Spring Clean Your Air: 5 Tips to Reduce Allergens & Hidden Health Hazards in Your Home Part 2

Here are three more hidden health hazards in your home to pay close attention to. Most people are totally unaware of these and the increased opportunity for allergies and illness they present!

  1. Furniture and Home Furnishings That Can Bring You DownOne major source of hazardous exposure is the chemicals and neuro-toxic solvents used furniture and home furnishings. These include but are not limited to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint, solvents used to stain and finish furniture, flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) and stain resistant coatings like perchloroethylene (the main chemical used in dry-cleaning) added to your drapes, carpets, upholstered furniture and bedding, and even the PVC (polyvinyl chloride)in your plastic shower curtain. Collectively, your home furnishings outgas a variety of chemicals that can become a significant source of pollution in the home.To make matters worse, your carpets, drapes and upholstery can be a gold mine for dust mites, and if your home is damp, a fertile breeding ground for mold –-both common sources of allergy and illness. For this reason, many allergists recommend that their patients get rid of carpets altogether. At a minimum, you can install a dehumidifier and make sure to steam and clean carpets thoroughly and regularly.

    Next time you’re ready to paint, switch to low or no VOC paints. Consider upgrading your home with furniture made from natural fibers like wool, organic cotton, untreated wood or wood finished with a water-based stain. Or buy used or antique furniture that’s at least five years old, where it’s a good bet that most of their chemicals have already been released. Avoid furnishings made from particleboard, polyurethane foam, and PVC.

  2. The Bedroom: An Oasis of Calm or a Chamber of Horrors?It may sound a little dramatic, but the place where you spend a third of your life may be teaming with toxins and dust mites! Most traditional mattresses are made with metal coils coated in toxic chemicals to keep them from rusting and degrading over time. On top of that, they are filled with polyurethane foam, flame retardant materials, and/or cotton loaded with pesticides. Then there are the chemicals added to the outer layer of the mattress to make them water and stain resistant. That adds up to a lot of chemicals that you are frequently lounging around on!Ditch your mattress in favor of a greener, cleaner option like natural (not hybrid) latex, natural rubber, organic cotton, or organic wool. Natural latex is naturally anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, dust mite proof, and relieves pressure points along the body. Natural rubber is exceptionally breathable, naturally hygienic, will not house dust mites, and has been shown to reduce pressure-point pain up to 30% better than memory foam. Wool is an excellent choice because of its high moisture content and the protein (keratin) that it contains, making it naturally flame resistant and hostile to dust mites.

    If you can’t swing a new bed, make yours more comfy and allergen-free by adding a wool or natural rubber mattress topper. The wool in mattress toppers (and in mattresses) is well encased in cotton so if you’re allergic or sensitive to it there shouldn’t be a problem. At a minimum, swing for organic cotton zippered encasings to protect your lungs from dust mite allergens and put a little barrier between yourself and the toxins being out gassed by your current mattress.

  3. Do You Practice Fireplace Safety & Common Sense?If you have or use a fireplace then you may be setting yourself up for possible carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition, wood fires can release a substance called benzopyrene–a carcinogen that can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.Make sure your fireplace and/or wood stove are installed properly and the flue is open when you light a fire. Have both inspected annually to remove creosote build up which can block the chimney and force toxic fumes back into your living room. As a precaution, install a smoke and carbon monoxide detector nearby.

Focus on Prevention: How to Determine Your Body Burden

It’s difficult to know what specific steps you can take to reduce your exposure to hidden toxins if you don’t know the different possible ways you are being exposed. Getting a handle on your body burden requires getting your blood, urine, and possibly hair tested for the presence of these substances. As of right now, there are no formal tests or reliable standards for measurement and even less hard information is available on how to reduce your body burden let alone how to the chemicals out. Most of what we know about body burdens of contaminants comes from limited studies of a few contaminants, conducted by government agencies on selected groups of people.

Monitoring the presence of certain chemicals in a community for example can help identify pollutants present in that community that may be adversely affecting the health of the population in that community. But there’s no definitive way to determine how or how much they are being impacted by the exposures.

This is obviously a growing area of concern so eventually there will be better standards for measuring and determining not only what your body burden is but how you can go about lowering it. In the meantime, try this What’s in You? Online Body Burden Assessment. While it doesn’t give you specific steps you can take to lower your burden, it does give you an idea of where you stand relative to the average American with respect to some key substances.

Just going through the process of filling out this questionnaire will raise your IQ in this area by making you aware of products you use that might be adding to your burden –everything from personal care and household cleaning products, to non-stick cookware, to how long you sit in front of a computer monitor or television everyday, all provide a clues about how much potentially toxic exposure. Very eye-opening I must say! I scored 315 out of 794 which is lower than average. While that’s encouraging, there were still some areas that came to my attention that I need to work on!

