Diet is only one piece of the equation in your quest for a toxic-free family. There are a number of things you can do to create a toxic-free home, a safe haven for your family. There are so many ways to create a “green” home which leverages sustainable and eco-friendly building products and materials but we are going to focus on limiting toxins in your household, although it’s an added benefit if it’s reducing your carbon footprint at the same time. This list is not meant to scare you. It’s meant to serve as a wake-up call and act as a guide as you make small, palatable changes in your home to create a safer nest, at a pace that works for you (time and budget permitting). You don’t need to panic. You don’t need to try to digest this all in one sitting. Bookmark it, and reference it as needed. Let’s begin.

There are 80,000 industrial chemicals approved for use and none have been tested for children’s safety. 1  A baby’s nursery can be 300 times more polluted than outside as a result of new paint, carpets, bedding, mattresses with off-gassing, and all that goes into putting a nursery together for a newborn. Let’s figure out how to make it the healthiest room in the house.

Most of us, unless we have severe allergies or sensitivities to chemicals, may not be aware of all the chemicals that surround us in our homes.

But whether or not we know it, toxins — substances that are poisonous or harmful to the body — are everywhere, from the polyurethane we use to finish our floors, to the paint on our walls, the glue used for wallpaper, our upholstery fabrics, rugs and even mattresses.

Toxins can also be found in the products we clean our homes with, and in the mold that may have begun growing in the basement and that can spread its tiny spores, unseen, throughout our living space. Even the water we use to bathe ourselves is usually treated with chlorine, a substance that can cause respiratory problems.

What can we do to create safe home environments in a way that works with our needs and resources? There’s a lot of information out there and it can be difficult to wade through it all.

While it’s hard to completely avoid toxic chemicals, we can take action to reduce our exposure. Families have to balance risk reduction with lifestyle issues, assessing their health — whether or not they have an immediate medical need, such as a severely asthmatic child, the age of children, and other factors, such as financial resources. Some will choose not to “green” their entire life at once, others will choose to take a step-by-step approach, changing one area at a time, while others may make significant changes on a variety of fronts.

Whatever your choices are, this article will bring you up to speed on the latest information you can use to help create a toxin-free home.

HOUSEHOLD:

1. Take off your shoes.  Especially if you have small babies who will be crawling all over the floor. We track in chemicals on the soles of our shoes. If you work in a big city and are walking outside from your car to your office everyday, think of the gasoline, urine, dirt, and other icky stuff on the bottom of your shoes that is then on the floors in your house. If you are outside walking through grass, think of the pesticides that are now on your shoes, or lead for that matter. Public restrooms…need I say more? Start a new tradition to take your shoes off at the front door. Get a cozy pair of indoor shoes or slippers. You can limit 85% of dirt containing lead and pesticides just by taking off your shoes. They make very cute signs you can buy to announce to visitors to kindly remove their shoes. A mini “mud-room” or a cubbies to organize your shoes by the door helps it become an easy  and sustainable habit.

2. Switch up your household cleaning supplies. Look for greener options. You can always reference the Environmental Working Group’s Top Products, which will provide great tips. So many of today’s household cleaning supplies are so utterly toxic. Think of the chemicals you are spraying that contribute to the “pollution of your home.”  First, go to your bucket of cleaning supplies and do a spring-cleaning to replace them with non-toxic options.  I’m referring to the toxic chemicals that are sprayed within your home, when the windows are closed – as they often are – and then you and your children are inhaling them all day long.  Try Citrus Magic Stain Remover. This stuff is really amazing. We recently bought a new sofa and I wanted linen, instead of the ever kid-friendly and stain-resistant microfiber that everyone recommends to new parents. This new linen sofa (and yes, I opted for a light color instead of something dark that would actually hide stains,)  still looks pristine and I’ve successfully and easily removed strawberry, cherry, and coffee stains. Distilled white vinegar, one of my favorites to keep around the house. We use this to clean our hardwood floors and windows and check out the 50 OTHER uses for vinegar – who knew? This stuff is gold! Try olive oil for your wood. We have a walnut butcher block, so it feels natural to use Walnut Oil on it, after I wash it with soap and water or a natural All Purpose Cleaner (we love Sun Earth All Purpose Cleaner) if it needs a little more elbow grease. Walnut Oil coats it, so when my 2-year old drops her sandwich directly on it and picks it up to eat it, I don’t have to worry about it coming into contact with harsh cleaning chemicals that could contaminate her food. Try baking soda for scrubbing – you don’t need a harsh bleach (i.e. Clorox) to put in your sink; it will inevitably get on your sponges, then on your plates, and then in your mouth. I am using a tea tree oil solution for killing bacteria in my kitchen sink and on my counters and sponges, and it smells so good! I ordered the tea tree oil on Amazon and mixed the rest in a spray bottle. I now keep this magic solution under my sink. Tea tree oil is known to be effective against many antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It definitely works to kill staphylococus, e-coli, shigella, and salmonella. In a spray bottle, combine and shake 2 cups water, 1/2 tsp. liquid soap, 2 tablespoons white vinegar, and 20 drops of tea tree oil.

