5 easy, high-impact changes you could make right now for a healthier home.
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.
The Mommy Wars' newest battle ground: toxins in products.
Over the public radio waves earlier this year, I heard John Dankosky heatedly interviewing Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy about the state budget. They seemed to disagree. However, despite disagreeing, they discussed. They respected each other, the role each serves for the public, and had an honest conversation about the budget. I remarked to myself that I learned a whole lot about two sides of this issue and heard a great example of putting emotions aside to discuss a polarizing topic.
Now, imagine yourself coming upon a social media post in your newsfeed, from any source, about any topic. You click. You read. You read the comments. You agree, disagree, or care less. Or, according to Facebook at time of publishing, you can like it, love it, laugh at it, make a surprise face at it, an angry face at it, or cry at it. When you wholeheartedly disagree with the opinion espoused in said post, and that post comes from a friend, what do you do next? Coming from a family not afraid to interject, my first inclination when disagreeing is to say, “Are ya serious with that?” or, “Ummm….yea. None of that is true.” Or I would least offer a friendly, well thought out and well researched rebuttal.
The post in question was from a dermatologist's blog. The writer explained how the media and other outlets such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are using scare tactics and ‘bad science’ to scare us into not using sunscreen. Wait. What? (More on that later.)
Of course, here is the public health tie in if you were wondering.
Other write-ups, such as the one picked up by Huffington Post, NBC/TODAY and ABC, rail against the barrage of warnings about chemicals in various products and general parenting advice/instruction spouted at moms at every turn. And it’s getting personal, as the author, Sarah Kallies, writes, “We are all just out there slogging it out. Doing our best to raise our kids. To keep them safe. To protect them from the big bad world. But what happens when the world tells you that you are the problem? That you’re not being careful enough. Aware enough. Diligent enough.”
To add the absolute worst insult to injury, apparently the world’s reaction to Kallies’ post included some massively negative reactions, such as death threats and assertions that she should have aborted her twins. What!? Just: on behalf of humanity and having a soul, I apologize for that happening. I still start to tear up when I think of what people can do when keyboard muscles are running the show.
The War of the Mommies
Sadly, I was reticent to admit, it seems the newest Mommy Wars’ front, after vaccinations and staying-at-home vs. working, is toxic ingredients in our children’s personal care products. EWG churns out what I estimate to be great direction on this topic. And then there are the lone mommies out there like me who have decided to offer up their ideas to any takers. Given the GRAND quantities of information out there, I guess this idea has popped up that the existence and sharing of this information infers that those who don't follow it are careless. Oh man, in all seriousness, that was the last thing I wanted to see happen.
I am an ardent supporter of education for myself and the public about the risks associated with chemical exposures, and I definitely steer clear of companies that have no regard for the safety profile of chemicals in their products…..that is, unless I’m in the grocery store with my two and four year-olds in complete berserk mode. Seriously, my youngest can damage ear drums in a 20-foot radius without even trying (I do hear ringing when it’s quiet), at which point I’m tossing Hail-Mary passes of the $1.00 shampoos and conditioners into my cart. But, as with any topic I learn about, there’s information out there from good and not-so-good sources that I can choose to read, research, incorporate, respond to, or simply let lie.
So yes, the post from my friend that I encountered in the middle of my work day, was, I felt, uninformed and inflammatory. No one, I repeat, no one is saying we shouldn’t use sunscreen. Somehow linking EWG to an argument against using sunscreen, is for me, a complete distortion. With regard to EWG’s methodology, described on the site, it is completely true that their product scores are limited by the research done to date on each ingredient. However, not having safety data about a chemical is not ‘bad science;’ it’s ‘not having safety data about a chemical.’ Remember, there is no requirement for chemical producers to test chemicals before putting them on the market. No law = no testing = no safety data available to the public. Progress on this issue has historically been meager or nil, but, more companies are being proactive, and initiatives such as the fabulous Chemical Footprint Project, which has so many companies, including Walmart, voluntarily opting to inventory the chemicals their suppliers use and pledge to do better. There is even progress gasp legislatively. Congress actually passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which gives the EPA more authority and requires safety testing of new and existing chemicals, with enforceable deadlines.
