Harmful chemicals linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes permeate our air, water and food. They’re inside our homes, lurking in furniture, fridges, flooring and paint. We slather them all over our bodies in soaps, shampoo, moisturizers and make-up. And they silently escape from our mattresses, clothes and cleaning products.
Studies show that these chemicals aren’t only in the environment, they’re already inside our bodies. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, residues of more than 400 environmental chemicals have been identified in human blood and fat tissue. And government agencies, academic institutions, and independent organizations have found up to 358 different chemicals in the cord blood of newborn babies.
We can’t escape them completely, but we can take the following precautions to minimize our exposure to environmental toxins inside our homes.
#1 Take Off Your Shoes
One of the easiest ways to prevent outdoor chemicals from becoming indoor toxins is to leave your shoes at the door. Insist that everyone else does too.
#2 Open the Windows
According to the Environmental Protection Association, indoor air pollution is more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, even in the biggest and most industrialized cities.
To help exchange and circulate the air inside your home, open your windows as often as you can. Individuals with indoor allergies or chemical sensitivities should also consider high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) air filters.
#3 Filter Tap Water
Activated carbon filters can remove chlorine, lead, mercury, copper, pesticides, solvents, radon, parasites, some volatile organic compounds, and bad tastes and odors from tap water.
In addition, reverse osmosis removes fluoride, cadmium, asbestos, bacteria, arsenic, barium, nitrates, nitrites and perchlorate. Reverse osmosis filters use thin membranes to remove 99.97 percent of contaminants 0.3 microns or larger, while ulta-HEPA filters reportedly filter out 99.99 percent.
Before you buy, check out the water filter buying guide from the Environmental Working Group. After you buy, change the filters regularly.
#4 Get the Plastic Out
Replace plastic food storage containers with glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers. Replace plastic beverage bottles and travel mugs with stainless steel or glass varieties.
Avoid foods and drinks that have been packaged in plastic containers, cans, and cartons unless they specify “BPA-Free” and “Phthalate-Free” (look for Vital Choice and Eden Organics).
Avoid foods that have been packaged in foam (polystyrene) materials like disposable cups, take-out containers and egg cartons. (Buy eggs in cardboard cartons.)
Replace plastic wrap with aluminum foil or parchment paper and eliminate your need for plastic bags by taking a reusable organic cotton bag with you to the farmer’s market and grocery store.
#5 Nix Non-Stick
Replace non-stick cookware with cast iron, stainless steel, copper, glass, or ceramic cookware.
If non-stick pans are your only choice, never preheat them when they are empty, use only low heat, never put them in the oven, and discard them as soon as the surface becomes scratched.
#6 Use Cleaner Cleaners
Replace chemical cleaners with essential oils, baking soda and vinegar. Pure essential oils are naturally anti-bacterial and tea tree essential oil is especially effective at removing mold and mildew (avoid synthetic and perfume oils).
Baking soda acts as an abrasive agent to remove residue and stains from glass, ceramic, stainless steel and silver. Add a few drops of water to make a baking soda paste for cleaning the stove, sink, counters, toilet and tub.
Use white vinegar to polish mirrors and wash windows and floors. Or use a steam mop to clean non-carpeted surfaces (steam mops use only water and steam to clean).
Remove rust stains by sprinkling salt over the area, squeezing fresh lemon juice on top and allowing it to sit for several hours before you wipe it off.
To unclog drains, first pour a quarter cup of baking soda down the drain, then pour in one cup of white vinegar. Wait for the foaming to reside, then flush with plenty of boiling hot water. Don’t forget to make use of drain snakes and plungers.
To polish wood furniture, mix three parts olive oil with one part freshly squeezed lemon juice and apply it with a soft cloth, rubbing briskly and allowing to air dry. (You may want to test a small area before you apply it to an entire piece of furniture.)
