Green Home, Sound Body

by Allan Richter

March 2009


Nurturing your own environment is the first step toward helping the planet.

If a damaged environment evokes only images of frightened polar bears floating on shrinking Arctic ice floes, consider the more local impact. An array of toxic household products means that it's too easy to damage the personal ecosystem housed within our own skin. So if a closer look at product labels in your house turns up a list of ingredients too difficult to pronounce, a green-home makeover may be in order.

Too daunting a prospect? "Take a step that you can do," suggests consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/ Penguin). "Change the sheets on your kids' beds or try buying a bag of organic cookies. Just take one step, then another. You'll find that you will feel better. If you look at it as something that is really going to help your house in many ways, it becomes proactive, like taking vitamins."

Though "green" and "healthy" aren't always thought of as synonymous, they might as well be. What's bad for the environment often hurts our bodies, too. It's worth being vigilant. Of the 17,000 chemicals in common household products, only 3 in 10 have been tested for their effects on human health, says Beth Greer, a holistic health advocate who changed her lifestyle after being diagnosed with a benign chest tumor.

As with cosmetics makers, manufacturers of household cleaners are not required by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission to test their products before they appear on store shelves, observes Greer, author of Super Natural Home (Rodale), due out next month. Nor does the Environmental Protection Agency require chemical manufacturers to conduct human toxicity studies before approving their products.

If attaining good health isn't strong enough reason to ditch the chemicals, consider the economic cost of bad health. One local study showed that the costs of lead poisoning, asthma, childhood cancer and behavioral disorders such as autism and mental retardation resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals and other pollutants totaled $381 million just in the state of Maine.

Little wonder that green-home advocates remind consumers to read product labels carefully—and with a healthy bit of skepticism. "Natural," for example, is an undefined word that is unregulated by government authorities. To help navigate this uncertainty in your food and household product aisles, Dadd recommends shopping by the process of elimination: Find labels that indicate a product's toxicity, and avoid those items entirely.

Greer offers a couple of other litmus tests for whether a household product belongs in your healthy home. A strong odor and watery eyes are sure giveaways that what's inside that bottle belongs nowhere near your body or in the air or water you consume. And if the product you're using makes cleaning too easy, it's probably too harsh; even with a cleaner, she says, you should have to scrub at least a bit.

Instead of using harsh chemical cleaners, Greer suggests keeping three essential natural, non-toxic products on hand: hydrogen peroxide, vinegar and baking soda. They do as good a job as the more noxious stuff, but without making you sick.

Greer cites tests at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in which cleaning with hydrogen peroxide and vinegar in sequence purged heavily contaminated foods and surfaces of virtually all salmonella, E. coli and shigella—even more effectively than commercial cleaners or chlorine bleach. Many studies, she adds, have confirmed vinegar as an effective disinfectant. In one study, a 5% solution of vinegar killed 99% of bacteria, 82% of mold and 80% of viruses.

Dadd suggests creating household cleaners by mixing a teaspoon of one or more of the following with one quart of warm or hot water: trisodium phosphate (TSP) for heavy cleaning, liquid soap or borax, with a little lemon juice or vinegar to cut grease. And one of the most useful cleaners is the most accessible: boiling water.

These versatile and non-toxic cleaners can be used in many rooms, including the bacteria-prone…

Kitchen

Countertops, appliances and wooden cutting boards can be cleaned by spraying them with 3% hydrogen peroxide solution, Greer says. It will kill the salmonella and other bacteria on the cutting board, and the countertops and appliances will be disinfected. All that will be left: a fresh, clean smell.

A powerful one-two punch, Greer says, involves separate sprayings of hydrogen peroxide and either white or apple cider vinegar. It doesn't matter which comes first; simply spray one immediately after the other. Be sure to not mix the two.

You can also clean non-wood surfaces by spraying a mix of one cup each of water and plain white vinegar, Greer says. Diluting the vinegar is important because it can damage tile glaze.

