Mother Earth Living

Environmentor: Ask the Eco-Expert about Home Toxicity

All the answers to your household toxics questions.
By Debra Lynn Dadd
May/June 1999
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Home Toxic Home

I’ve read several articles regarding the toxicity of new home materials such as carpeting, paint, and varnish. We built a new house four years ago, and I’m wondering how long the toxicity of these materials lasts. Should we consider some kind of air filter, or is opening windows sufficient? Should windows be left open year-round?

In general, the toxicity of average new home materials will last about a year, decreasing over time. After four years, you can probably assume your building materials are fairly safe. There may, however, be some items that still have harmful emissions, depending on the materials they are made from. Some carpeting can emit harmful odors after many years, but again, the emissions diminish with time.

Here’s my best recommendation for detoxing new homes and condos: Once the structure is finished, before you move in, close up all the doors and windows, turn up the heat as high as possible—until the temperature feels too hot for you to comfortably remain in the room —and “bake” it for about a week. This will cure and age materials and finishes to seem about a year old.

Generally, air filters are not necessary; opening windows is sufficient, and the fresh, outdoor, oxygenated air is a better source of ventilation than filtered air. I leave my windows open year-round, but I don’t have anything toxic in my home. If you do have materials that emit toxic fumes, concentrations will build indoors whenever windows are closed, so it is best to keep the ventilation going.

Leaking Swimming Pools

Several of our neighbors have aboveground swimming pools, one of which ruptured and flooded several of our yards. Does this pose a health concern for the soil or vegetation, or should it just be considered a good watering?

In my estimation, it should just be considered a good watering. While pool water does contain more chlorine than tap water, the concentration isn’t high enough that a single dousing would cause harm. I wouldn’t water my garden with swimming-pool water on a regular basis, however, because bacteria in the soil are very susceptible to chlorine; that’s why they put chlorine in the water. While you do want to kill harmful bacteria in the water, you want to keep the beneficial bacteria in the soil.

Chemical Sensitivity

I am chemically sensitive and would welcome your insights into my condition. The last allergist I consulted—I kid you not—suggested psychiatry!

Over the last twenty years, I have not only completely cured my own chemical sensitivity but have been a consultant to hundreds of people with the same problem, and the one thing I have learned is that every case is different. Let me assure you that your situation is not all in your head; it is a very real condition caused by exposure to very real toxic chemicals contained in most of the common consumer products we use every day.

I have found that the best treatment for chemical sensitivity is the simplest: Allow your body to heal itself. To do so, you must remove from your life as many exposures to toxic chemicals as you can. At the same time, give your body as much support as you can through good nutrition from organic food, clean water, clean air, sunshine, and gentle exercise. Take the time to establish a healthy lifestyle, then find something that interests you—something you feel passionate about—and ­pursue it. Don’t dwell on being chemically sensitive. Hold the thought that you are healing, and you will.

Where Grass is Greener

I purchased a house that has a chemically maintained lawn and would like to switch to natural maintenance. How long do chemical residues remain in the soil, and how can I keep the lawn looking healthy through the first year without chemicals?

The length of time chemical residues remain in the soil depends on the chemicals used, how frequently they were applied, how many years they were ap­plied, and the weather conditions. Find out, if you can, which lawn-maintenance company was employed, and ask them which chemicals they used. Then you can research the “half life” of the chemical to discover how long these chemicals really hang around.

Here are some great tips for keeping your lawn healthy and green naturally, tips you may want to share with your neighbors to help stop neighborhood spraying altogether.

- Let your grass grow. Grass that is 21/2 to 3 inches tall shades weed seedlings, preventing their growth, and holds moisture in the soil. Plus, close and frequent mowing stresses the grass plants. Only mow your lawn when the grass is dry, either in the evening or the cool of the day, and keep your mower blade sharp. Also, leave nitrogen-rich clippings behind to degrade into soil-building compost.

- Fertilize your lawn naturally. Grass clippings, compost, and manure return needed bacteria and enzymes to the soil, along with nutrients. Include clover or other nitrogen-fixing plants in your lawn to make it self-fertilizing.

- De-thatch in late spring or early summer, then reseed.

- Aerate twice a year because compacted soil promotes weeds. Add a soil loosener such as compost or gypsum, then reseed.

- Reseed bare spots and thinning lawns.

- Water the lawn in the evening, deeply and infrequently. Allow the grass to dry thoroughly between waterings.

- Choose the right species of grass. Ask your local nursery expert about varieties that grow well in your area and are suited to available light and traffic.

- Finally, ask yourself if you really want a lawn at all. You can replace it with an attractive groundcover, turn it into a wildflower meadow, or use the space for an edible organic garden, a play space for children, or a fish pond.

Natural Air Conditioning

I know air conditioners use up lots of energy, but it’s so hot here in the summertime. Is there a way I can cool my house naturally and save both energy and money?

Where I live, on the coast of California, just north of San Francisco, we don’t need air conditioners because we have what we call our “natural air conditioning”: the summer fog. But there are many ways to cool your home that are in harmony with the natural features of your geography and climate, methods that have been popular for centuries, long before we became dependent on electricity and gas for heating and cooling. In the vernacular architecture of the Middle East, for example, buildings had “air scoops” to catch the cool evening breezes and direct them into the interiors.

Here are some tips.

- The most obvious solution is to plant shade trees. Deciduous varieties are best because their leaves will shade your house from the summer sun, yet allow the winter sun to warm the house through the bare branches.

- Install overhangs and awnings over windows to block the sun’s rays from entering your home. Or cover the inside of windows to keep rooms dark and cool.

- Open your windows in the evening to allow cool air in and keep them closed during the day.

- Minimize the production of waste heat generated by indoor lights and appliances. Do your baking and ironing in the evening when it’s cooler and plan menus that minimize the production of heat from cooking.

You also can reduce your need for air conditioning by using fans. A whole-house fan placed in your attic or an upstairs window can pull cool air into your house and blow warm air out, ­saving up to two-thirds of your cooling costs. Even if you have air conditioning, it pays to use the fan only when the ­outside temperature is below 78°F. A solar-powered fan offers the additional advantage of using the sun’s abundant, nonpolluting, and free energy exactly when you need it to—during the sunniest and hottest part of the day.

Down the Drain

How can I safely unclog drains?
I don’t want a lye-based drain cleaner in the house where my children can swallow it.

First, try an old-fashioned plunger. If that doesn’t work, 1/4 cup of 3-percent hydrogen peroxide poured down the drain will open clogs that have defied other methods.

You’ll want to keep this out of the reach of children, too, but it is much safer than lye.

Best is to practice a little preventive plumbing. Use a drain strainer to trap food particles and hair. NH

If you have eco-questions, please write Debra Lynn Dadd at Natural Home, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537-5655.

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