use of pesticides has exploded from 2.8 million tons in 1972 to 11.4 million tons in 1980 to 46 million tons in 1990, the Academy's estimates don't seem all that farfetched.

 

Research has shown that most people's daily exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pesticides are far greater indoors than outdoors, even in communities where chemical processing plants are located. Industrial emissions tend to dissipate into the large sky, while the chemicals we bring into our homes and work places become much more concentrated in the closed-in spaces where we spend most of our time.

Some sources of exposure are obvious, like the various household chemicals we have stored in our bathrooms and garages, or the pesticides on the foods we eat. We breathe in other toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, from the outgassing at room temperature of all sorts of household materials, including building boards, wood and carpeting adhesives, furniture, synthetic carpets, insulation, and bedding, among others.

Still others we bring into our homes from outside in the form of contaminated dust particles. Indoors, these chemicals often persist much longer than they would outside, where they would be exposed to the elements that help break them down.

One of the most immediate courses of action each of us can take to limit our exposure to toxins is to focus on the indoor spaces where we spend the majority of our time. The following suggestions focus on what we can do at home or at the work place.

Keep Dust to a Minimum

Dust is a primary agent for many toxins in the home. Children and infants are especially vulnerable as they go through critical early development. Moreover, they typically ingest five times more dust than adults - 100 milligrams a day - by rolling around on carpets and sticking their fingers and toys in their mouths.

Urban infants typically ingest 110 nanograms of very toxic benzo(a)pyrene - equivalent to smoking three cigarettes daily. House dust also exposes children to cadmium, lead, and other heavy metals, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls and other persistent organic contaminants. What can you do?

  • Take your shoes off, and leave them at the door. Using a commercial-grade doormat can reduce the amount of lead in a typical carpet by a factor of six. Some pesticides can persist for decades in carpets, where sunlight and bacteria cannot reach to break them down. Researchers from the University of Southern California found DDT in the carpets of 90 of the 362 Midwestern homes they studied, 20 years after DDT was banned.

  • Bare floors are best, rather than wall-to-wall carpets, which trap a lot of dust. Or consider using large area rugs made from natural fibers that don't outgas toxic chemicals or require the use of toxic adhesives.

  • If you do use wall-to-wall carpet, tack-strip it instead of gluing it. It will be easier to remove and recycle, and there will be no glue to outgas.

  • Most vacuums only remove larger dust particles, while kicking up the finer particles. Open doors and windows when you do vacuum, and send children and pets out of the room.

  • Avoid indoor pesticides. Even when used as directed, these chemicals can circulate in dust particles well beyond safe levels for weeks after application.

Improve Ventilation

  • Avoid indoor pesticides. Even when used as directed, these chemicals can circulate in dust particles well beyond safe levels for weeks after application.

  • House plants in every room absorb many of the toxic gases that a modern home traps inside. Spider plants, philodendron, and golden pothos have been shown by NASA research to absorb as much as 80 percent of formaldehyde in a room in 24 hours.

  • Improve the ventilation of your kitchen, bathrooms with showers, and your laundry room. Most people's highest daily exposures to chloroform (a carcinogen in animals) is from water vapor from hot showers, boiling water, and washing machines.

  • Ionizing air filters can remove particles as small as 0.1 microns, but the cheaper models tend to emit ozone and electromagnetic fields.

  • Our biggest exposure to the carcinogen benzene, a VOC, comes from indoor cigarette smoke, despite the fact that automobile exhaust constitutes 82 percent of benzene emissions.

Buy Organic

Eliminating dust is especially important for children, but dietary changes may be the most important steps adults can take to reduce exposure to toxins. Many chemicals, such as dioxins, accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and fish, and these chemicals concentrate as they move up the food chain. Eating low on the food chain is one way to reduce your intake of persistent chemicals. Another way is to buy organic foods, both for your own well-being and to reduce exposure of the farm workers who are subject to the most risk through their daily contact with pesticides.

Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet (see the Resource Guide) has identified the top priority foods to buy organic, particularly because of concerns over pesticide residues found in some of these products.