3. Use a non-toxic laundry detergent. You don’t need to have two separate detergents, one for baby clothes and one for your clothes. The whole family should be using a non-toxic detergent. Try to pick one of the “A” products from EWG’s site. Always wash baby’s clothes before putting them on their sensitive skin and always use a non-toxic detergent. Why? Most detergents are formulated from petrochemicals, and may contain bleaches, synthetic whiteners, and artificial fragrances, all of which can cause skin irritations and breathing problems.

Here are just some of the toxins and potential carcinogens found in typical detergent …it’s a pretty scary laundry list: 2

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) – Chemical foaming agent known as a surfactant. Studies have linked use of this chemical to a variety of health issues from skin irritation to organ toxicity to even cancer.
  • Dioxane (1,4-dioxane) – The majority of top laundry detergent brands contain this synthetic petrochemical known as a carcinogen. This is a by-product contaminant of the manufacturing process and is not required to be listed on product labels.
  • Linear Alky Benzene Sulfonates (LAS) – Synthetic petrochemicals that biodegrade slowly making them an environmental hazard. Benzene may cause cancer in humans and animals.
  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (NPE) – Petrochemical surfactant banned in the EU and Canada. May cause liver and kidney damage. Biodegradable, but biodegrades into more toxic substances.
  • Petroleum distillates (aka napthas) – Derived from synthetic crude oil, linked to cancer, lung and mucous membrane damage.
  • Phenols – Can cause toxicity throughout the entire body.
  • Optical brighteners – Can be toxic to fish and cause allergic reactions in humans.
  • Artificial fragrances – Linked to various toxic effects on fish and mammals, and can cause allergies, skin and eye irritation to humans.
  • Phosphates – Used to prevent dirt from settling back into clothes after being washed. Can stimulate growth of marine plants that trigger unbalanced ecosystems.
  • Ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) – Group of compounds used as an alternative to phosphates. Found to cause reproductive and developmental effects in lab animals and does not readily biodegrade.
  • Sodium Hypochlorite (household bleach) – Chemical precursor to chlorine, which is extremely toxic. Skin contact can produce caustic irritation or burns. Mixing with other cleaning products can create hazardous and sometimes carcinogenic fumes.

These are just some of the toxic and potential cancer-causing chemicals found in typical laundry detergents that can not only cause you harm, but raise havoc in the environment as well. These harsh chemicals can build up in your clothes and eventually penetrate your skin. Detergent makers are not required by law to list these ingredients.

4. Use a non-toxic dishwasher soap. This soap is all over the dishes you eat off of, there may be soap lurking in your baby bottles, so you do not want any chemical residue. Here are safe options for dish soap. Fragrance-free, vegetable-oil-based soaps are a healthier choice.

Here are the ingredients to avoid:

Phosphates: Phosphates are all sorts of bad and are completely unnecessary in your detergents.  Phosphates act as a water softener, in order to make your detergent “work better.”  They leak into the ground and water system, and wreak havoc on our eco-system.  Once in the water system, it causes algae blooms, which robs water of oxygen.  This is just a smidge important for our aquatic life (fish need oxygen too!).

Chlorine: Chlorine is one of those cleaners that people swear by.  Your house is just not “clean” unless you douse it with a healthy dose of bleach.  Need your baby’s toys or bottles sanitized?  Just add a little bleach to the water.   Again, entirely unnecessary.  Bleach is caustic.  The fumes alone are enough to make you sick.

