Making your home healthier and greener doesn’t have to be expensive, or overwhelming. Just a few changes can improve the health of your home, everyone in it -- and the planet it sits on.
Some of these are easy fixes. Others challenge us to re-examine a lifetime of habits.
Avoiding or limiting exposure to toxic chemicals is at the top of every parent’s list. “Toxic chemicals are everywhere, so exposure is really difficult to avoid," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior researcher with Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that researches environmental issues. "But there are things people can do to be proactive."
Among the key toxins are lead and pesticides. Studies have linked overexposure to lead and pesticides with brain and central nervous system damage, behavior problems, asthma, cancer, and more.
So how can you cut down your exposure to these chemicals and other potential household risks? Here are the top 10 suggestions from WebMD's experts. (And in some cases, you'll even save money!)
1. Get house dust under control.
House dust aggravates allergies. It also contains more hazardous chemicals than you might think, including lead, fire retardants, pesticides, and other chemicals.
"It's nothing you can afford to take lightly," Lunder tells WebMD. "Even if these chemicals were used decades earlier in your home, they can still accumulate in your house dust today."
The solutions: The best -- and most expensive -- option is to replace wall-to-wall carpeting (a collector for dust and allergens) with wood, cork, tile, or non-vinyl linoleum. But if that’s not economically feasible, some old-fashioned elbow grease can help. Vacuum frequently -- meticulously getting into corners, along the floorboards, and moving furniture to get those dust bunnies.
Make sure your vacuum has strong suction and a HEPA filter so that dust and dirt go into the bag.
- Vacuum at least two times each week.
- Clean the vacuum bag and filter every time, so dust isn't spewed back into the air.
2. Kick nicotine addiction.
If you're still a smoker, it's time to kick it.
An estimated 40% of America's children are exposed to secondhand smoke at home -- and it's the biggest trigger of asthma in those children, says Philip Landrigan, MD, director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
And it’s an expensive habit. "You can save a lot of money if you're not smoking, not to speak of future health costs for you and your family," he tells WebMD.
A doctor, nurse, or mental health professional can help you tailor an approach to quitting smoking that best suits your needs. Set a quit date and stick to it.
3. Get your home tested.
Both lead paint and radon are serious hazards you can't afford to ignore. Lead poisoning is known to cause brain damage in a developing fetus and in young children if not treated. Radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas.
The main source of lead is old paint and dust that forms when paint chips and erodes, Landrigan explains. Lead paint can be a problem in any home built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.
"In tough economic times, we have to make wise decisions with our money -- and a lead test is one of those," says Landrigan. "Lead poisoning is tragic, and it happens too often. We're not just talking about the big cities. Older homes everywhere may have lead paint."
- Check with your local health department about lead paint testing. A lab test of a paint chip runs from $20 to $50 per sample. You can also hire a certified professional to test your home, which will cost more.
- The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a safety alert on its web site about lead-based paint testing. It offers guidelines on reducing your exposure -- like covering walls with gypsum wallboard.
Colorless and odorless, radon gas comes from the natural breakdown of the soil and rock underneath your home. Any home can have a radon gas problem -- whether it's old or new, well-sealed or drafty, whether it has a basement or not.
Breathing air containing radon gas can cause lung cancer. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high.
- You can buy a $20 home radon test kit at most hardware and home stores.
- For more information, check the EPA's web site for "A Citizen's Guide to Radon."
4. Ditch pesticides.
Pesticides kill roaches, mice, ants, and lawn pests. But overexposure and chronic small exposures may put children at risk of a range of health problems, including asthma, learning disabilities, and problems with brain development.
These chemicals are expensive, too. "These pesticides are not cheap," says Landrigan. "You can easily spend a hundred bucks on one Saturday morning on them."
The problem is, "people don't see the damage the chemicals are doing to themselves and to their child," he tells WebMD. "It's silent, but nevertheless real damage."
