by Katie E. Boyle, MPH
Sometimes we get advice that’s just not practical. Or we see advertisements to which we just can’t relate. I’m reminded of an old ad for vacuums, as the mom in full makeup sits adorably curled up in a chair in the corner of her living room drinking tea while both of her children play nicely on the floor in front of her. We all know that never happens. Based on my life experience, I don’t believe that two toddlers can even physically do that, even as hired actors, so I was convinced all three were mannequins.
In contrast to the above, here’s some advice that I deem somewhat easier to digest. These are easy. These have relatively high impact on the home air quality and/or chip away at our regular, daily intake of pesticide residues and byproducts of the breakdown of plastic. Now I know many people out there resist being told what to do. Lest I sound dictatorial, I do assume we can all agree that not taking in chemical residues and byproducts is better than taking them in.
Here are a few relatively simple steps you can take today if you haven't started them already to remove toxins from your home environment.
1. Start buying organic produce.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual “Dirty Dozen” list with the produce that consistently test positive for pesticide residues that year. In 2016, it’s strawberries, apples and nectarines that top the list, with peaches, celery and grapes rounding out the top six. They also name the cleanest conventional produce. This year the safest conventional varieties include avocado, corn, pineapples, cabbage, sweet peas and onions, among others. And a great place to buy produce? Farmer’s markets! UConn’s snap4ct site has an interactive map with info on all of Connecticut’s farmer’s markets. Connecticut is ripe with farmer’s markets.
Here is a tip that is not only free, but will save you some money.
2. Just. Stop. With. The. Air fresheners.
Cease. Halt. No mas. Checkmate. Save the money. Take them off the shopping list and Amazon subscriptions. The spray ones, the plug in ones, the automatic ones, the fabric ones, the nighttime ones... They are made of chemicals that are added to your air.
Air fresheners add formaldehyde, p-dichlorobenzene, petroleum distillates and aerosol propellants among other pollutants into the air. Some of these chemicals are asthma triggers, and can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, damage the nervous system, and cause headaches. Some even cause cancer. What’s worse, plugging those little jobbers into outlets at ground level sends high concentrations of toxic mist into the air our toddlers are breathing as they crawl or walk past! Children’s lungs are still developing, so the effects listed above can be exacerbated and more easily triggered in them.
(Digressing again to examples of ads I can’t relate to: the one where they spray the air freshener right in front of their nose and then take a deep inhale through the nose to smell it? Astounded every time, I yell at the TV, “LADY, ARE YOU SERIOUS WITH THE TAKING A DEEP BREATH THING?!!”) The only things that will clean the air are 1) ventilation, which allows indoor and outside air to flow in and out, diluting pollutants to lower concentrations, or 2) an air cleaner that removes particles from the air via a HEPA filter, or another air cleaner design that targets the pollutant gasses listed above, such as a UVGI or PCO air cleaner. More info can be found in EPA’s Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home here. I try to open the windows once a week to clear out the air, and use my whole house fan every once in a while.
3. Place plants next to sunny windows.
So long as you keep them alive, plants are actually a great choice for filtering and cleaning the air. In NASA’s fantastically old-looking 1989 report, “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement,” plants were tested for indoor air purification qualities, and these common indoor plants were the top of the list: peace lily, philodendron, spider plant, golden pothos, gerbera daisies, chrysanthemums and Dracaena Massangeana. Some of these are poisonous, however, so be mindful of the risks and benefits, or just keep them up very high if you have young children or pets.
4. Don’t eat or drink from any plastic that has been heated.
This means microwaving or dishwashing anything plastic is not advisable. The heating of plastic water bottles, plastic containers or plastic wrap can break down the integrity of the plastic, allowing the individual components of the plastic to leach into your food or water. Allowing water to sit excessively long in a water bottle, especially in the sunlight, can do the same thing. Buying BPA free plastic can help but not completely solve the problem. Hand wash plastic bottles (or rinse anything plastic after it has dried in the dishwasher). To microwave food, transfer it first to a ceramic or glass plate, heat it, wait for it to cool, and then give it to the kids in their plastic bowls (I know; it's so many steps!). Skip the plastic wrap covering and instead use a napkin or go without.
5. Use natural alternatives to harsh cleaners.
Hydrogen peroxide (which, diluted with water, can even be used as mouthwash) has been shown in repeated experiments by a mom with a PhD in biochemistry (who I don’t know personally, but love her work) to work better than conventional sanitizing and disinfecting products. I recommend everyone take a look at Annie Pryor’s blog. Her work is fascinating.
One last point about the cleaners: if you’re simply doing the end-of-day counter and table wipe down, what about using a water, vinegar and lemon mixture? If you’re not aiming to kill bacteria and viruses, but simply scrape off the caked-on remnants of the three meals your children had at the table that day, a harsh cleaner isn’t really necessary. In that case, it’s more about the elbow grease. You can find a recipe online for a vinegar-based spray or, better yet, attend a Clean Cleaners workshop! Or watch my Clean Cleaners video here.