Oven cleaners are among the more noxious cleaners. The most risky toxins from these are lye and ammonia, says Dadd. (Even oven cleaners that are pitched as having "no fumes" can be caustic, she adds.) But instead of those noxious chemicals that you can immediately feel attacking your nasal passages and beyond, Dadd says a friend of hers mixes 2 tablespoons of liquid soap, 2 teaspoons of borax and warm water in a spray bottle (make sure the soap and borax dissolve so you don't clog the nozzle). Spray close to the oven, wearing gloves and glasses or goggles. Wait 20 minutes, then scrub with steel wool and a non-chlorine scoring powder. You can attack particularly stubborn areas with pumice. If you must use a chemical cleaner (just once to attack years of layered grime, Dadd says) don't use an aerosol.

Clean stainless steel pots and pans with baking soda to shine without scratching, Greer suggests. Stainless sinks can get the same treatment. A paste of baking soda and water can be left for a half hour on areas where food is sticking before sponging it off.

Though not necessarily a "green" issue, it's worth being aware of a potential risk with granite countertops. Last year, several news reports cited above-average levels of radon emissions from some granite samples. Radon is an odorless radioactive gas that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to the EPA.

While acknowledging that some granite used for countertops may contribute to indoor radon levels, the EPA says data is insufficient to conclude that such countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels. The EPA says all homes should be tested to ensure radon levels are below 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air. The main concern should be radon emitted from the soil, but a professional can also test your countertops. Inexpensive home radon test kits are also available.

Your pantry and fridge should be stocked with natural, organic foods. (See page 27 for a closer look at essential organic produce.) But don't counteract the health benefits of locally grown, organic foods by cooking them in aluminum or non-stick cookware or serving them on ceramic dishes with leaded glazes, particularly those from China, cautions Greer.

If you want to change some of your dishes start with your mugs; hot liquid, Greer says, can leech the lead in them. And when washing dishes, consider that most dish detergents are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable synthetic source.

For a green, healthy kitchen, Greer recommends avoiding what she calls the "fearsome five": pesticides; food additives and artificial sweeteners and colors; factory-farmed foods; genetically modified foods; and unfiltered tap water.

Bathroom

For sinks, tubs and showers, use baking soda as a scouring powder. For tough stains, smear a paste of baking soda and water on the spot and let it sit for a half hour before sponging. Again, Greer recommends a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to kill bacteria and viruses in the shower.

Routine maintenance is key for a clean, non-toxic shower, says Dadd. One way mildew grows in showers is via grout, which can absorb oils from shampoos, conditioners and soaps. Dadd says wiping down the tiles with a wet towel or rinsing them with the shower head after each shower will minimize your cleaning time.

For cleaning the toilet, Greer recommends applying plain, undiluted white vinegar.
And those bathroom towels? There are safe and natural solutions for cleaning those, too. For starters, you may want to avoid using fabric softeners. Fabric softeners often contain artificial fragrances that Dadd says people with allergies should be wary of. Greer adds that fabric softeners can make towels less absorbent. She recommends replacing your fabric softener with a half-cup of vinegar added to the rinse cycle to deodorize and soften them without losing absorbency.

Bedroom

In addition to your towels, reexamine how you clean your linens and the clothes in your bedroom closet or dresser.

As with many dish detergents, most conventional laundry detergents are made from petrochemicals, a nonrenewable synthetic source, and may contain bleaches, synthetic whiteners and artificial fragrances that can make their way into our lakes and rivers as well as our bodies.

Dadd recommends replacing such detergents with natural soap flakes or grated bar soap. Soap-based laundry products are available. But soap isn't always needed since laundering is often meant to freshen clothing and remove perspiration and odors. In this case, a cup of plain baking soda, white vinegar or borax will do. Or use a tablespoon of trisodium phosphate, sold at hardware stores, per washer load.

Fabric softeners are used to combat static cling, which is not an issue with natural fibers. So if you can't go cold turkey with the fabric softeners, Dadd suggests that you try separating your clothing by natural and synthetic fibers and use fabric softeners only with the latter. For blended materials, Dadd says, experiment without softeners. If you feel you must use one, Dadd says the safest fabric softener is the unscented sheet that goes into the dryer.