There is one caveat in that even if your body burden is in line with the average or higher, there’s no way of knowing what the health impact of that is. If you follow the precautionary principle of better safe than sorry then an average or higher than average ranking should be a wake up call to make some changes. There are safer, healthier alternatives to a lot of the products out there that are being commonly used and there are simple changes and adjustments you can make to your routines that will help!

For more information on Body Burden, check out these resources:

If you take the online assessment, please share with me your scores and what you learned in the process.

Focus on Prevention: What is Your Body Burden?

You’ve probably noticed that my focus for the past week or so has been on prevention. Taking pro-active preventive measures to protect yourself from unnecessary harm –first in the arena of personal care and beauty, then in the area of medicine consumption. Because those are areas that you have a lot more control over and are relatively easy to manage.

But now I’d like to focus on areas that are hidden sources of trouble and that are a little more difficult to manage –mainly exposure to environmental toxins—because in many cases they are difficult to detect. One indicator of how much you’re being affected by exposure to toxic or potentially toxic substances, and how that might impact your health is something called your “body burden.”

What is your body burden? It’s a measurement of the total amount of synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, and other substances that build up in your body over time –starting with exposures you had as a fetus in the womb.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tests the “body burden” of chemicals every two years, finds the average American now has 116 synthetic compounds in her body, including dioxin (produced by burning plastic), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in auto exhaust) and organochlorine pesticides (found in farming areas).

Recent studies have detected these pesticides, plastics and polymers not only in umbilical cord blood, but also in the placenta, human milk and the bloodstreams and body fat of infants. Though some of these chemicals pass through body systems in a matter of days, some maintain a long-term presence because exposure is constant. Exposures add up, as they say.

Scientists say women are especially sensitive to synthetic chemicals because these substances can interfere with female hormone cycles and because they adhere to body fat that is more prevalent in women than in men.

Voluntary bio-monitoring programs are key to driving the scientific research to determine and ultimately eliminate or limit unnecessary exposures. However programs like this take time and given what we already know and are constantly discovering, it would be prudent to start embracing “best practices” now rather than waiting for conclusive evidence –at which point the damage for many may be irreversible.

Health advocates are encouraging consumers to shun pesticides, remove outdoor shoes in the house, choose fragrance- and toxin-free products, use baby bottles that are free of a carcinogenic chemical called bisphenol-A and press authorities for stricter laws and more studies.

Give Your Bathroom Cabinet a Spring Cleaning: What to Toss and Why?

By eliminating products made with ingredients that at worst, are toxic and potentially harmful to your health, and at best, irritants or allergens that do not serve you on your path to more healthful living, you will greatly reduce your risk of exposure and may even rid yourself of persistent unexplained health problems.

Still not sure what products pose the most harm? Start with the pile or bin of products you use daily. Anything that goes in your mouth or on your skin, are the biggest culprits to watch out for. Toss out toothpastes made with fluoride, mouthwashes made with alcohol, any products made with propylene glycol –as the key ingredient in anti-freeze this substance may be good for your car but not for your mouth or your skin!

Alcohol, commonly used in mouthwashes, as well as styling products and even some moisturizers, is drying, changes the pH of the mouth or skin, and strips away the protective mucous membrane in the mouth and throat. Fluorides are industrial waste products created in the production of aluminum, phosphoric acid, and phosphate fertilizers, that have been linked to bone problems, diabetes, thyroid malfunction, and mental impairment.

Avoid soaps, body wash, cleansers, and shampoos made with SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. These are harsh detergents that typically strip away your skin and hair’s natural oils, leaving them dry and vulnerable to damage. You can tell when they are present because of the never-ending foamy suds or lather they are specifically designed to create!

Other ingredients to be concerned about in your liquid soap, body wash products, and shampoos: Cocamide EDTA (or similar compounds ending with DEA, TEA or MEA) along with formaldehyde-forming substances such as Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, Diazo-lidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and Quaternium-15. These are ingredients that have been known to react with other nitrogen-based ingredients to form cancer-causing nitrosamines after absorption.

And a special word of caution regarding “anti-bacterial” liquid hand soaps, body washes, hand sanitizers, or any product made with Triclosan. This chemical is classified by the EPA as a toxic pesticide, measured in parts per billion, and one of its by-products is Dioxin. Its over-use has scientists seriously worried about the rise of ‘super bugs’ — harmful bacteria that are resistant to existing antiseptics and antibiotics.

