How to Get Toxic Chemicals Out of Your Home

Banish some of the most common household toxic chemicals from your home.

| January/February 2006

It's the time of year when most people resolve to clean up household clutter and lose excess weight. Whether or not you've had success with those resolutions, you might want to look at another issue that directly affects your health—and this resolution may even be easier to keep.

Now is a great time to rid yourself of toxic chemicals including pesticides, phthalates, and PBDE that are commonly present in household products. In recent "body burden" studies, scientists have been finding these chemicals in human blood, urine, and sometimes breast milk. The risk is highest in utero, so pregnant and nursing women should take special care. While this seems like another thing to fret about, the good news is you can unburden your body and protect your children by choosing products that are free of these offending substances.

Keeping toxic home chemicals to a minimum doesn't have to be hard. To simplify, follow this easy mantra: Be mindful of "P"s (pollutants) and "Q"s (quit using them). Here are three types of toxins found in common home furnishings, along with suggestions so you can make healthier choices.

1. Phthalates

These petroleum-derived plasticizers are commonly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic) soft and pliable and to release synthetic fragrances into the air. Phthalates (pronounced "THAY-lates") are found nearly everywhere: plastic shower curtains, toys, food wraps, hair spray, fingernail polish, air fresheners, and perfumes. The problem: Phthalates readily evaporate out of the product, and they can be inhaled (through household air and dust) or ingested (when babies chew on PVC toys or furnishings or if you eat food stored in PVC containers or wraps). In studies that test for chemicals in human blood and urine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found that phthalates are now so widespread that they're believed to be present in every American's body—and they're at the highest levels in women of childbearing age.

For some time, phthalates have been known to damage reproductive systems in animals, but in 2005, two human studies raised concern. In a U.S. study, baby boys of mothers who had the highest exposure to phthalates while pregnant were more likely to have smaller genitalia, incompletely descended testicles, and other demasculinized traits. Also, in a Danish study, baby boys fed breast milk with higher levels of phthalates had less testosterone at three months of age, an important window of hormonal development, than boys exposed to lower levels. Other research links phthalates in household surfaces (made of soft PVC) to respiratory problems, including asthma, in children. While there's no reason to panic, given a U.S. National Toxicology Program panel's finding of insufficient evidence to date that phthalates are causing human harm, we can take some simple precautions.

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