  • Baby food

  • Strawberries

  • Rice

  • Oats

  • Bell peppers

  • Bananas

  • Green Beans

  • Peaches

  • Apples

What does the term organic actually mean?Seventeen states and 33 private certifying agencies have their own standards for what carries the organic label. The result is confusion for producers and consumers. Organic farmers had asked the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set national standards for "organic" food. However, the resulting USDA standards were met with expressions of shock and outrage, especially since foods grown with municipal sewage sludge, irradiated foods, and genetically engineered foods would have all carried the "organic" label, under the USDA definition (See YES!#5, Spring 1998). More than 200,000 comments flowed in from concerned consumers; as a result, agriculture secretary Dan Glickman has stated that the USDA will modify and revise its rules for organic foods based on public comment.

Clean & Green
Most household cleaning can be done with a squirt bottle of 50/50 vinegar and water, or with some liquid soap and baking soda, writes Debra Lynn Dadd in her book, Home Safe Home. Here are some other ideas:

  • Use baking soda and hot water for basin, tub, and tile cleaners.

  • For drain cleaners, use baking soda and vinegar or trisodium phosphate (TSP) with salt; or use hydrogen peroxide and a plunger for serious clogs.

  • For hand dish washing, use a plain liquid soap, such as Dr. Bronner's, or rub your sponge with bar soap, and slice a fresh lemon in the dishwater. For automatic dishwashers, use equal parts baking soda and borax.

  • Use about a cup of baking soda, white vinegar, or borax for laundry detergent.

  • Use sodium hexametaphosphate instead of chlorine bleach.

Use Water-based Paints and Solvents

Oil-based paints may be laden with heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. Although lead was banned in paints in 1978, and mercury in 1991, anything painted previous to these bans still poses a risk.

A 1990 study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 75 percent of all private housing built before 1980 has some lead paint. The biggest risk for children comes from breathing dust particles created when windows with lead-painted frames are open and shut, or during house renovations when old paint is being sanded or stripped. One in nine kids under the age of six has enough lead in his or her blood to cause health problems.

  • Buy paint with the Green Seal mark, which strictly limits VOC emissions and other hazardous ingredients. Not every hardware store carries these paints, so make some phone calls.

  • Check the label on the paint can for these safe ingredients: borax, beeswax, boric salt, chalk, citrus terpene, glimmer, kaolin, methyl cellulose, milk casein, and titanium dioxide.

  • Use water-based strippers. They take longer, but are much safer than their oil-based counterparts. They are also much safer than sanding, scraping, or burning paint, all of which create dangerous fumes and dust.

  • If you are doing a major renovation, wear protective clothing and a dust mask, and keep the children away until the project is finished to prevent them from breathing in the dust.

Get to Know Your Water

Lead and VOCs are of particular concern. The EPA estimates that 38 million Americans drink water that exceeds the 50 parts-per-billion maximum for lead.

  • Call your water company (the phone number should be on the bill) and ask for a free copy of the results of the regular testing they are required to do.

  • For a price, you can send a sample of your home's drinking water to a laboratory that uses EPA standards, including: Suburban Water Testing Labs 800/433-6595 and National Testing Labs 800/426-8378

  • Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline 800/426-4791.

Get Rid of Plastics

Vinyl chlorides, which include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are the ones to avoid. Plastics can outgas, especially when new, and they are suspected of leaching into food, especially hot, fatty foods.

Vinyl chlorides are found in water pipes, food containers, pacifiers, squeeze toys, crib bumpers, garden hoses, playpens, shower curtains, shopping bags, inflatable toys, upholstery, raincoats and galoshes, shoes, and household chemicals, and adhesives.

  • Never heat food in a microwave in plastic.

  • Avoid products with the recycling #3 label, which indicates PVCs. Plastics #1 and #2 are better because they are chlorine free.

  • Get rid of as many unnecessary plastic items as possible, especially toys and items that are likely to hold food or be put into children's mouths, such as pacifiers and teething rings.

  • Replace plastic shower curtains with cotton or some other natural material. The chloroform in the water vapor during a hot shower is already a hazardous routine exposure - no need to add to it. Cotton is washable and easier on the landfill.

  • Find natural replacements for plastic products: wool diaper covers, wood boxes, straw baskets, glass containers and dishes, cloth bags, leather shoes, and wood toys. Instead of adhesives, try nails, pegs, screws, and bolts.

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