One other ingredient that you should be very wary of is unidentified “fragrance” oils or compounds (sometimes referred to as Fragrance or Parfum). These are synthetic chemicals made in a lab, designed to mimic the smell of many things that exist in nature –fruits, flowers, trees, and food. The problem is that “fragrance” often contains Phthalates (industrial chemicals used as solvents and plasticizers in cosmetics) which are now known to be endocrine disruptors (wreak havoc with your hormones) and potentially damaging to the kidneys, liver, and lungs, but especially harmful to pregnant women.

Phthalates don’t appear on the ingredients lists of the vast majority of products containing them including so-called “fragrance-free” or “unscented” products that may contain fragrances designed to “cover up” the smell of other ingredients. And many so-called “natural” products often use a combination of essential oils and fragrance oils, so be vigilant about this when checking labels.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer: What is Your Body Burden?

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tests the “body burden” of chemicals every two years, finds the average American now has 116 synthetic compounds in her body, including dioxin (produced by burning plastic), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in auto exhaust) and organochlorine pesticides (found in farming areas).

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), recent studies have detected these pesticides, plastics and polymers not only in umbilical cord blood, but also in the placenta, in human milk, and in the bloodstreams and body fat of infants. While some of these chemicals can pass through the body in a matter of days, more often than not, they tend to maintain a long-term presence in the body due to persistent or frequent regular exposure.

In its State of the Evidence: 2010, the Breast Cancer Fund notes that the increasing incidence of breast cancer over these decades paralleled the proliferation of synthetic chemicals. Approximately 85,000 synthetic chemicals are registered today in the United States, and it is estimated that 1,000 or more new chemicals are synthesized each year. Complete toxicological screening data are available for just 7 percent of these chemicals. More than 90% of them have never been tested for their effects on human health. That’s an awful lot of substances to be exposed to that could be harming us without our knowledge or consent.

That’s why health advocates are encouraging consumers to shun pesticides, remove outdoor shoes before entering their homes, choose fragrance- and toxin-free products, use baby bottles and water bottles that are free of a carcinogenic chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA), and lobbying for stricter laws as well as more research.

Our rising “body burden” is cause for serious concern, not just because of the increased risk for cancer in general, but because of a whole host of health problems that might be linked to it. Scientists say women are especially sensitive to synthetic chemicals because these substances can interfere with female hormone cycles, and because they adhere to body fat that is more prevalent in women than in men. And a growing number of studies demonstrate that chemical exposures during the prenatal period through adolescence can have profound lifelong impacts on breast tissue development and susceptibility to cancer later in life.

There are a lot of substances that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Many of these exposures are out of our control, but there are also many we can control. Now, more than ever before, it has become imperative that we do everything in our power to protect ourselves and our children from future harm! What will you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Use Natural Green Cleaning Supplies in Your Home Part 2

As I promised in my last post, here are the other 3 of 6 suggestions for using commonly found ingredients in your kitchen to create your own green and natural cleaning products and solutions. These were excerpted from an article in the April 2009 issue of Real Simple magazine. Be sure to check out some of the books in the resource section at the end, including a room-by-room guide from Real Simple and continue to share your real-life experiences with these solutions, if you’ve used any of them.

A water softener that when added to laundry, makes detergents more effective. It’s also alkaline so it’s effective at killing mold and fungus. Pour it into your toilet bowl, swish it around then let it sit overnight before flushing. Add it to dishwater to soak and clean your china (including hand painted china), and sprinkle it on the bottom of your dishwasher and let it sit overnight to deodorize it.

Because of its acidity, this common kitchen ingredient can wipe out tarnish, soap scum, mineral deposits as well as dirt and grease. Pour equal parts vinegar and water and run it through the brew cycle in your coffee machine. Halfway through turn the power off for about an hour then resume. When done, run several cycles with clean water. Use it straight to clean drains (flush afterwards with cold water). Spray it directly onto walls to kill mold (rinse after 15 minutes and let dry). Use a 50/50 mixture with water to clean mineral deposits in your steam iron. Add a 1/4 cup to a bucket of warm water to clean almost any type of floor (except marble and wood). Mix 1/4 cup with 2 cups of water and a squirt of castile soap in a spray bottle and use as a window or glass cleaner (for best results wipe off with newspaper).

Baking & Washing Soda
Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda) and its cousin Sodium Carbonate (washing soda) are hardworking cleaners that effortlessly cut through grease and grime. Washing soda is stronger and can’t be ingested. Use washing soda for tough jobs like cleaning barbecue utensils, stove burners, and even removing tough stains from garage floors or other concrete surfaces. You can sprinkle the washing soda directly onto the concrete and sprinkle a little water to form a paste then let it stand overnight, scrub and hose down or wipe clean. For stove burners, soak them overnight in a mixture of 1/2 cup washing soda and 1 gallon of warm water, then clean as usual. For stained tea cups and coffee mugs use a mixture of 1 part baking soda to 2 parts water and soak for 30 minutes before washing them.

