A room-by-room guide to eliminating toxins at home.
By Jodi Helmer
The summer before her junior year at the University of Texas in Austin, Allison Evans rented an apartment in a brand-new complex off campus. Evans was still unpacking boxes from the 2006 move when she started feeling sick.
“I went from feeling healthy and happy to very ill,” recalls Evans, now an entrepreneur in Houston.
Doctors struggled to diagnose Evans, whose symptoms ranged from numbness in her arms and face to lethargy, back pain and depleted motor skills. She made appointments with specialists in several states and left with prescriptions for antidepressants, muscle relaxers and painkillers but no answers.
Evans continued battling illness until her aunt, an environmental health consultant, started asking her questions about her home and the pieces fell into place.
“None of the doctors I saw asked me about environmental exposures,” says Evans, 27.
Evans started researching common household toxins such as mold, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds—and realized that she was living in a toxic soup.
Looking back, Evans believes toxins from the brand-new building materials in her apartment being released into the air, a phenomenon known as off-gassing, triggered her illness. She moved, switched to green cleaning products and swapped chemical-laden fabrics for natural fibers. Within months, Evans stopped taking her medications and her mysterious symptoms disappeared.
“I had no idea that my environment, the choices I made, could have that kind of impact on my health,” she says.
There is a demonstrated link between the toxins in common household items such as carpeting, cabinets, furniture, bedding and cleaning products and health problems ranging from asthma and headaches to fatigue and cancer. In fact, research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that levels of indoor air pollution are two to five times higher indoors than outdoors and, in extreme cases, might be up to 100 times higher.
“A big component of healthy living is reducing your exposure to household toxins,” explains Kimberly Button, author of The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home (Adams).
In the bedroom: The biggest piece of furniture in the bedroom is also the biggest source of health problems. Most mattresses are manufactured with chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOC), chemicals in not only furniture but also products such as paint, cleaning supplies and adhesives that can trigger allergies, and formaldehyde, a chemical linked to health effects that range from coughing and skin irritation to cancer.
Until 2005, mattresses were also coated with chemical flame retardants called polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), which the Environmental Working Group (EWG, www.ewg.org) has linked to serious health issues, including learning impairments.
“The chemicals in mattresses will [off-gas] for years,” says Button. According to Button, organic mattresses, which are manufactured without chemicals, are the safest option. But, with prices that are often double those of conventional mattresses, organic alternatives might not be affordable. To detoxify a new conventional mattress, remove the plastic and leave the mattress outside for at least 24 hours to give the chemicals time to off-gas into the air.
It’s also common for sheets, blankets and pillows to be manufactured with various chemicals. Organic alternatives such as cotton, hemp and bamboo are available.
The most important thing to avoid when shopping for sheets, according to Button, is a wrinkle-free finish: The sheets might look crisp but “the finish is made with formaldehyde [and] no matter how many times you wash them, it’ll never completely come out of the fibers.”
Dust mites also thrive in the bedroom and can turn a restful slumber into an all-night sneeze-fest. Washing sheets, blankets and pillows in hot water helps kill the microscopic mites but treating the mattress is more difficult. Button suggests setting the mattress outside in the hot sun because the heat kills dust mites.
In the living room: As Evans discovered when she moved into her new apartment, the formaldehyde used to manufacture carpeting and laminate flooring can have significant health effects.
“The new-home smell is really the smell of chemicals being released into the air,” she says.
Organic products or flooring made from natural materials such as hardwood, bamboo and wool carpeting are less-toxic options. (During a remodeling project, make sure that extras such as carpet padding and stain are also manufactured without chemicals.) Reclaimed flooring, available through architectural salvage stores, is a lower-cost option.
But, as Billiee Sharp, author of Lemons and Lavender: The Eco Guide to Better Homekeeping (Viva Editions), points out, it’s new products, including flooring, that leach toxins, not products that were installed years ago.
“If your carpet has been in the house for 10 years, the chemicals have already off-gassed,” she says.
In rental properties, where most landlords are concerned with holding down costs, opting for natural flooring materials might not be an option. If the carpeting or laminate is new, Sharp suggests renting a steam cleaner and cleaning the carpets with hot water and essential oils (skip the cleaner that comes with the machines).
“To get the most chemicals out of the carpet as possible, use the steam cleaner until the water runs clear,” she says.
Furniture is another source of toxins. Anything made from pressed woods, including sofas, coffee tables and bookcases, contains formaldehyde. Purchasing secondhand furniture that has already off-gassed and shopping for organic alternatives are both ways to reduce toxin exposure. In addition, Button suggests looking for unfinished wood furniture and taking a DIY approach to staining or painting it.
“It gives you the chance to apply the stains or paints you feel are the healthiest,” she points out.
When it comes to adding colors to the wall, skip conventional paints in favor of zero-VOC products. It’s possible to find zero-VOC paint in a range of colors and prices.
In the bathroom: A quick look under most bathroom sinks reveals a collection of cleaning products with difficult-to-pronounce ingredients such as hypochlorite, diethanolamine and triethanolamine—if the label lists any ingredients at all. Manufacturers of cleaning products aren’t required to list ingredients on the labels, according to the EWG. Even products labeled “natural” can be deceiving.
“There is no regulation of the word ‘natural,’” explains Pam Melby, field organizer for the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org). “Anyone can put anything in a bottle and call it natural.”
Most cleaning products that bear the USDA Organic seal also contain full ingredient listings, making them the best choice for scouring the bathroom, according to Melby. The downside: It can be difficult to find certified organic cleaners.
Household products such as vinegar, baking soda, borax and castile soap clean just as well as conventional cleaners without all of the toxic chemicals.
“Bringing dangerous chemicals into the house to make it clean doesn’t make much sense, does it?” says Sharp. “Especially when it’s really easy and really cheap to make your own.”
Evans created her own household cleaner. She was so pleased with the natural alternative to the harsh chemicals she’d been using that she trademarked the formula and began marketing it through her own company, Branch Basics.
Evans says, “I feel so much better knowing exactly what’s in the products I’m using in my home.”
In the closet: It takes up to one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for a single t-shirt, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project (www.sustainablecotton.org). A number of designers now wear their eco beliefs on their sleeves, creating organic clothing for the masses.
When it comes to organic clothing, cotton isn’t the only fabric out there: It’s possible to find organic hemp and soy clothing, too. As with other organic products, clothing is required to meet strict USDA standards in order to be certified organic. Clothing that bears the USDA Organic seal is guaranteed to be manufactured without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, which can irritate skin and trigger allergies.
“It’s really important to think about the clothing you wear because the fibers are right next to your skin,” says Melby.