How Toxic Is Your Home?

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Hearing about toxins in the home is enough to make any homeowner nervous – especially if you just bought your house or you’re planning to stay there for the long haul. But the reality is that some substances commonly found in American households can have a negative impact on your health or wellbeing – not to mention that of the planet.

In this guide, we’ll offer some insight into products and substances that might contain toxic chemicals or that have been linked to negative side effects. We’ll also offer alternatives that are easy to find, effective, and inexpensive.

Background: Avoiding Toxin Doom & Gloom

Before we dig in, here’s a disclaimer: there’s a lot of pseudoscience out there about “toxins” and “chemicals.” For the purposes of this guide, we’re proceeding with the following assumptions:

  1. Everything is made up of chemicals, and not all chemicals are harmful! (E.g., the chemical composition of water is hydrogen and oxygen.)
  2. Most household products sold commercially are mostly safe, thanks to the many safety regulations they have to adhere to (read about the many regulations for household cleaners, for example).
  3. Despite the above, some substances can have harmful effects on people or animals even if they’re used properly. These effects are often either discovered by new research that wasn’t available when a product was approved or only happen to a small portion of the population.

Finally, nothing in this guide is intended to be diagnostic. It’s merely informational. If you have any concerns about a health condition, you should consult your physician. If someone in your home has ingested a substance you think is toxic, contact poison control.

Everything is made up of chemicals, and not all chemicals are harmful!
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Part 1: Household Toxins in Plain Sight (and Alternatives)

In this section, we’ll highlight common household substances that are harmful if used improperly. These are substances that you may not be able to get around using in your daily life but that you want to keep away from children and pets, who might try to eat them.

All-purpose cleaners & other household cleaners

Some of the heavy-duty all-purpose cleaners out there can irritate your skin and your respiratory system and can be toxic if swallowed. Even “specialized” cleaners (for toilets, mirrors, mold, ovens, carpet / upholstery, drains, and furniture) often have ingredients that irritate our systems. Common dangerous ingredients include ammonia, ethylene glycol, monobutyl acetate, sodium hypochlorite, and trisodium phosphate.

  • Handle safely: Wear latex gloves when using these cleaners, and open windows and doors to improve airflow. Never mix two cleaners (ammonia and bleach create a poisonous gas when combined).
  • Alternatives: You can clean most stuff in your home with some combination of baking soda, vinegar, lemons, and hydrogen peroxide. See some more detailed recipes for specific non-toxic product replacements.

Antifreeze

Fumes from ethylene glycol-based antifreeze can make you dizzy. Ingesting it can be deadly. This substance has a sweet smell, so pets might be attracted to it.

  • Handle safely: Store in a sealed container out of reach of children and pets. Clean up spills quickly, and wear gloves to do so, because it’s possible to absorb it through your skin.
  • Alternative: Propylene glycol-based antifreeze.

Batteries

Wet-cell batteries (like those in car engines) contain sulfuric acid and lead. They’re sealed, but if the seal is broken, fumes from the acid can cause irritation, and the acid itself can cause skin damage and even blindness (if it gets in your eyes).

Handle safely: Clean the area if a battery’s seal is broken. Wash your hands immediately after. Keep kids and pets away from all batteries (especially those they can swallow).

Bleach

Aka sodium hypochlorite. This stuff can irritate skin and breathing passages and can be deadly if ingested. If it’s pool-strength bleach, the concentration is higher than what you’d use for household cleaning, so be aware that it’s more potent.

  • Handle safely: Wear latex gloves while handling and wash skin immediately if contact occurs.
  • Alternatives: Plenty (for household cleaning)! Hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice – it depends on what you’d use the bleach for. Jump down to “Simple Ways to Make Your Home Less Toxic” for more.

Insecticides

Whether you’re spraying yourself, de-bugging your home, or treating your pets for fleas or ticks, insect killers can cause problems to more than just our six- (or eight-) legged friends (foes?).

Handle safely: Broadly, follow instructions on the container. More specifically:

  • Avoid petting your dogs or cats for 24 hours after applying tick and flea treatments (or, more realistically, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after petting).
  • If you’re using a “bug bomb” indoors, seal off the area being treated and get all people and pets outside the house during the treatment. After, clean every surface food might touch (tables, plates, cups, etc.) and get some air circulating.
  • If possible, spray your clothes with insecticide rather than your skin. Shower as soon as you can when you get indoors.
  • Avoid spraying insecticides near food.

Laundry & dish detergent

We’ve all heard about the dangers of Tide pods, and with good reason: the enzymes used to loosen dirt from clothing can cause nausea, vomiting, shock, convulsions, and coma if ingested. Dish soap can also cause nausea, though it’s not usually fatal. But even without swallowing detergents, excessive exposure can cause respiratory problems.

Moth balls

In addition to smelling terrible, these things contain naphthalene and p-dichlorobenzene, which can cause headaches, dizziness, and irritation to the skin and eyes. Over time, they might even lead to cataract formation or liver damage. Eek!

