Mother Earth Living

Toxin-Proof Your Home: Improving Indoor Air Quality

You can rid your house of nasties by making a few smart choices.
By Lisa M. Maloney
March/April 2009
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The first step toward a toxin-free home is reading labels on cleaning and other household products.


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Household toxins sneak into our homes on the backs of seemingly benign products. Most of us would never suspect that our mattress—or our all-purpose cleaner—could be making us sick. Yet household air is often heavily polluted by common household products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, “the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.” For people who live, work, eat and play inside, reducing indoor toxins is a critical issue.

First things first: read labels

Most of us have learned to read food labels; it’s time to turn the same level of attention to labeling on common household cleaning products such as dish soap and oven cleaner. If you buy without reading ingredient lists, you may be unknowingly inhaling formaldehyde and propane (common ingredients in chemical air fresheners), petroleum distillates (an ingredient in chemical-based oven cleaners and air fresheners) or other toxic chemicals.

There’s just one problem: Most conventional cleaning products don’t list ingredients on their labels. The product websites often do not list the ingredients, either.

The Oregon Toxics Alliance offers a list of common toxic ingredients in household products on its website, and you can find Material Safety Data Sheets for certain ingredients in household products through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database. But if you want a full list of ingredients for chemical-based products, you usually have to contact the manufacturer directly. In contrast with petroleum- and chemical-based products, many natural household products list ingredients on the label so you know exactly what you’re getting. Visit Natural Home's resource guide for a listing of natural cleaning product manufacturers and suppliers.
 
Declare war on mold 

All homes contain low levels of some type of mold. Though individual sensitivity varies, some household molds are toxic, and even nontoxic varieties can trigger asthma or other respiratory distress. To keep excess mold from growing in your home, identify and eliminate potential sources of moisture such as roof or wall joist leaks, clogged gutters and drains, or plumbing leaks, and check for adequate air circulation. Don’t forget to check the basement or crawl space for leaks and stagnant water; spores from mold in the basement can circulate into your home’s upper levels. Get more details on minimizing mold growth.

Ban flame retardants and VOCs

Synthetic textiles, furniture, electronics and mattresses contain toxic flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which accumulate in the environment (both indoors and outdoors) and may cause thyroid, liver and neurodevelopmental toxicity, according to the EPA. You can reduce your exposure to toxic flame retardants by purchasing organic cotton, linen, wool or hemp products, which are not treated with toxic chemicals. Choose electronics from manufacturers that have stopped using toxic PBDE flame retardants, such as Sony.

Furniture—both upholstered and not—is also likely to outgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde into your home. Other common sources of VOCs include: paint, sealers and finishes; the adhesives in plywood, pressboard and carpet; cleaning products; and foams found in furniture and mattresses.

You can easily eliminate these sources of household toxins by replacing them with low- or no-VOC options such as natural or zero-VOC paint, natural fiber flooring or an organic mattress.

Thrifty options

Most of us can’t afford to refurbish our homes entirely with nontoxic materials. Here are simple, thrifty ways to make the most of what you’ve already got.

■ Replace chemical cleaning products with natural substances such as vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide. Eliminate chlorine products from your household, both because of their toxicity and because they produce toxic gases when combined with acidic cleaning agents (such as vinegar or lemon juice). (See “Clean Without the Chemicals” at for easy-to-make nontoxic cleaning products.)

■ Seal wood, pressboard and plywood furniture or other sources of VOCs to reduce your exposure. The seal must cover all surfaces and edges and remain intact to be effective. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends using paint varnish or polyurethane-like materials as your sealant. To make sure the sealant is nontoxic, check out Green Building Supply’s reference list.

■ Put slipcovers made of natural materials such as wool, cotton or linen over furniture to reduce exposure to toxins from crumbling foam, upholstery, adhesives and sealants.

■ Take preemptive action against mold by turning on the bathroom fan when you shower or bathe. Properly vent your clothes dryer—it should exhaust directly outside, and the exhaust system’s filters and hoods should be kept clean.

■ Shop for natural cotton, wool, hemp and linen; check labels or look for organic brands free of flame retardants.

■ Protect yourself if you must deal with toxic chemicals. Use a respirator or at least a face mask, gloves and safely glasses. Let petroleum-based foam products air out until all traces of chemical odor are gone, and keep your living space well-ventilated.  

Lisa M. Maloney lives, writes, and cleans windows with vinegar and newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska. You can reach her at  maloneyak@gmail.com .


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