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  Reduce your exposure to indoor toxins


Indoor air can have higher concentrations of toxins than outdoor air. Ironically, these chemical toxins come from the products we use to make our lives better.
 
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Homes and home furnishings in North America today are built of materials sourced world-wide. Materials standards are not adequately harmonized between nations, and commercial interests often override health concerns associated with many products, in part because related health problems may take years to develop and and be difficult to assign cause.

Yet the nationwide increase in immune system disorders, neurological problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities, allergies and hormonal disturbances point to environmental factors. A 2004
report by the British Medical Journal states “it is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are key determinants of human disease—accounting for perhaps 75% of most cancers.” And estimates show most Americans have somewhere between 400 and 800 chemicals stored in their bodies, typically in fat cells.

Because effects from exposure to toxins are difficult to identify, it can be years before problems from exposure manifest themselves as a disease or chronic ailment. In the US, the EPA does screen many products for some toxins, but until needed revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act are enacted by Congress, many loopholes in the system leave the burden of responsibility on the consumer to make informed decisions through reading individual product MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets), following recommendations from agencies like Consumer Reports, or by studying product literature.

Realistically, most consumers are unable or do not have the time or expertise to monitor products and materials for hazardous material content. But there a few simple strategies which can be taken to reduce exposure to toxins in the home.

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  Know the most common toxins that are found in homes today
Find safe substitutes, mitigate the hazard or do without the product
Ventilate your home regularly, especially during winter months.
 
The Most Common Toxins found in homes today

The following toxins are among the most prevalent in our air, water and/or food supply. This list is by no means all-inclusive, as thousands of other toxins are also circulating in our environment.

1. Volatile Organic Compounds:
VOCs are a group of chemicals that vaporize easily and bring gas pollutants into the home from a variety of sources. There are over 400 compounds in the VOC family which have been identified in the home and of these over 200 can be found in carpeting. According to the EPA, VOCs tend to be even higher (two to five times) in indoor air than outdoor air, likely because they are present in so many household products.


Risks:
Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment; chronic exposure increases the risk of cancer, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Persons with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, elderly, and persons with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and illness from VOCs.

Sources: New carpets and home furnishings, interior paints, particle board, plywood and pressed wood products, new plastics and electronics, deodorants, cleaning fluids, varnishes, shampoos and cosmetics, dry cleaned clothing, moth repellants, air fresheners, and during the burning of wood stoves and tobacco products.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Avoid products with high VOC content – look for “Low-VOC” and “Zero-VOC” paints and finishes for indoor painting. Buy solid wood, hardboard or ‘exterior grade’ plywood in place of pressed wood products. Establish a “no smoking” policy in your home. Consider buying antique furniture.
• Allow new products to off-gas before bringing them into the home – if you just bought a new stuffed couch, for example, unwrap it and leave it in the garage for a couple days before bringing indoors. Seal particle board or pressed wood items with varnish or paint before bringing indoors.
• Ventilate – by increasing ventilation you can lower the concentration of VOCs in your home. If new carpeting or vinyl flooring has been installed, or a room freshly painted, open windows and doors, and use a house fan to direct the room air outwards.
• Control room climate - by keeping the temperature and humidity low, you can decrease the amount of some VOCs like formaldehyde from off-gassing.

For more information, see: How to limit formaldehyde exposure in the home
To learn about low-VOC and zero-VOC paints, see Non-toxic Paints
To learn how to use wood-burning heaters more efficiently, see: Wood Heating Tips

2. Pesticides:
According to the EPA, 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides are known to be carcinogenic. Alarmingly, pesticide residues have been detected in 50 percent to 95 percent of U.S. foods.

Risks: Irritation of eye, nose and throat, damage to CNS and kidney, increased risk of cancer, Parkinson's disease, miscarriage, nerve damage, birth defects, blocking the absorption of food nutrients.