  • Handle safely: If you decide to use mothballs anyway, make sure kids and pets can’t get at them.
  • Alternatives: Blessedly, there are safer and better-smelling alternatives. Moths hate the smell of cedar, lavender, rosemary, thyme, mint, ginseng, eucalyptus, peppercorns, lemon, and cloves. Try sachets or essential oils with these scents to keep the moths at bay. And remember: it’s the smell that bothers them, so refresh these every few months or as the smell fades.

Motor oil

Motor oil can absorb heavy metals that are toxic to humans and animals. Disposed of improperly, motor oil can contaminate groundwater. If ingested, the substance can cause vomiting and aspiration (i.e., drawing the liquid into the lungs, especially while vomiting). Aspiration is serious and usually requires an ER visit.

  • Handle safely: Dispose of used motor oil in a sealed plastic container. Don’t put it in the trash (that’s illegal). Instead, call your local auto parts store about options for recycling the oil.
  • Alternative: None, really. Just handle safely!

Windshield washer fluid

This stuff contains methanol, ethylene glycol, and isopropanol, which can be deadly if ingested, which should be no surprise.

  • Handle safely: Keep it in a sealed container, out of reach of children.
  • Alternatives: You can make your own, but it’s worth noting that the stuff you buy at the store is really only harmful if you drink it.
When in doubt, read the label and follow directions.
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Part 2: Hidden Household Toxins (and Alternatives)

Chances are, you already had a general idea about most of what we mentioned in part one: it’s not exactly a secret that ingesting non-food substances can be toxic. In this section, we’ll dive into some potentially toxic substances that might be hiding in harmless-seeming stuff around your house.

One quick note: reading this information can get overwhelming. Most of us are using a lot of the products listed here. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, jump to Part 3: Simple Ways to Make Your Home Less Toxic. While there are a lot of potential household toxins out there, the changes you’ll need to make to eliminate them are fairly simple – and often, one change gets rid of several problematic substances at once.

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.

Atrazine

The second-most-widely used herbicide in the United States, atrazine is famous (or maybe infamous) for causing male fish and frogs develop female genitalia. In humans, it can cause infertility. It may also be carcinogenic, but researchers haven’t yet gathered enough information to make a definitive conclusion.

Avoid it: The easiest way to avoid atrazine is by eating organic food and reducing your meat consumption. Why less meat? Many animals eat corn, which is often treated with atrazine, which can bring the substance into your body. If you can find meat from organic-fed animals, you may be safer.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

This is a component in plastics and is used in water bottles, on receipts, and in canned food linings. It’s what’s called a xenoestrogen, meaning that it behaves somewhat like the hormone and can also interact with sex hormones in the human body. While the substance is controversial, authorities in the US and Europe haven’t found enough evidence to definitively link it to any negative health outcomes – but some people are still proceeding with caution.

Avoid it: The good news here is that you can avoid BPA pretty easily. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose its use, but you can assume that if a metal can isn’t labeled “BPA-free,” it has the substance in its lining. Avoid BPA by choosing those cans that are labeled “BPA-free,” or choosing glass jars or fresh or frozen food.

Dioxins

These substances (and similar substances like DDT and PCBs) are a byproduct of industrial processes like paper bleaching and trash incineration. In the body, they’ve been linked to decreased fertility, diabetes, cancer, endometriosis, immune system problems, and more.

Avoid them: The bad news is that nobody can avoid dioxins altogether. But you can reduce the amount you take into your body by limiting the amount of fatty animal products you consume. That’s because dioxins are stored in animals’ fatty tissues. Note: going organic here won’t help because dioxins come from air and water rather than animals’ food supply.

Flame retardants

Flame retardants are in lots of stuff: furniture, kids’ supplies, bedding, and more. Some of the substances in them (including polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) have been linked to fertility problems, thyroid problems, and neurobehavioral changes in the young – but at this point, most of those findings are from animal studies.

Avoid them: Actually, don’t avoid them! Flame retardants can save your life and your home. To minimize the impact of any toxic substances they contain, dust and vacuum your home regularly. The toxic parts get into your system by binding to dust particles; the less dust, the less damage.

Formaldehyde

This baby’s a nasty one. A known carcinogen, it can also cause respiratory and eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, and headaches in the short term. Far from being confined to the labs of mad scientists to preserve newts, formaldehyde is present in pressed-wood products (particleboard, wood paneling, plywood), foam insulation, latex paints, wallpaper, some synthetic fabrics, and some personal care products.

Avoid it: Choose hardwood furniture when possible (you can ask for a formaldehyde testing report). Invest in air-filtering plants like the bamboo palm or the peace lily to help keep your home’s air toxin-free.

Glycol ethers

We mentioned earlier that glycol-based substances might be in your antifreeze or windshield fluid. Glycol ethers are also found in dry cleaning chemicals, some personal care products, and some home cleaners.