Some additional resources for more information and recommendations:

Better Basics for the Home, Annie Bond

Green Clean, Linda Mason Hunter

Naturally Clean, Jeffrey Hollender

The Naturally Clean Home, Karyn Siegel-Maier

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, Robert L. Wolke

To access a wealth of natural cleaning tips, visit www.realsimple.com and do a search on ‘Natural Cleaning Guide.’

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Use Natural Green Cleaning Supplies in Your Home Part 1

Sometimes I wonder if the effort it takes to find a good green cleaner or variety of cleaners is worth the investment of time and money when there are so many safe and natural ingredients that are probably already in your kitchen (or certainly widely available for a low cost) you could use to make your own green cleaning solutions. Below 3 of 6 suggestions taken from an article in the April 2009 issue of Real Simple magazine. Check back in a few days for the other three as well as additional resources.

The acid in lemon juice removes dirt and rust stains and works especially well as a scouring paste when mixed with table salt. Use it to clean stainless steel countertops by dipping a lemon half in baking soda and running it across the surface (then wiping clean); increase the grease-cutting power of your dishwashing liquid by adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to it; deodorize your garbage disposer by cutting a lemon in half and running it through the disposer; clean stains out of grout by adding a little juice to a teaspoon of cream of tartar to make a paste and use a toothbrush to scrub it out; or brighten your laundry whites when you add a 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the rinse cycle.

Liquid Castile Soap
This gentle, plant-based liquid soap is great as a natural body wash and because of it’s ability to loosen grime and dirt from surfaces, it can do double duty as an effective floor and surface cleaner too. Combine 1/4 cup (i.e. 2 oz) of liquid castile with a gallon of warm water and use it to wash your car, or mop your floors (if the floors are greasy you can add 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar and a couple of drops of orange essential oil to the mix). You can also use it to clean leather upholstery (add two drops of soap to a quart of warm water). Combine 1 tablespoon of soap with 1/3 cup of baking soda and go to town on your sinks, showers, tubs, and ceramic tiles.

Cooking/Vegetable Oils
You probably never considered that the same oils you cook with can be used as furniture or even shoe polish! Plant-based oils like olive and safflower dislodge dirt, diminish scratches and bring new life and luster to wood that has aged or dried out from exposure to the sun. Make your own polish by mixing 2 cups olive or vegetable oil with the juice of 1 lemon. Use it to keep rattan and wicker furniture from drying or cracking. You can even use it to clean cast iron cookware by making a paste with vegetable oil and a teaspoon of coarse salt to remove cooked-on debris. And a little vegetable oil can help remove paint or stubborn glue from your hands (Jojoba oil is especially good for this, though a lot more expensive).

Have you tried any of these solutions? If yes, then share your experiences with us by commenting below.

The Safest Green Cleaning Option: Homemade Solutions

If you want to take your all natural, earth friendly cleaning a step further, you can easily make your own green cleaning supplies at home. This way, you can also lessen the environmental impact on your local landfill by leaving the plastic containers at the store and not in your garbage can.

If you happen to own an LCD television or a computer monitor, you’ve probably discovered that cleaners like Windex are useless for getting your screen streak free. However, did you know that a simple solution of one part white vinegar and one part water will get your screen looking as good as new? If you add in one part rubbing alcohol to that solution, then you have a safe and effective cleaner for your windows and mirrors. Not only does this solution work just as well as chemical-based cleaners, it’s simple to make and costs a fraction of store-bought cleaners.

You’ve probably wondered what chemicals are hiding in that bottle of Drano or Liquid Plummer but didn’t think there were any other options for unclogging your drains. If you were one of those kids who made a volcano at home for a class project or a science fair, you may want to try this experiment. Simply pour two tablespoons of baking soda into your drain and then add vinegar and stand back. Wait a few moments, add some warm water to see if the clog is removed.

Furniture polish is another one of those items that many of us can’t imagine living without. What looks better than a freshly dusted and polished table? There is an all natural alternative to those nasty aerosol wax polishes. Start with one part olive oil, one part vinegar and then add in a teaspoon or two of lemon juice. Transfer this mixture to a spray bottle and you have the cheapest and most effective furniture polish ever. Liquid wax jojoba is also a good choice (though pricey for cleaning -I personally would save that for your skin care needs). All natural lemon oil may also be an excellent solution to the problem.