Sources: Food (some fruits, vegetables and commercially raised meats), household pest control products and sprays, and some chemical lawn treatments which drift or are tracked indoors.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Establish a 'no-shoes' ploicy in your home - The simplest way to keep outdoor pesticides, especially lawn chemicals, from entering your home is to have family members and visitors leave their shoes at the door. This will also reduce the need for home cleaning. You can provide inexpensive slippers for guests if you think they'll be put off having to remove their shoes.
• Buy fresh, organic produce
- For the freshest organic vegetables, grow your own produce in a simple backyard garden. Or choose foods which are known to have fewer pesticides applied during the growing season. Free range organic eggs are available in many stores, but ask questions about the extent of the ‘range’. Ideally, you may find a local farmer who can provide true free-range eggs.
• Avoid using chemical-based pest control products in the home – there are safe alternatives for pest control available today which can effectively control most insect pests without the need for harmful chemicals. Small amounts of diatomaceous earth, for example, will kill a variety of home insects, including fleas, while posing no harm to children or pets. Pest control products with chemical formulations should be used only where the more benign product fails to remedy the insect problem.
• Use natural pest control methods for your lawn and garden – a lawn that is naturally healthy will resist pests and weeds. For problems that persist, there are non-toxic weed killers and grub control products available today.

To learn about safe, non-toxic lawn care methods, see Natural Lawn Care
To learn about non-toxic pest control for inside the home. see Natural Pest Control
For garden insect pest control, see Natural Garden Pest Control
3. Mold and other Fungal Toxins:
One in three people have had an allergic reaction to mold. Mycotoxins (fungal toxins) can cause a range of health problems with exposure to only a small amount.

Risks: There is no consensus among scientists about the health hazards of mycotoxins. Mycotoxins may have toxic effects ranging from irritation of mucous membrane, to suppression of the immune system and cancer.

Sources: Contaminated buildings, damp areas with frequent temperature changes, airborne particles from furnace blower or air conditioning unit.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Keep filters clean on heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems
• Remove any water sources to mold affected area; dry thoroughly
• Keep relative humidity below 60%, which may require a dehumidifier in some areas
• Store items with high cellulose content (newspapers, drywall, cardboard) in dry areas
4. Phthalates and PVC (polyvinyl chloride):
PVCs contain phthalates, a class of widely used industrial compounds known technically as dialkyl or alkyl aryl esters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid. There are many phthalates with many uses, and just as many toxicological properties. These chemicals are used primarily to lengthen the life of fragrances and soften plastics.


Risks: Endocrine system damage (phthalates chemically mimic hormones and are particularly dangerous to children). Researchers have associated pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates with adverse effects on the genital development of their children. These risks may even prevail in low-dose exposure.

Sources: Plastic wrap, plastic bottles, plastic food storage containers, which can leach phthalates into our food. PVC in some consumer products such as vinyl flooring, drapes and wall-coverings, baby’s toys, shower curtains, blow-up air mattresses, cosmetics and fixatives.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Check the label of baby products to ensure they are phthalate-free
• When buying plastic products for the home, ask if they contain PVC or phthalates
• Avoid eating food stored or microwaved in PVC plastic
• Look for the recycling code #3 or V to spot PVC products before they enter your home
• Look for PVC-free draperies, window blinds and shades; choose natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wood, bamboo, silk or hemp.
• Keep indoor rooms well-ventilated
5. Dioxins:
Chemical compounds formed as a result of incomplete combustion processes from commercial or municipal waste incineration, chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper, and from burning fuels like wood, coal or oil.

Risks: Cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, chloracne, skin rashes, skin discoloration, and mild liver damage.

Sources: Animal fats: Over 95 percent of dioxin exposure comes from eating commercial animal fats. (23% is from milk and dairy alone; the other large sources of exposure are beef, fish, pork, poultry and eggs. In fish, these toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain so that dioxin levels in fish are 100,000 times that of the surrounding environment.) Cigarette smoke contains small amounts of dioxins. Small amounts of exposure occur from breathing air containing trace amounts of dioxins

How to minimize exposure:

  • Follow existing Federal Dietary Guidelines to reduce fat consumption.
• Reduce consumption of meat and dairy products
• Avoid burning materials containing chlorine, such as plastics and wood treated with PCP

6. Heavy Metals:
Metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, aluminum and cadmium, which are prevalent in many areas of our environment, can accumulate in soft tissues of the body.