Artifical perfumes (phthalates): By now, it’s known that phthalates are just plain bad for you.   Those fresh morning daisies you’re smelling in your dishwashing detergent most likely contain phthalates.   And, they are most likely leaving that residue on your glasses.  Ew. 3

5. Use low or no VOC paints, especially in the nursery. Typical household paint contains up to 10,000 chemicals, of which 300 are known toxins and 150 have been linked to cancer. Some of the most harmful chemicals found in paint are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs and are huge contributors to poor indoor air quality. These chemicals aren’t something you want to spray on your body or potentially even keep inside your house. VOCs are unstable, carbon-containing compounds that readily vaporize into the air. When they enter the air, they react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution and a host of health issues including breathing problems, headache, burning, watery eyes and nausea. As paint dries, these harmful VOCs are released into the air at high levels. Indoor VOC levels are routinely 10 times higher than outdoor levels, and up to 1,000 times higher immediately after painting. Although VOC levels are highest during and soon after painting, they continue seeping out for several years. In fact, only 50 percent of the VOCs may be released in the first year. 4 If you have recently painted the nursery with regular paint, you can paint a layer of non-VOC paint to seal in the toxins and prevent further seeping. A great non-toxic brand of paint to choose for the nursery is Lullaby Paints. 

6. Eliminate carpet. Carpets are also big contributors to poor indoor air quality. VOCs are also ubiquitous in our carpets, especially synthetic carpets. With the amount of time we spend in our homes, coupled with the fact that our toddlers are rolling around on them, learning to crawl on them, and probably trying to put the carpet in their mouth while simultaneously breathing in their fumes, it’s time to make a change.  Your plush carpets are probably emitting the following toxins: toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene, acetone and a host of other chemicals, some of which have already made the EPA’s list of Extremely Hazardous Substances. Known carcinogens such as p-Dichlorobenzene are in new carpets, as are chemicals that produce fetal abnormalities in test animals. These chemicals also cause hallucinations, nerve damage and respiratory illness in humans. 5“Older carpets are so toxic that your chances of being exposed to hazardous chemicals are 10-50 times higher in a carpeted room than outdoors. If the carpet is plush or shag, your risk increases substantially.” Look for carpets with the Green Label Plus Certification. In 2004 this initiative by the Carpet and Rug Institute certifies that carpets have passed independent laboratory tests for emissions from thirteen notorious chemicals. Your best alternative is to seek area rugs made from natural fibers such as wool, hemp and corn husks laid on top of natural hard surface flooring. If that is not possible, open your windows and do the best you can with air filters because you can bet that your home is much more toxic than you ever realized. 6 Use a HEPA, good quality vacuum weekly on your carpet. If you do use synthetic carpets, ventilate the house continually for about 72 hours after installation and then 30 minutes a day everyday. 

7. Organic Mattress. I’m not going to lie, these things are crazy expensive. It’s also crazy how many toxins and chemicals are hidden in this thing that we don’t give much thought to….it’s just a mattress! BUT, if you think about the amount of time you and your babies spend sleeping with your face ON the mattress, inhaling its fumes, it may be something you want to start saving up for.  Is this just a bunch of hype and marketing, or do I REALLY need an organic mattress for my infant, toddler, and my husband and me? “Polyurethane foam is the number one ingredient in traditional mattresses today. Understanding the dangers from off-gassing is why some many Americans are now purchasing organic mattresses. Off gassing from polyurethane foam, releases many harmful petroleum chemicals. The petroleum-based chemicals used in making foam are polymers and urethane, which contains an Isocyanate compound. The Isocyanate compound is one of the main culprits that causes illness, asthma and other diseases. Memory foam mattresses use an Isocyanate called TDI (Toluene Di-Isocyanate), which has a strong odor and over time seeps through a mattress, and into the air. These chemicals in mattresses releases hydrocarbons that evaporate into the air we breathe throughout a mattress’ lifetime. These hydrocarbons are powerful carcinogenic chemicals, attacking and severely damaging the immune and nervous systems of adults and children. United States Department of Labor, claims that the health effects of an Isocyanate exposure include irritation to skin, mucous membranes, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing”. 7 Then there is the harmful and toxic off-gassing from a new mattress, and the hidden flame retardants in the foam that can be passed to your baby in utero and via breast milk. So, if you are a nursing mom, you may want to consider reducing your exposure to flame retardants in furniture, clothing, mattresses, etc. “Avoiding hidden fire retardants is difficult as the federal government mandates that all mattresses must be flame retardant. PBDE, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers is a common chemical that was used in mattresses as a fire retardant until 2005 when it was banned in the United States. Unfortunately all foam decomposes with age and Harmful PBDE in older mattresses continue to pollute the bedroom. According to an EPA study in 2008, PBDE is especially toxic to development of the brain, leading to damage in learning and behavior. Unfortunately PBDE is used in China to manufacturing fire resistant foams in furniture and mattresses, then imported into the US. Ensuring these chemicals are not in your mattress, buy local. Other common toxic compounds to avoid in polyurethane foams are Melamine, TDCPP, APP and pentaBDE. Cotton sodium wraps are generally treated with cyanide.” 8