Save money and promote health by focusing on prevention. Simple steps can keep roaches away -- like washing dishes very carefully, cleaning up all food residue, keeping food packages and containers tightly closed, and sealing any cracks that are a point of entry into your home. Landrigan has tested these methods in New York City apartment buildings, where roaches can seem firmly entrenched. "It's basic stuff, but it works," he says.
Instead of spraying herbicides on your lawn, "don't be so worried about weeds," says Landrigan. "Get used to a little imperfection. Rather than spraying, your time is better spent burning calories -- pulling weeds," he says.
You can learn about non-chemical, commonsense ways of reducing indoor and lawn/garden pests -- a concept called Integrated Pest Management. Look for the EPA's on-line booklet: "Citizen's Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety."
5. Be careful with plastic bottles and canned foods.
The safety of bisphenol A, a chemical found in polycarbonate plastics, is still being debated. These plastics are used in some water bottles and baby bottles.
Bisphenol A is also used in epoxy resins that line metal products like canned foods.
The FDA and the American Chemistry Council say bisphenol A is safe for use. However, another government report -- the National Toxicology Report -- found concern about effects on the brain, prostate gland, and behavior in fetuses, infants, and children. And one study found that adults with high levels of BPA in their urine were more likely to have a history of heart disease or diabetes, compared to people with low levels of BPA.
What can you do to limit exposure to BPA?
- Look for safer water or baby bottles -- either tempered glass bottles or plastic bottles made of cloudy plastics like polyethelene or polypropylene (recycling symbols 1, 2 or 5) are generally safe. Avoid those marked with a "7" or "PC."
- Don't microwave plastic food containers. Heat can break down plastic fibers.
- Don't microwave with cling wraps. Put food in a glass or ceramic dish and then cover with waxed paper or paper towels.
- Eat fewer canned foods.
- Use glass and ceramic containers to store or microwave foods.
6. Filter your tap water.
Filtered tap water may be a better choice of drinking water than bottled water. In a recent study, the Environmental Working Group tested 10 best-selling brands of bottled water. Researchers found mixtures of 38 contaminants, including bacteria, fertilizer, and industrial chemicals -- all at levels similar to those found in tap water.
Here's the catch: Tap water is regulated by the EPA, which requires yearly public reports identifying the contaminants found in local water sources. But bottled water is regulated by the FDA, which has no such requirement.
"But even if you live in a place where drinking water is considered good, there can still be trace amounts of chemicals that may be toxic," says Baker. Although your local water company filters tap water, it still comes through with contaminants -- including lead, chlorine, E. coli, pesticides. Simply filtering your tap water can remove lots of these pollutants.
A simple pitcher-type water filter may be all you need for very drinkable water, Baker advises. There are also filters that attach to a faucet or to the plumbing system. Consumer Reports has published a review of 27 water filters.
Filtering your tap water "is an easy thing to do -- you don't have to invest a lot of money in it," she says. "You just change the filters regularly. It's a 'better safe than sorry' approach." You’ll also cut down on waste in landfills by not buying - and then tossing - plastic bottles.
7. Temper the Teflon.
If you've got pots and pans with Teflon coating -- or other nonstick cookware - make sure you use them wisely. Perfluorinated (PFCs) chemicals are used to make these nonstick coatings, and the chemicals can accumulate in the body. The EPA lists PFOA (one type of PFCs used in Teflon) as a "likely human carcinogen," although there’s no evidence that Teflon-coated pans cause cancer.
DuPont and other companies have agreed, in response to government pressure, to eliminate use of PFOA by 2015. In the meantime, you can switch to other cookware now: stainless steel, anodized aluminum, copper-coated pans, cast iron, or enamel-coated iron. Silicone baking molds are also safe to use.
If you can’t do without your nonstick cookware - or if it’s too expensive to replace right away -- then follow safe cooking practices. Don’t preheat pans on high, and use the lowest temperature you can to cook food.