Taking it Personally
After reading that post I disagreed with, a trusted colleague and I walked across the campus of the university where we work. I asked her, “How do you typically handle a fundamental disagreement with one of your friends? Like, an issue that is fundamental to you, that you believe in and are passionate about?” She asked me whether I had read the book, The Four Agreements. I responded affirmatively, and instantly knew she recommended taking the proverbial ‘high road.’ She said, “I think, trying not to take it personally has always helped me in disagreements,” and I totally agreed. It was good, good advice.
There are four fundamental principles in life, says Don Miguel Ruiz in his 1997 book, The Four Agreements. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.1
Brilliant. With all this as a backdrop, away I go, concluding:
Am I defending this effort to educate? Yes. Am I defensive about it? Really, really trying not to be. I’m human, after all. By trying to educate on this topic, I’m not inferring that moms who use conventional products (me included) aren’t careful, aware or diligent…. If someone is saying that, they are up on a high horse. My take is: We have choices. We are spending the money on sunscreen, right? So armed with more information, why not choose one with no chemicals? That’s all it is, really. And it’s completely and totally every person’s choice; no judgments about it.
The feeling that moms are overwhelmed and don’t need another ‘rule’ making their lives harder is not new and is completely and totally justified! I am in that boat too. So I pick and choose where my energy goes and let the rest just BE.
Might it be that humans have a natural tendency to take things personally, that clouds their ability to argue fair, allowing defensiveness to creep in? Maybe so.
Let’s Make a Pact: The Mommy Agreement
Despite disagreeing with the content of my friend’s post and despite how invested I am in this, I decided not to comment. I am doing my thing, trying to educate, and that’s all. I had no interest in starting an online war in the middle of my workday. It was easy for me to make that choice because this person is my friend. When the post is from not a friend but a stranger, and when it's not an academic subject matter but an emotional one (such as recent horrific accidents where children were killed), the anger, hate and blame toward the parents cruelly and callously flows in the comments section.
So let’s make a pact to hold back on our commentary, and, as Sarah Kallies put it, “…stop shaming each other. Whatever our beliefs are. However we choose to raise our children. Let’s be about supporting each other.” If you disagree, agree to disagree. Leave the emotion for real life, not online life. It can be damaging, and in the case of teens bullying each other, catastrophic.
One thing I have learned is that defending your side doesn’t have to mean defending your self. Let's fight fair.
We all love our children with every thread of our being (by the way, also don't tell me I can't use "thread of our being" because it's lame; I'm fully aware this phrase belongs in a romance novel and I proceed with its use). We can try our best to follow The Four Agreements, but we all have a specific amount of energy to use up on the efforts of our days, after which, if we are lucky, each.and.every.mom.out.there (don’t you try to hide) crashes with a glass of wine and binge-watches Blue Bloods.
So, moms out there (and everyone else for that matter), let’s make a pact to refrain from judging each other. Let's choose not to waste our fleeting bursts of energy on that.
The Mommy Agreement: “When I disagree with something online, from this day forward, I pledge to either (1) continue on with my day without typing my opinion, making a judgement or spreading any hate, or (2) recognize how the post makes me feel, and then type a message of support. I'll subscribe to that! If you wish to sign The Mommy Agreement, sign your name in the comments below.
1. Ruiz, Miguel. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997. Print.
Lead poisoning found in children from household dust.
Lead poisoning in children causes serious impairments to neurological and physical development, and the damage is permanent. Lead poisoning most commonly occurs by ingestion of small particles of lead paint in household dust. Children encounter the lead dust by crawling and putting their hands and toys coated in lead dust into their mouths. Ingestion of lead via eating paint chips, drinking contaminated water and inhalation of airborne dust are other routes of exposure. Here are some general truths about the most common route of childhood exposure to lead:
More facts about lead poisoning specific to Connecticut can be found here.
A great fact sheet on HEPA filters from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is here.
EPA list of Lead-Safe Certified contractors by state here.
Why public health and safety is my passion.
On a freezing cold day on the north shore of Massachusetts, as a junior at Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, I stood up from my desk in the middle of class in the tiny classroom reserved for the tiny number of students registered for a class called, “Death and Dying.” I exhaled, and walked to the front and out of class. The irony of being enrolled in this class at this moment in my life washed over me. Cringing at the details of embalming, I asked myself why I had ever returned to this class at all. Not three weeks before, my father had died after an arduous week trying to live, and trying to heal, at Mass General.