Risks: Cancer, neurological disorders, Alzheimer's disease, foggy head, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels

Sources: Drinking water, some seafoods, vaccines, pesticides, preserved wood, antiperspirant, building materials, dental amalgams, chlorine plants, lead paints.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Install water filters
• Use cold water for drinking, making tea or coffee,  and cooking
• Avoid fish high in mercury, such as king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, shark, orange roughy, and marlin. Limit consumption of tuna, especially steaks and canned ‘white’ albacore.
• If your home was built before 1978, check for lead paint.
• Avoid buying products made with PFC, such as Teflon cookware and Scotchgard.
• Avoid using treated wood (CCA or ACZA) on decks or children’s play structures
7. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs):
PBDEs are industrial toxic chemicals that have been used for over 30 years as flame-retardants. Although PBDEs are being phased out, many are still used in North America.

Risks: A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.

Sources: Some furniture and furniture cushions, drapes, mattresses, pillows, pet beds, carpet and carpet padding, and household electronics and appliances.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Avoid flame retardant children’s clothing and sleepwear.
• When purchasing new furnishings and bedding, choose wool or cotton fill over polyester and foam products.
• Increase fruits and veggies and reduce animal fats.
• Reduce dust levels by using damp cleaning methods.

8. Chloroform:
This colorless liquid has a pleasant, nonirritating odor and a slightly sweet taste, and is used to make other chemicals. It's also formed when chlorine is added to water.

Risks: Cancer, potential reproductive damage, birth defects, dizziness, fatigue, headache, liver and kidney damage.

Sources: Chloroform forms when chlorine, which is used to disinfect public watersupplies, mixes with organic matter in the water. Air, drinking water and food can contain chloroform.

How to minimize exposure:
  • Install low-flow showerheads, reduce the temperature of the shower water
• Open the window or use exhaust fan when using hot water for shower or cleaning
• Locate clothes washer in garage or area with good ventilation
 
General strategies to reduce toxin levels in the home

While it is difficult to identify a specific toxin in the home and take appropriate measures to contain exposure to it, here are some general strategies to reduce the overall level of toxins in the home:
  • Only use natural cleaning products in your home. Most health food stores will have these available or you can make your own cleaning products using safe ingredients.

• Establish a ‘no shoe’ policy in your home. To drastically reduce the amount of pesticides and other chemicals that you may pick up outside, have visitors and family members leave shoes at the door.  Residuals of toxic chemicals may last for years in carpets.

• Avoid using chemical pest control products. There are safe,
non-toxic alternatives for controlling insect pests in the home, including many new non-toxic pest control products for the homeowner.

Use toxin-reducing houseplants. Researchers from NASA have identified certain houseplants which are useful in absorbing potentially harmful gases and cleaning the air inside homes.

• Change or clean your furnace or A/C filters, at least once every 1-3 months depending on use.

• Switch over to natural brands of toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics.


• Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances as they can pollute the air you are breathing.

• Avoid using lawn care chemicals. Residue is easily tracked indoors where chemicals can persist in carpeting and furnishings. Use
natural lawn care methods which eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

• Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).

• Use low-VOC paints, caulks, sealants, finishes and carpeting. Look for low-VOC labelling on sealing and finishing products. Most major paint brands now carry 'low' and 'zero' VOC lines for interior painting. For a list of non-toxic paint suppliers,
click here.

• Ventilate. Modern homes and business are created to be leak proof; meaning, toxins are sealed in and fresh air is sealed out! To ventilate indoor air in winter, open doors and windows on opposing sides of the room to facilitate air flow, and close them in 5 - 10 minutes. The furnishings, drywall and any stonework will retain residual heat and restore room temperatures quickly.



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