Selecting green cleaning products for your home often comes down to simple common sense and questioning the beliefs you may have come to accept as truths handed down to us from generations of advertising and marketing campaigns. These campaigns have set the standard for cleanliness in our minds based on the notion that harsh detergents and chemicals are the only way to effectively get the job done. Try a kinder, gentler approach and see for yourself.

The Nose Knows the Truth About Common Cleaning Supplies

Consider some of the most widely used cleaning products like all-purpose glass and surface cleaners, bath and tile cleaners, mold and mildew removers, floor waxes, laundry detergents, and even oven cleaners. If you use any of these, then you’re probably well aware of the strong and sometimes sickening chemical smells these products often have. Over the years, we’ve come to erroneously equate these smells with strength and effectiveness. Remember the old ad slogan for Ajax? “Stronger than Dirt” made up an entire campaign for this company that helped shape beliefs about other cleaners. In other words, if it doesn’t have a strong chemical smell then it must not be doing the job.

The truth is that the chemicals that give these products their noxious smells are not only toxic to inhale but in some cases can even kill you. Take a common and widely used product like Windex for example. This is a product people have used for generations, but did you know that it contains ammonia? Ammonia is a dangerous chemical that can easily make you pass out if you breath too much of it and potentially lethal when combined with something like bleach. This seems like a steep price to pay for clean mirrors and windows and yet most of us apply it or similar products liberally and frequently without a second thought.

Everyone knows how dangerous and even toxic a mold or mildew infestation can be, so it only seems natural that we would buy a simple spray to prevent it from happening. However, a spray like Tilex may be even worse for you to breathe in than the mildew it is eradicating. That’s because it contains concentrated bleach, which means it can stain anything that isn’t white, will burn your lungs if you don’t cover your nose and mouth while you spray it, and can be quite harsh if it comes in contact with your skin too.

Speaking of cleaners that stink up your entire home, oven cleaners are notorious for making your eyes water and your skin sting. Products like Easy Off contain ingredients like Diethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals that cause kidney damage in humans, create chemical burns, and can even cause blindness in some cases.

A Better Way: The Green Clean Difference

Thankfully, natural cleaners have made great strides in the United States and abroad so you no longer have to go to specialty stores to find them. Most major grocery chains carry at least one brand of all natural cleaning products. But how do you know what to choose? Here are some general tips on what to look for:

  • Phosphate-Free & Bleach-Free Laundry Detergents. Phosphates are water-softening mineral additives once widely used in detergents to enhance their stain-removing capabilities. In addition to threatening aquatic and plant life, they can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested, and skin irritation due to their corrosive nature. Bleach is harmful to your lungs and mucous membranes and produces trihalomethanes –toxins linked to cancer– as well as absorbable organic halides, which are harmful to marine organisms. Look for dish and laundry detergents that are free of both phosphates and bleach.
  • Chlorine-Free Dishwasher Detergent. Just as too much chlorine in your pool can irritate your lungs and eyes, chlorine fumes in steam that leaks from dishwashers can irritate your eyes and make it harder for you to breathe. Chlorine also tends to contain organocholorines, which have been known to cause cancer and leave a chemical residue on your dishes that can transfer to your food.
  • Ammonia-Free Bathroom Cleaners. As mentioned earlier, ammonia can be harmful to your lungs as well as an irritant to eyes and skin, which frequently comes in contact with bathroom fixtures that have been cleaned with it. You’re better off with an all-natural cleaner that uses vegetable enzymes or natural mineral polishers like borax or an old standby like Bon Ami polishing cleanser.
  • Plant-Based All-Purpose Cleaners. Look for plant-based cleaners as these are biodegradable which means they can be broken down by fungus, bacteria, or other naturally occurring organisms, and are safe to release into the environment. Look for cleaners with surfactants made from natural sources like coconut or olive oil, and use citrus essential oils rather than “fragrances” that smell like citrus that may combined with harmful chemicals like ethoxylates, butyl cellusolve (a skin-penetrating neuro-toxin) or ortho-phenylphenol (a harsh eye and skin irritant).

The key with any green cleaner is to carefully look at the ingredients and claims involved. If you’re dealing with a cleaner that is made primarily from harmful chemicals instead of organic extracts, all natural oils, or things like baking soda and calcium carbonate, you should probably be shopping for a better option. Keep in mind that few cleaning products actually provide a list of ingredients on the bottle. Don’t be fooled by claims like “Citrus Power” or “Oxy Active.” It can have natural claims on the label without actually being a natural product, or as is often the case, it may contain a combination of natural ingredients and harsh chemicals. And consider making your own green cleaning supplies.