Consider these tweaks to enjoy a cleaner, healthier environment for cooking, eating and gathering.
The kitchen is the heart of the home—a source of warmth and comfort, where people naturally congregate as the aromas of good food waft through the air. Unfortunately, the kitchen can also be a hidden source of toxins and carcinogens. Get rid of these common culprits, and you’ll be able to breathe easier in the most important room of your home.
Research has shown that cooking on gas burners without venting can cause excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. While electric ranges don’t produce combustion pollutants, all stovetop cooking creates fine particle pollutants; sautéing fats can also produce acrolein, a lung irritant. Get in the habit of powering on the hood vent before cooking on the stove. For the best performance, use the highest vent setting; cook on the back burners; let the fan run until pans are cool; and clean grease traps periodically. If you don’t have a range hood, open a window to increase ventilation and consider running a household fan.
Most commercial oven cleaners contain highly toxic chemicals such as ammonia and lye. These chemicals can remain in the oven after use and come in contact with food during cooking. Some ovens have a cleaning feature that burns off the residue at extremely high temperatures, but proper venting is essential to prevent carcinogens from being released into the air. The safest solution is to clean the oven’s interior while it is cool with warm, soapy water and scrub away any baked-on grease with a scouring pad and baking soda. Visit our Guide to Homemade Cleaners for recipes for natural oven cleaners.
Most paper products in the U.S.—including coffee filters, parchment paper, muffin pan liners and waxed paper—are bleached with chlorine gas or chlorine derivatives, chemicals known to create dioxins during manufacturing. Dioxin exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, nervous system, endocrine system and reproductive functions. Use unbleached paper products (look for “chlorine-free” and “dioxin-free” on the label), and opt for a reusable gold-plated mesh coffee filter instead of disposable filters.
If possible, purchase high-quality stainless steel, cast-iron, glass, ceramic or ceramic-coated cookware (make sure ceramic bakeware indicates that the glaze is lead-free). Untreated aluminum cookware has been cited as a possible risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases including dementia, autism and Parkinson’s disease, and findings indicate that acidic foods leach aluminum from pans. Anodized aluminum is generally more durable and scratch-resistant, but deeply scratched pots should be discarded—choosing higher-quality options is preferable. Also avoid nonstick cookware. Many nonstick pans’ coatings contain possible carcinogens, including perfluoroalkyl acid, which studies find can leach into food. Instead, oil pans to keep foods from sticking. Seasoned cast-iron pans are naturally nonstick.
A deadly outbreak of Listeria from tainted cantaloupes in 2011 illuminated a hard truth: We can’t assume produce is clean. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cutting, cooking or eating. Even if you’ll be peeling or cutting skin off produce such as melons, carrots and cucumbers, it’s smart to scrub the skin with a produce brush and dry thoroughly prior to cutting.
An antibacterial cutting board might sound good, but it’s probably treated with triclosan, a chemical suspected of interfering with the hormone systems of humans and animals. Safer alternatives include nonporous glass, slab wood and bamboo. Scrub cutting boards with hot, soapy water and air dry to avoid bacteria contamination. Avoid antibacterial soaps, which contain triclosan and are no more effective than regular soaps, according to the FDA.
Conventionally manufactured cabinets can be a significant source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the kitchen, especially if made from medium-density fiberboard, pressed wood, plywood or particleboard—all known to offgas formaldehyde. Many common exterior cabinetry finishes are also toxic. If you’re concerned about your cabinets, store food on open shelving or in a pantry. Cabinets can also be painted with a product such as AFM Safecoat’s no-VOC sealant, which can reduce formaldehyde transmission by up to 90 percent. When replacing cabinets, look for those certified by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturer Association’s Environmental Stewardship Program, which use recycled content and minimal toxic finishes and binders.
Exposure to certain chemicals found in some plastics has been linked to human health problems including reproductive disorders and cancer. The risk of chemical migration into food increases when plastic is damaged or heated. According to The Green Guide, the safest plastics for storing food are high-density polyethylene (#2), low-density polyethylene (#4) and polypropylene (#5). You may prefer to avoid plastics altogether with these alternatives.
• Use silicone, bamboo or stainless-steel cooking utensils.
• Opt for food-grade stainless steel or glass-lined bottles.
• Never microwave food in plastic containers, even if they’re “microwave-safe.” Never wash plastic containers in the dishwasher, which accelerates the breakdown of the plastic.
• Many food manufacturers coat the inside of metal cans with a resin made of BPA (bisphenol-A, an endocrine- disrupting chemical), which can leach into foods. Look for cans marked BPA-free by trusted manufacturers, or opt for glass jars or frozen foods.
• Avoid conventional plastic wrap. Most is made with low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is thought to contain the endocrine-disrupting chemical diethylhexyl adipate.
To believe most television commercials, we need an arsenal of chemical-laden wipes, disposable mops and aerosol sprays to keep kitchen surfaces clean. But toxic ingredients in many common household cleaning products have been linked to cancer, asthma, hormone disruption, reproductive disorders and neurotoxicity. Check labels for hazard warnings such as “danger” or “poison”—a good clue that you don’t want the product anywhere near your food—and try these simple strategies instead:
1. Sparkling Dishes
Dishwashing soap can contain triclosan, a harmful antibacterial agent. Instead, look for plant-based detergents, which clean dishes just as well without toxins. And rather than using a rinsing agent, which coats dishes with an antispotting chemical, try putting a shot glass filled with white vinegar in the top rack of the dishwasher or in the “rinse aid” compartment. The vinegar smell will disappear, leaving your dishes super-shiny.
2. Soap, Water & Elbow Grease
Avoid bleach, ammonia, and synthetic fragrances and dyes. Look for the words “nontoxic” and “biodegradable” on commercial labels, or use simple, nontoxic cleaning products such as white vinegar, baking soda, castile soap and hot water. Sponges with “odor-free” labels are usually treated with synthetic disinfectants, so choose scrubbers of pure cellulose instead. Visit our Guide to Homemade Cleaners for natural cleaning recipes for every area of your home.
3. Germ-Free Counters
Use hot, soapy water to clean surfaces or tools that come in contact with food. To zap germs, pour white vinegar in a squirt bottle and spray surfaces. (Don’t use vinegar on marble counters.) Then moisten a clean cloth with hydrogen peroxide and wipe over surfaces. (Test an inconspicuous area first to make sure it doesn’t harm the finish, and never combine vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in the same spray bottle.)
Eliza Cross is the author of seven books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things To Do With a Pickle. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening and good food at Happy Simple Living.
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