In Your Home

Consider yourself a homebody? Well, consider this: your home may be hazardous to your body. Even those of you who aren’t homebodies need to consider that Americans spend an estimated 90 percent of their time in indoor environments, which tend to be three to ten times more toxic than outdoor environments. The many chemicals in building materials and household products coupled with limited ventilation and slow chemical degradation indoors—away from sun, water, and temperature extremes—mean that indoor chemical concentrations are higher than outdoor levels. Consider taking the following steps to reduce your personal exposure at home:

  • Choose natural or less toxic cleaning products, and ensure that products are fragrance-free. Baking soda and white vinegar are tried and true alternatives to many commercial cleaning products, which often contain a multitude of hazardous chemicals. A number of websites provide product-specific information and offer safe alternatives; these sites include the Guide to Less Toxic Products of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, the Safer Products Project of Clean Production Action, the Household and Cleaning Products section of Healthy Child Healthy World, and the Green Home Cleaning Campaign page of Beyond Toxics. One helpful guide is Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living (Three Rivers Press, 1999).
  • Wash hands frequently. Not only does hand washing prevent spreading germs, studies have shown that hand washing reduces the amount of flame retardants that enter our bodies. Remember to use regular soap and water—avoid antibacterial soaps, which may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals.
  • Clean with microfiber cloths. These cleaning aids do not use chemical cleaning agents and can last several years. Made of polyester and polyamide, they are untreated, reusable cloths that lift dirt, grease, and dust.
  • Do not sand wood floors that were treated in the 1950s or 1960s with Fabulon finish. This finish may be an ongoing source of exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are endocrine disrupting compounds that affect thyroid hormone and the developing brain and are associated with breast cancer.
  • Monitor what goes down the drains in your home. Never put cleaning solvents, pesticides, paint thinners, automobile oil, or gas down a drain.
  • Never flush medications down a toilet or drain. Pharmaceuticals—especially antibiotics and hormone replacement medications, such as estrogen—are adversely affecting the environment, as water treatment facilities cannot filter out all the chemical compounds that medications may leave behind. For disposal suggestions, visit the No Drugs Down the Drain website.
  • Do not use toilet bowl deodorizers that contain paradichlorobenzene, the same carcinogen often found in mothballs. Use nontoxic alternatives, such as lemon juice, borax, baking soda, and white vinegar.
  • Select home furnishings made from natural fibers. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are commercially produced flame retardants that are used in many commercial products. They are also endocrine disruptors that affect thyroid hormones. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from such natural fibers as wool, cotton, and hemp, which are naturally flame retardant. Decline stain-resistant treatment of furnishings and fabrics. Avoid furniture made from pressed wood or particleboard, which releases the carcinogen formaldehyde.
  • Repair ripped furniture. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling in furniture, so if your couch or chair upholstery has rips or tears, sew these closed to reduce your exposure.
  • Avoid phthalates in your household furnishings. These plastic softeners are found in polyvinyl flooring, wall coverings, and shower curtains. That strong odor you smell when you open up a new vinyl shower curtain comes from phthalates; over time, as the phthalates leak out, shower curtains tend to grow brittle. To avoid exposure to these endocrine disrupting compounds, choose untreated cloth curtains and curtain liners—such as those made from nylon—and natural flooring and wall covering options.
  • Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting. Carcinogens tend to collect in carpeting. Instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, use area rugs—ideally, ones made from natural materials—that you can take outside to air and clean.
  • Avoid tracking pollutants into your home. Pesticides and other toxics often enter your home tracked in with dust and dirt on the bottom of your shoes. To minimize the spread of these pollutants, place a doormat on the outside of each entrance to your home and a rug on the inside of each entryway. Adopt the habit of removing your outdoor shoes upon entry and ask your guests to do the same.
  • Choose vacuum cleaners that help minimize indoor pollution. Carpets can harbor pesticides, allergens such as mold, flame retardants, and other chemicals. Cleaners with a strong suction, a brush on/off switch, and a multilayered bag for dust collection are the best in preventing dust from recycling into the air.
  • Choose building materials, paints, stains, and sealants that are identified as “low VOC” or “no VOC.” VOCs—volatile organic compounds—are major sources of air pollution, both indoors and out, and are found in many building materials and products. Many VOCs are known to cause cancer in animals, while some are suspected of causing—or are known to cause—cancer in humans. For more information, read the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s fact sheet on VOCs.
  • Choose electronic equipment that does not contain PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. These endocrine disruptors are commercially produced flame retardants that are often added to polyurethane foam, various plastics, and electronics equipment. For more tips on reducing your exposure to PBDEs in your home, visit the Environmental Working Group’s website.
  • Take daily measures to improve your indoor air quality. Open windows periodically to ventilate your home. Vent your gas stove, broiler, grill, or fireplace to the outdoors, and avoid using wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. For details about protecting your indoor air, consult with the Environmental Protection Agency’s extensive report, The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.
  • Do not allow smoking in your home. Tobacco smoke is a substantial source of exposure to carcinogens.
  • Avoid artificial air fresheners and other scented products. The number and variety of scented products—including air fresheners, scented candles, and incense—have increased dramatically in recent years. Yet “scent” or “fragrance” as an ingredient often signifies the presence of phthalates, which are endocrine disrupting compounds, as well as other irritating chemicals. Opt for fragrance-free products whenever possible. Better yet, use fresh flowers and greens instead. Choose beeswax and organic candles, which emit fewer toxics than candles made from paraffin. And be sure to select candles with cotton wicks rather than metal core wicks, which often contain lead.
  • Control household pests without resorting to pesticides. Seal the holes through which pests enter your home and control them by using borax or sticky traps that do not contain pesticides, even if they are plant-based, such as rotenone. Healthy Child Healthy World recommends using mint and lavender to ward off mice and sprinkling red chili powder, paprika, dried peppermint, peppermint essential oil, powdered soap, or borax where ants enter your home. Beyond Pesticides offers “Least Toxic Control of Pests In the Home and Garden,” a series of fact sheets on alternatives for controlling pests ranging from ants to gypsy moths to weeds.
  • Do not store gas-powered engines, gasoline, or solvents in your basement or attached garage, as the fumes may enter the house. If you must, open the space to the outdoor air, ventilate, and consider storing hazards in an airtight box.
  • Take care in using glues, paints, and solvents. When you do use them, do so outside or in a well-ventilated area.
  • Carefully follow manufacturers’ directions about using and storing hazardous chemicals. This adherence will maximize your safety and that of others.
  • Limit your exposure to products containing methylene chloride, a probable human carcinogen. This chemical can be found in such consumer products as paint strippers, adhesives, adhesive removers, fabric cleaners, furniture polish, paint strippers, wood sealant and stains, spray paints, adhesives, shoe polish, and art supplies.
  • Choose unbleached, chlorine-free paper products. The bleaching process produces the carcinogen dioxin.
  • Visit The Green Guide. This online resource offers information about problems and solutions for products ranging from shampoo to refrigerators to wood finishes.
  • Undertake a Green Home Makeover. Explore The Green Guide’s room-by-room analysis for protecting yourself from toxics in your home.
  • return to top of page