Fabric softeners are one of those inventions of the modern world, like synthetic fibers, Dadd observes. Health-wise, those synthetic fibers are no great bargain, either. Cotton/polyester blend permanent press fabrics, typically labeled "easy care" or "no iron," Greer notes, have formaldehyde finishes that stick with even laundered material.

The best idea for any material you put next to your body is organic cotton, grown without any chemical agents. Another option: bamboo sheets, which Greer says are soft and affordable. For blankets, she suggests trying untreated wool labeled "Pure Grow Wool" or "Eco Wool." Wool is also naturally hypoallergenic and resists dust mites and mold.

Beneath your blanket and sheets is a more expensive pursuit for living green, but one worth investigating: your mattress. Annie B. Bond, author of Home Enlightenment: Create a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home (Rodale), calls mattresses "chemical wastebaskets" that emit, or "out-gas," toxins from pesticides, herbicides, fire retardants, stain-resistance solvents and formaldehyde, among others. Fire retardant compounds called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been linked to endocrine problems, Bond says, and may cause cancer.

If it's not affordable for the time being to replace your mattress with one made from wool, a natural fire retardant, or other non-toxic source, you have other options. A mattress topper or what Bond terms a barrier cloth encasement can help reduce exposure. Barrier cloth, Bond notes, is made from tightly woven threads that block fumes from passing through.

While we're in the bedroom, it might seem strange to express concerns about invisible electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the place where you sleep, but that's precisely the point. Don't put your home office in the bedroom; with an alarm clock, TV and other electronic wiring, the place is already a potential hotbed for this unwanted exposure. Elevated EMF levels can cause headaches, nightmares, depression, fatigue and long-term illness, Greer observes.

For under $50, a Gauss meter can help you detect high EMFs, which are measured in milligauss (mG). As a point of reference, Bond says her dishwasher can measure more than 100 mG when running and 50 mG when off because it has an electrical transformer. In contrast, her electric stove with two burners registered 1 mG at 2 feet. Even this low level might cause ill effects, Bond says, citing studies conducted in Sweden, so the last place you want excessive EMFs is the bedroom.

Avoid halogen lights or devices that have little transformer boxes, Bond advises. Further, unplug lamps and appliances that are near your bed before retiring. Talk to an electrician about a "demand circuit" and other wiring tricks that can cut electricity flow when not needed. A TV and electric clock, unless battery operated, Bond says, should be kept at least 8 feet from the bed, through Greer is less conservative and says the clock should be kept 2 to 3 feet from where you sleep.

Home Office

To similarly block electrical fields, unplug your computer when it is not in use. One technology trend in both computers and television that is working in favor of good health, for both you and the environment, is the move away from video display terminals (VDTs) and toward liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The transition is just about complete in both computer and television manufacturing, so if you still have an old VDT monitor, it won't be difficult to upgrade. LCDs, like VDTs, produce radiation but it travels at shorter distances, Dadd notes. Further, an LCD screen operates on less powerful voltage.

When your computer has reached the end of its life, talk to your town or computer maker about how to recycle electronics.

and these...

To clean windows and mirrors, Greer recommends that you fill a bottle with equal parts vinegar and water, and spray. Don't worry about that initial vinegar smell—it disappears when it dries.

Particle board and plywood, often found in furniture like bookcases and desks, outgas formaldehyde, which irritates eyes, nose and throat and is a suspected carcinogen, says Dadd, who recommends buying natural furniture whenever possible. Dadd has bought used furniture and refurbished cushions with new cotton; she's also re-covered furniture with untreated cotton fabric.

Wall-to-wall carpets may do a lot to muffle sound pollution and make a house cozier, but the toxic tradeoff isn't worth it. Bond, who calls carpeting a "sinkhole" of allergens and toxins, cites risks from glues that attach carpet to flooring, pesticides from latex binders and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) "from a chemical soup of dozens and dozens of chemicals used in carpet manufacturing." Go with hardwood flooring.

Trade in the SUV.

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