Isn't it about time you jumped on the "going green" bandwagon? An eco-conscious frame of mind minimizes your impact on the environment. It also means better health and a cleaner home for your family. From mold prevention to HEPA filters and composting, your to-do list of environmental improvements should focus on the air you breathe, the land you own, and the way you clean. Where to start? Two top environmental experts offer 12 easy tips for going green and getting healthier.
Green Housecleaning Tips
Carpet bomb. Talk about unwanted guests: More than 30 spore-forming molds call your carpet home. But chemicals need not apply. An easy, nontoxic way to rid your plush rugs of disgusting dirt, grime, and mold is to get a vacuum fitted with the right filter -- and use it correctly, says Eugene Cole, DrPH, professor of environmental health sciences at Brigham Young University. Look for a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which captures and traps particles like mold and dust. A good trick of the trade: Every push and pull should last about 20 seconds -- 10 seconds up and 10 seconds back -- to ensure you're pulling the gunk out of your rug rather than just picking up crumbs.
Launder liabilities. Yes, dry cleaning means your shirts and pants are neatly pressed. It also means giving chemicals a free ride into your home. According to Cole, dry-cleaned clothes are immersed in chemicals that can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and more. Worse, they stay put for up to four days after you bring your clothes home -- longer if you leave them in the bag. You have a few options. If you can't give up those freshly pressed shirts, air clothes out in the basement or garage for a few days before you wear them. Choice two for your dry-clean-only clothes: Try professional wet cleaning, which uses a chemical-free formula. Where you can, save some money and do your own laundry and ironing.
Vinegar victory. All-natural vinegar is a powerful cleaning agent without the toxic trouble of many products. Jason Marshall, ScD, lab director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, explains that vinegar from your grocer's shelf destroys dangerous bacteria such as E. coli, knocking their numbers down from 1 million to a mere and lonely one. Simply spray undiluted vinegar on a surface, leave it for 30 seconds, then wipe clean. Voila! You've achieved a nearly 100% reduction in bacteria.
Elbow grease. For tougher jobs, mechanical cleaning (that is, good old-fashioned scrubbing) alone can remove almost 100% of bacteria, says Marshall. Hot water and soap on a clean microfiber towel will remove 99.9% of the germs you're trying to get rid of. If you're gung-ho for that extra 0.1%, use an earth-friendly, chemical-conscious cleaner that's been vetted by a green group such as the Environmental Protection Agency and marked with a seal, such as the DfE (Design for the Environment) label or the Green Good Housekeeping Seal.
Cleaner Indoor Air
Dry idea. Battling moisture should be a carefully waged war inside every house. The goal is to avoid mold, since vanquishing it might mean a chemical cleanup that's bad for your health and your home. The sweet spot is 30% to 60% humidity, enough to give your eyes, skin, and throat the water they need but not so much as to encourage funky fungus growth, explains Cole. An inexpensive home humidity monitor will indicate where you are. If you've gone over the top, all you need is a dehumidifier to pull the wet stuff out of the air. Don't forget to check it, empty it, and clean it at least once a week.
Germ warfare. HEPA filters work wonders in more than just vacuums -- they're also fitted into air purifiers, which pull and trap particles like allergens, dust, and mold from the air. HEPA filters rank high on an efficiency scale known as MERV -- or the minimum efficiency reporting value, typically around 17 on a scale of 1 to 20. To make your shopping easy, look for a purifier labeled as a "true" HEPA, which can remove more of the smallest particles faster -- or 99.97% of airborne annoyances as tiny as 0.3 microns in size, which is pretty small. While air purifiers with HEPA filters are a low-environmental-impact, high-efficiency way to raise your indoor air quality, Cole says, manage your expectations: A freestanding unit will only clean the air in an average-sized room, not the whole house.
Smoke alarm. Need another sign it's time to kick the habit? Smoking is one of the most effective ways to ruin the air in your home for everyone who lives there. Secondhand smoke is responsible for about 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year in nonsmoking adults and for respiratory issues in hundreds of thousands of children, according to an EPA report. Make this a rule in your house: Don't smoke at all or don't smoke inside. To mix toil with trouble, says Marshall, smokers who use harsh cleaners in their homes may find chemicals like ammonia or bleach worsen respiratory symptoms, such as difficult breathing.
Fresh idea. There's nothing like a little fresh air, suggests Marshall. One of the easiest ways to go green for your health is to simply open a window -- the way Mother Nature intended. If you're compelled to use a chemical cleaner to combat mold and scum on shower walls, for instance, make sure you have windows open while you work. Giving chemicals an aerosolized ride into your lungs isn't a good idea.
Environmentally Safe Yard Products
Fertilizer foe. It seems a little backward to play farmer and grow your own vegetables in your backyard, then shower them with a fertilizer that offers no benefit for body or earth. Instead, think natural and compost, Cole suggests. The food waste you throw in the garbage disposal or trash every day, like apple cores and banana skins, can be a nutrient-packed addition to your garden. Cole composts by putting aside his family's daily leftovers and tossing them outside in a pile. By churning the pile once a week, he can be compost-ready in a few months. When summer arrives, the trash has become a treasure, ready for spreading like mulch over the garden to make both food and flowers fabulous.
Grubby control. Looking for a lawn that's luscious and green? Among your fiercest foes are grubs that lunch on your lawn, creating brown and bare spots. Avoid toxic bug-killing chemicals and instead fight nature with nature. Spray microscopic worms called nematodes on your grass, says Marshall. The nematodes infest and kill grubs by eating them from the inside out (gross, yes, but effective). Even better, the more the nematodes eat, the more they reproduce, preventing future grub trouble and improving the health of your lawn without hurting your own.
Grass roots. Once you have your grub problem under control, manicuring your lawn so it's green -- and "green" with the environment in mind -- isn't hard. You don't need heavy fertilizers, says Marshall. Instead, learn how to cut your grass right. Don't cut it too short, but let the blades grow out 3 to 4 inches so the grass can establish a strong root system. Also, put the bagger aside. While you don't want to have big clumps of grass suffocating your lawn, a well-spread layer of fresh-cut grass acts as a natural fertilizer. Your neighbors will be jealous, and your lawn and your health will thank you.
Mosquito fix. Spring and summer bring warmer weather, longer days ... and pesky mosquitoes harboring dangerous diseases -- or at least itchy bites. Skip the bug repellents, Marshall suggests, and concentrate on eliminating standing water around your home, such as kiddie pools, birdbaths, and rainwater buckets. Mosquitoes lay eggs and make a happy home in water.
Green Car Care
The average American spends about 25 minutes each day commuting to work, which means your wheels are probably as dirty as your house, if not more so. You sneeze in it, eat in it, and put your not-always-clean hands all over it, yet your car rarely gets a scrub-down. Marshall and Cole offer four tips for sanitizing your vehicle the healthy way:
No slacking. Don't let your car get so gross that it's out of control. Stay on top of the leftover food you usually ignore in the backseat. Throw it out now to eliminate the need for heavy-duty cleaning chemicals later.
Water works. Don't give germs a free ride, literally. Clean your car at least once a month with soap and hot water or an all-natural cleaner like vinegar. When you're done, leave the windows open to air it out.
Outside help. Don't clean your car in the garage, especially if it's a small, confined space where things like gas and paint are stored. Park in your driveway, roll the windows down, and go to town.
Suck it up. Use a HEPA vacuum in your car, as well as your living room, especially if your ride is long overdue for a cleaning. Trapping car crud inside a HEPA-equipped vacuum is just as important as catching the stuff from your rugs.