8. Be wary of lead paint on old furniture, especially if you have a teething toddler.

9. There are flame retardants in your couch and your cell phones. This is a very alarming issue and most people are not aware of flame retardants, where they lurk, and why they are so dangerous (me included until recently!). We don’t think twice when we sit down on our couches or use our electronics. We live in California, which requires furniture to be flame resistant and to meet a certain code, even for “green” furniture. Flame retardant laws are extremely difficult to navigate and even those who don’t live in California will find that their furniture also has the CA Flame resistant tag on it. “The chemicals at issue are found in nearly everything made with polyurethane foam—upholstered furniture, baby strollers, car seats, pillows—and in electronics like TVs, computers, and cellphones. And scientists are very concerned that the most common class of flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) are showing up in animal tissue as far away as the Arctic Circle. Tests from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly all Americans have these chemicals in their bodies—because once you’re exposed it takes years for the chemicals to get eliminated. Mothers even pass them along to their babies via breast milk.” 9 “These flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to a number of human health problems. The form of PBDE most commonly used in furniture was linked to altered fetal development, thyroid problems, infertility, as well as neurological problems in children, before those health concerns eventually led to a phase-out by U.S. foam manufacturers. Similarly, the primary PBDE used in electronics will be phased out over the next three years, since research has linked it to negative impacts on brain function and cancer risk.” See our post dedicated to flame retardants.

10. Get to know your plastics, especially PVC and where it lurks. PVC is the most toxic of all plastics, from both an environmental and health standpoint, and it’s commonly known as vinyl. It is found in a wide variety of products – from food packaging to children’s toys, plumbing and building materials to medical devices – but in every case alternatives to it exist. The only way to avoid PVC is to identify it first! On packaging, look for the #3 or the letters “PVC,” often found next to the three-arrow “recycling” symbol. For other PVC products, you’ll have to ask the manufacturers what materials were used. Fortunately, some companies are changing their own consumption patterns. For example, IKEA is no longer using PVC in the manufacture of their furniture, wallcoverings and textiles. If you have a vinyl shower curtain, replace it as it’s made from PVC and you are in contact with it daily (or as often as you shower). 10
11. Open your windows at least 30 minutes a day to let fresh air circulate throughout the house, especially in a nursery. Use the exhaust fans in your bathroom  and kitchen that ventilate outdoors. This will help to remove stale air and vent out some of the toxins accumulating in your indoor space (from VOCs from paint, carpet, furniture, off-gassing, flame retardants, etc.)

12. Do not use pesticides on your lovely green grass in your own backyard, especially if you have kids rolling around and playing in it. Who cares if don’t have the loveliest lawn on the block and you have a few brown spots? You do not want your children playing in pesticide-laden grass, believe me.  Talk to your gardener if you don’t know what is being used on your lawn and plants.