Two other places you'll find PFCs - in grease-resistant food packaging and as a stain-protection treatment. Reducing greasy packaged foods and fast foods in your diet (like microwave popcorn, French fries, and pizza) not only lowers your exposure, it’s also good for your heart.
If it's time to replace a big-ticket item like a sofa, say no to stain-protection treatments, advises Baker. "These add-ons cost money, and the health implications are not really known."
8. Wash your hands.
We hear this during cold and flu season -- frequent hand-washing keeps germs from getting passed around. But for young children, hand-washing is a good habit that can keep them from ingesting toxins like fire retardants in house dust. What your vacuum doesn't pick up, a toddler's hands will.
"Hand-washing may be boring, but it's really key to keeping stuff on a child's hands from getting into their mouths," says Lunder.
Another tip: Skip antibacterial soap, because some researchers believe that the quest for hyper-cleanliness may have led to weakened immune systems, and possibly to more cases of asthma and allergies. It’s also been speculated that these products may contribute to bacteria-resistant "super germs."
In fact, new research has also shown that triclosan -- the main ingredient in antibacterial soap, deodorants, toothpaste, mouthwash, cosmetics, fabrics and plastic kitchenware -- has the potential to affect sex hormones and interfere with the nervous system.
And studies show regular soap and water works just as well for killing germs. It’s about the process, not the product. Moisten hands, rub thoroughly with soap (getting backs of hands, between fingers, and around nail beds), and rinse. Singing the ABC’s while you do it will ensure you do it for an adequate amount of time (20 seconds). Be sure adults in your house wash their hands frequently, especially after coming indoors. Ask visitors to do the same.
9. Use non-toxic cleaning products.
The conventional cleaning supplies under your sink -- with their "warning" and "poison" labels -- contain a potent mix of chemicals.
"If you've ever mopped with ammonia, you know how your lungs constrict," says Lunder. "These chemicals have a very powerful effect on kids with asthma. You're polluting the indoor air when you don't need to." When washed down the drain, they also pollute rivers and lakes.
Look for "green" cleaners that don't contain chlorine or ammonia. Choose ones that say "petroleum-free," "biodegradable," or "phosphate-free."
Or make a cleaner yourself.
- Use vinegar instead of bleach, baking soda to scrub your tiles, and hydrogen peroxide to remove stains.
- Vinegar also removes grease and soap buildup.
- Need a window cleaner? Try diluted lemon juice or vinegar. Use borax to inhibit mold growth, boost the cleaning power of soap or detergent, remove stains -- even kill cockroaches, when sugar is mixed in.
10. Eat organic, eat healthy.
When you eat organic food, you ingest fewer pesticides. You’re also helping protect the environment.
More pluses: Research shows that some organic food is more nutritious - organic fruits and vegetables have 25% higher levels of many nutrients than conventional produce.
However, organic produce can be 20% more expensive than conventional. Organic meats and dairy products might be three times the cost of conventional items.
Cut the cost of eating organic foods by:
- Buying in-season produce, which is plentiful and often cheaper at your local farmer's market.
- Selectively buy the produce that absorbs the most pesticide if not organic -- like berries, which soak up more pesticides than other fruit. You don't really need organic bananas, since they're protected by a peel.
- Buy organic for the foods you eat most often.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, aim for good health in the kitchen:
- Getting plenty of omega-3 fats - like those from fatty fish and walnuts -- when breastfeeding seems to protect the fetus' brain development from toxins, Lunder says. (Note: Some fish are high in contaminants like mercury or PCBs that can harm child development. Select safer seafoods, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, and salmon.)
- Iodine also helps offset negative effects from fire retardants, she adds. That's easy with a prenatal vitamin with iodine.
You could even try the taste of edible flowers -- like those that grow in your lawn, when you quit using pesticides. "Dandelions are salad in France," Landrigan says.