Non-Toxic All-Purpose Cleaner
1 cup of white vinegar
5 drops of tea tree essential oil
5 drops of pure lavender or orange essential oil (avoid synthetic and perfume oils)
1/2 cup of water
Add the ingredients to a clean glass spray bottle and shake to combine them. Label the bottle with the ingredients and date. Shake it again gently before use to re-distribute the essential oils. Spray the cleaner on dirty surfaces and wipe it off with a clean wet sponge.
For tougher cleaning jobs, omit the water and leave the solution a few minutes longer before wiping it off.
Use this cleaner on counters, sinks, stove tops, appliances and tiles. Do not use it on wooden or delicate surfaces.
#7 Avoid Drycleaned Clothes
Find a cleaner who uses wetcleaning, a water-based alternative to solvent-based drycleaning. Wet cleaning uses biodegradable detergents and a humidity-controlled drying environment to preserve “dryclean only” clothes.
If you can’t avoid drycleaned clothes, store them in a well-ventilated spot away from your living area (like the garage) and each time they're treated, allow them air out for at least two days before wearing them.
#8 Avoid Fragrances
Get rid of air fresheners and all fragranced household products. Manufacturers are not required to disclose additives regarded as "fragrance," and a single fragrance can contain several hundred ingredients. Remember that “unscented” doesn’t necessarily mean fragrance-free (chemicals may have been added to cover odors).
As an alternative to air fresheners, use pure essential oil diffusers. In the laundry room, replace liquid fabric softener with a half cup of white vinegar (mixed with 5 drops of pure lavender essential oil if you wish to scent your clothes) and substitute organic wool or silicone dryer balls for fragranced dryer sheets.
#9 Research Your Personal Products
According to the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses 12 products containing 168 unique ingredients every day, while the average man uses 6 products daily with 85 unique ingredients, and most of them have not been tested for safety.
Use the Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database to learn what you’re putting on your skin. Search by product, ingredient or company to read safety reviews and make good choices when selecting items like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, eye drops, contact lens cleaner, bubble bath, skin creams, hair styling products, makeup, nail polish, sunscreen and baby products.
#10 Use Plants to Clean the Air
One six-inch houseplant per 100 square feet of living area can greatly improve indoor air quality. Several species have been shown to filter harmful chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene. These include the Boston fern, English ivy, moth orchid, dendrobium orchid, ficus tree, gerbera daisy, heartleaf philodendron, peace lily, pot mum, snake plant, spider plant and several species of dracaena.
#11 Use Non-Toxic Building Supplies
If you are planning refurnishing or remodeling work, or buying or building a new home, look for non-toxic building materials like pre-finished real hardwood furniture and flooring; stone, porcelain, glass or ceramic tiles; latex mattresses and mattress pads; and organic cotton fabrics, bedding and washable rugs. If possible, chose a home without an attached garage. Take precautions when removing toxic materials like old paint and carpet.
#12 Reduce Your Exposure to Unnecessary Electromagnetic Radiation
Remove unnecessary electronic gadgets from the bedroom and do not sleep next to wireless devices unless they are completely powered down. Keep all Wi-Fi transmitters away from where you work and sleep.
Do not keep cell phones or other wireless devices in your pockets or next to your body when they are turned on. Use a headset, wireless headphone, or speaker phone whenever possible. Keep calls short and when you don’t need to speak in person, send text messages instead. Use wireless devices only when the signal strength is strong and avoid using them inside spaces enclosed by metal, like elevators, subways, trains, planes and cars.
Before you buy, check out EWG's Cell Phone Shopping Guide to learn about radiation risks associated with specific devices.
#13 Test and Maintain
Have your home tested for mold, radon, and lead. Install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector. Use furnace filters with a MERV 7-9 rating (minimum efficiency reporting value) and change them every six weeks. And don’t forget to clean out your air ducts and vents regularly. If you can’t do it yourself, hire professionals.
Cancer Prevention Coalition. 2003. Carcinogens at home.
Environmental Protection Association. 2011. The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.
Environmental Working Group. 2008. Statement of Jane Houlihan on Cosmetics Safety.
Enviornmental Working Group. 2009. Pollution in People: Cord Blood Contaminants in Minority Newborns.