As a telephone line technician, one day at work in Lynn, Massachusetts, he fell from the bucket of his truck. He fell 15 feet, and landed in the worst possible way: head first. And then the "Perham Family’s Lives Changed Forever" was the new title of our book.
After a bunch of days of improvements, during one overnight, things turned for the worse: pressure in the brain led to emergency brain surgery, then talks of “being a vegetable” and “removing life support.” And hours later, I found myself with a Valentine’s Day card for him in-hand, learning my father would die, on February 13, 1997.
This was how this week would end? Wind being sucked out. The brightest, sterile lights. The contrasting black and white tile floor. The horrifying heaviness in my body and imagining, wanting, my feet and body to sink through all the floors of the hospital below me. Everyone’s guttural emotions from their positions holding hands in a circle around my beloved father’s bed.
Then, saying goodbye. Laying my head on his chest, the chest of a body being kept alive, the wires and scratchy white hospital fabric against my face and smelling of bleach. Hearing his heart and feeling his chest rising and falling, but focusing on the heart and taking it in. This was my first experience of mindfulness: focusing on remembering the sound and feel of his beating heart (a heart that went on to another living soul to try at this physical life again). This mindfulness task was for my survival, for a mind viciously shoved into survival mode.
Waking up. “It’s still true,” I would say to myself, for months. And the image of him lying in his casket in the funeral home-and lying in his casket underground-would always be there.
Why Did This Happen?
I would like to think my father’s death contributed to a shift in the culture of safety at Nynex, later Verizon, and its health and safety policies. I have never actually asked.
So now it’s almost twenty years later, and on an almost daily basis, as I drive to work, I see the line technicians, fathers of children, working up high in the buckets. I am reminded of him falling, and that impossible week ending with his death. I am reminded that he was not wearing his safety harness. I am reminded that the broken door to the bucket on his truck was not fixed, despite his repeated requests to have it fixed. I’m reminded how preventable it all was.
I learned then that I will need to be my own advocate for my own safety, and refuse to live or work in an unsafe environment, even if it (at best) makes me appear uptight or (at worst) costs me my job. After all, lack of safety cost my father his life. I will do everything I can to prevent that. And now, with two beautiful children of my own, after that formative life experience, I am unabashed about my and my children’s safety in all domains. For example, their car seats are installed precisely and correctly. And there are the seemingly nit-picking instructions I give to anyone other than me putting them in the seat: make sure there’s enough space between the baby’s rear facing seat and the front seat; no puffy jackets in the car; and always do the “pinch test” on the straps (they should be tight enough such that pinching the strap’s fabric across the width of the strap isn’t possible). You see, these “nit-picky” instructions matter. If they are compromised, that negates the seat being correctly installed. And if the safety of the seat is compromised, the risks of injury and death in a crash increase dramatically. Whereas if the rules are followed - ALL the rules are followed - and the safety of the seat is not compromised, all points of safety across all domains are maintained and we’ve done everything we can to prevent massive injury and death.
It is part of my ‘being’ to work very hard to prevent what’s preventable. I did not want to consider the safety of my children’s car seats after a crash. If this level of scrutiny for safety seems daunting, that’s perfectly ok. It’s not daunting to me. It’s part of my fabric. It’s not work; it’s woven into my heart and head and legs and arms. It’s why I went back to study public health. And it’s why I am very good at seeing the risks and, more importantly, seeing the solutions.
There is no ego in my effort to reduce the chemical exposures and safety hazards in our lives. I’m just doing what I was shaped into doing by my life experiences. It’s true that there are a daunting number of risks in products, in methods we use, and there are hazards for small children all around. In many cases, we can control those risks. So why not control what we can control and try to prevent what’s preventable? There are positive steps to be taken if we mindfully evaluate all the risks.
Trying to prevent disease and injury comes naturally to me, and it translates into the silver lining of what happened to my father. So, with the memory and sound of my father’s heartbeat softly in the back of my mind, I move forward, hopeful, in this new adventure.