Avoid them: Skip dry cleaning whenever possible and make your own cleaning products at home. Tips and recipes for doing that in Part 3!

Lead

Lead causes a lot of well-documented health problems, including impaired development of the brain and nervous system. Newer research suggests it may also affect the body’s ability to regulate stress hormones.

Avoid it: For most people, the biggest risk of lead exposure is via paint, which legally contained lead in the United States until 1978. In some parts of the country, lead in the water is also a problem, in part because of lead pipes and socioeconomic inequalities that we won’t get into right now.

The best ways to avoid lead are these:

  1. If your house is older than 1978, assume there’s lead paint in it. Consider renovating to eliminate the lead, but consult a lead remediation professional first. If you’re pregnant, avoid the renovation area.
  2. If you live in an area with lead in the water, buy a filter that can eliminate it.
  3. Eat a healthy diet, as that can help your body absorb less lead.

Mercury

Mercury is most dangerous to young children and pregnant women (because it can hurt the development of the fetus). It can be toxic to the nervous system, digestive system, immune system, and can damage the lungs, eyes, skin, and kidneys.

Avoid it: In the United States, most people’s biggest exposure comes from seafood. Limit your consumption to animals low on the food chain – generally, the smaller the animal, the less mercury it contains.

Organophosphate pesticides

These pesticides are very common and have been tied to a number of health problems, including cardiovascular diseases and endocrine disruption (though more research may be needed to show a definitive link).

Avoid them: The easiest way to avoid these toxins is to choose organic food.

Perchlorate

Used in rocket fuel, this chemical can prevent your thyroid from absorbing iodine properly. And your thyroid needs iodine to function.

Avoid it: Unfortunately, you really can’t: it’s in groundwater, food, and more. But if you get enough iodine in your diet, you’ll diminish its impact.

Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)

Branded as Teflon and Stainmaster, these toxins can impact the function of the thyroid and have been linked to infertility in men and women.

Avoid them: PFCs are primarily used to make “non-stick” dishes and cooking utensils and to make products stain-, water-, or grease-repellant (pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, pet food bags, etc.).

Opt for stainless steel, copper, or cast iron cooking gear, and for clothing that’s made waterproof with polyurethane rather than Gore-tex. Opt for glass containers to store food. If you’re a popcorn fanatic (as this writer is), learn how to make stovetop popcorn. It’s super easy and way more delicious.

Phthalates

Phthalates are used to keep plastic flexible and sturdy. They’re found in all kinds of materials: vinyl products like shower curtains, PVC plastics, synthetic scents, nail polish, fake leather, and some plastic food containers. Some forms of phthalates are known carcinogens. In the shorter term, contact with phthalates can cause nausea, respiratory system irritation, stomach irritation, damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidney damage, headaches, and loss of coordination.

Avoid them: Whenever possible, choose glass or metal to store food. Opt for natural fibers (like cotton) and choose a nylon (or other non-vinyl) shower curtain. Avoid synthetic scents. Note: these compounds made some cool plastic applications possible, but they’re an environmental bummer at every stage of their lifecycle.

While there are a lot of potential household toxins out there, the changes you’ll need to make to eliminate them are fairly simple.
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Part 3: Simple Ways to Make Your Home Less Toxic

So the bad news is that there are a lot of potentially toxic substances in most people’s homes. But the good news is that making a few simple changes can greatly reduce your exposure to household toxins. As an added benefit, many of these changes will also allow you to save money and reduce your environmental impact. A win-win-win.

Here are four simple changes to try.

Switch out nonstick pans

As we mentioned above, cast-iron, stainless steel, and copper cookware are all less-toxic alternatives to Teflon. If you don’t have a huge budget, check out second-hand stores and flea markets for some killer deals. Because of their chemical composition, these replacement pots and pans are typically safe even in an “encore life.”

Brew your own cleaning products

You can replace pretty much any toxic cleaning agent with some combination of these ingredients (full recipes):

  • Baking soda
  • White vinegar
  • Alcohol
  • Cornstarch
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Washing soda
  • Oxygen bleach
  • Lemon juice and peels

If you want to get fancy, you can add essential oils to your concoctions so they smell the way you like.

Buy organic food

Yes, organic food is more expensive. But if you can afford it, swapping organics for food grown with chemical fertilizer can cut a lot of your toxin exposure. And don’t feel like this is an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’re on a tight budget, focus on getting organic versions of the “dirty (baker’s) dozen” foods – those that tend to absorb the highest levels of toxic chemicals.

Switch out plastic containers

Plastic is everywhere, but it’s not great for the planet and it may also leech toxic substances into your food and beverages. The solution? Switch to glass or stainless steel containers to the extent possible. Again, you can find great deals at secondhand shops to avoid spending an arm and a leg.

One final thought here: there’s no such thing as a toxin-free home, but if you’re trying to reduce the number of substances that can cause irritation in the short term and that might have serious negative health consequences in the long term, making small changes like these can help.