Your Health and the Environment: Protecting Your Piece of the Planet

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 23, 2008
5 min read

Think your home is pretty green? Maybe it is. But take a look at the darker corners of your basement, garage, and backyard shed. You'll likely find a miniature toxic waste dump, getting larger by the year.

Americans generate more than 1.5 million tons of hazardous household waste every year. Anything that has a label with the word poison, danger, warning, or caution is considered hazardous household waste and all of them pose potential risks to your health and the environment. If your home is like most, you could easily have 100 pounds of toxic junk lurking in the basement, garage, and closets.

When it's time for the next cleaning (spring or otherwise), do it in a way that makes your home and the environment safer, says Kathy Shay, water quality education manager for Austin, Texas and its Grow Green program. "Your home has its own environmental protection agency, and it's you," says Shay. "There are dozens of ways you can go a little greener at home that are simple, but also powerful."

In a garage overpopulated by cans of crusty paint, sludged oil, half-full pesticide sprayers, and cemented caulk tubes, the solution can seem easy. Put them down the storm drain or into the trash bin -- anything to be rid of the stuff.

Experts warn against ever pouring suspect chemicals down the drain, into storm sewers, or backyard dirt. "A single can of oil can travel through acres of soil," says Paul McRandle, deputy editor for National Geographic's Green Guide. "And water treatment plants aren't set up to process petrochemicals. They end up in the water, in the fish -- and eventually back on your plate."

What you can do:

  • Call your local sanitation department and ask about hazardous household waste disposal. Some communities have a pick-up day. You may need to bring the products in to a central location.
  • Get rid of your toxic leftovers by giving them to someone else. Post "free paint" (or cleaning products, wood stain, or glue) to neighborhood bulletin boards, or online at Craigslist or Freecycle.
  • Return used motor oil to your local garage.

Getting rid of your old appliances and electronics requires a little planning, too. Many refrigerators and freezers need to have their ozone-depleting cooling units disconnected before safe disposal. Computers and cell phones contain components that are hazardous, but often recyclable.

What you can do:

  • Ask your sanitation department about any appliance you're throwing away.
  • Talk to your local electronics retailer about taking back your item for reuse or recycling. Look for a retailer who participates in EPA's Plug-In to eCycling program.

Conventional lawn care has huge environmental costs: in gas and oil, pesticides, water consumption, and fertilizer runoff. You can have a beautiful lawn without giving the environment a black eye. Here are a few simple tips:

Excessive fertilizer lets nitrogen travel quickly through soil to pollute groundwater.

What you can do:

  • Test your soil: if nitrogen is already high, you don't need fertilizer.
  • Don't fertilize before a rain, to avoid fertilizer runoff
  • Use certified organic or other natural fertilizer; it's just as effective, but with less pollution.

Gas-powered mowers burn millions of gallons of gas each year, costing us in lost fuel resources and increased pollution and greenhouse gases.

What you can do:

  • Use an electric or manual push lawn mower rather than a gas-powered mower. The new push mowers are self-sharpening, and the only energy they burn comes straight off your midsection.
  • Leave lawn clippings as fertilizing mulch, instead of sending bags full of grass to the landfill (which is actually illegal in some states). Or put them in your compost pile.

Pesticides and herbicides are overused on lawns, many experts say, creating needless stress on the environment and posing health risks to children and pets.

What you can do:

  • Learn to live with a few weeds here and there. (A little crabgrass never hurt anyone.)
  • Talk to your local nursery about eco-friendly insecticides and herbicides, or look in your pantry for simple, safe remedies. Spray vinegar on a weed on a hot day and watch it wilt in moments. Pouring boiling water on weeds will have the same effect (be careful to only hit the plants you don't want).
  • Mow your grass a little higher to help crowd out weeds.
  • Visit for information about the environmental and health impacts of conventional pesticides, as well as safer alternatives for almost any pest problem.

More than a third of urban fresh water is used to water lawns.

What you can do:

  • Water your lawn only in the early morning or at night, when it's cool.
  • Talk to a landscaper about how to use native plants, which are well-adapted to your area and can survive on rainfall

A backyard garden is a great way to get connected to nature, save money, and enjoy fresh, delicious food. You can grow greener by adopting a few of the strategies organic farmers use to protect the land, says Shay.

What you can do:

  • Throw out the welcome mat to friendly insects. Spiders, wasps, beetles, and assassin bugs feed on pests, reducing the need for pesticides.
  • Plant nectar-producing plants (anise, dill, thyme) for helpful insects to feed on. Planting tropical milkweed or gaura plants invites insects that will gobble aphids and other pests.
  • Keep a birdbath or frequently sprinkle to provide a source of water. Use a pump or "water wiggler" to agitate the water -- mosquitoes won't lay eggs in moving water, and some bird-watchers believe ripples in the water attract more birds.

We've been trained to think that pest-damaged produce is tainted or contaminated. But "that's only because we've all grown up eating pesticide-treated produce," says Shay.

A few bug-bite-sized holes in your tomatoes may take them out of blue-ribbon territory, but they're fine to eat after a simple washing. "There's no reason to grab a chemical sprayer seeking revenge," Shay quips.

Cutting down on insecticide use won't just clean up that abstract thing called "the environment," adds McRandle. It also helps keep your house clean. "Multiple studies show pesticides get tracked into the home, and end up on floors and countertops," he says.

Still stuck with some household hazardous waste you can't get rid of? McRandle advises checking out "They have information there about disposing of just about anything, zeroed in on your ZIP code," he says. They make it easy for you."