13. Invest in houseplants to improve indoor air quality at home (and/or at work). The more plants you use, the healthier your air will be. But it doesn’t take a lot—one study found that small groups of Janet Craig (if you’re no gardener, that’s actually the name of a plant) and sweet chico plants placed in indoor spaces reduced levels of certain gases up to 75 percent. Bonus: they look nice. I just bought a wonderful 5-foot Janet Craig for our living room and I bought a small sweet chico (your local nursery may know them as “spath”) for each bedroom in the house. Call your local nursery and they can most likely order them for you. Since it’s winter, they may not keep many varieties of spath on hand since it’s cold outside. Here are the top 10 most effective purifying plants: 11

1. Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata Bostoniensis)
2. Areca palm (Chyrsalidocarpus lutescens)
3. Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)
4. Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
5. Rubber plant (Ficus robusta)
6. Dracaena Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis)
7. English Ivy (Hedera helix)
8. Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)
9. Ficus alii (Ficus macleilandii alii)
10. Peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.)

17. Vaccum and dust often. Dust often and air-clean with moist towel and a HEPA vacuum. These chemicals, including flame retardants,  accumulate in household dust, and are literally in the air we breathe. Here I am, spending an absolute fortune on organic food, and just by breathing the air in my own home, I am ingesting all sorts of chemicals which are passed to my 6-month old baby via breast milk. Make it stop! Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter to get pollutants out of your rugs and floors. These filters trap small particles more efficiently and will likely remove more contaminants and allergens. 12

18. Purchase furniture that does not release formaldehyde. Unfortunately, the plywood, pressed wood, particle board and medium density fiberboard, which are used in most furniture today, are generally treated with formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, and can emit fumes for as long as five years. 13

  • To avoid this exposure, it’s best to purchase furniture made of whole wood, glass, metal or chrome.
  • Avoid new furniture coated with polyurethane–a respiratory toxin.
  • Furniture over five years old that hasn’t been refinished or reupholstered usually does not continue to off-gas.
  • Wool or cotton, rather than synthetics — which are made with chemicals, are best for upholstery fabrics for furniture cushions.
  • Avoid furniture cushions and mattresses made from polyurethane foam/plastic as well as any fabric with acrylic, polyester or polyvinyl chloride, all of which can be toxic to the respiratory system. Polyurethane foam, which can cause bronchitis, coughing, and skin and eye irritations, may also release toluene diisocyanate, which can produce severe lung problems.

For more information about healthier furniture choices, go to Vivavi.com and Eco-terric.com.

19. Most clothing and linens have been treated with flame-retardant chemicals, which can be toxic. 14

  • Sensitive individuals may have to wash fabrics many times before using to remove some of the flame retardant and pesticide treatments they have received.
  • One alternative method of removing chemicals is to soak the fabric in 1 cup lemon juice per gallon of water for 48 hours or more. If sensitive individuals still react to the fabric, put the item back in the lemon juice solution and soak for another 48 hours. Keep repeating until the item does not produce reactions.
  • In general, it is healthier to only purchase clothing, sheets and mattresses made of natural materials, such as unbleached cotton, wool and hemp as opposed to synthetics which are made with chemicals. Nevertheless, even natural fabrics can cause problems, as cotton is usually treated with powerful pesticides, and some people are allergic to wool.
  • Of course, organic natural fabrics are the least toxic, though some sensitive individuals react even to these, possibly due to the seeds in the fabric.

20. Evaluate Healthy Flooring Options. 15 When evaluating flooring, it is helpful to remember that flooring that has already been in a home or apartment over five years may have already off-gassed the dangerous fumes. Therefore, living with it may be fine for you. However, synthetic floors that are older and have deep scratches may be emitting chemicals. In this case, you may want to have a “green” builder evaluate your situation.

Most vinyl building materials are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion and liver dysfunction.

  • If possible, avoid finishing your floors with polyurethane — a respiratory toxin. Although water-based polyurethane is somewhat better than oil-based, it is still problematic. But if the polyurethane has been there for over five years, it is much less toxic than when it was new.
  • If you want to finish your wood floors, consider using linseed, or other oils, on wood. Don’t use particle board for flooring, as it can emit formaldehyde fumes for five years.
  • If you do have particle board flooring, you can seal and cover it with hardwood, cork, ceramic, terra cotta or porcelain flooring.
  • When selecting wood flooring, pressure-treated wood is healthier than wood treated with preservatives. Phenol resins emit fewer toxins than urea resins.
  • Pre-treated wood is healthier than treating the wood after installation.
  • If you do finish your floors with polyurethane, open all windows for at least a week and do what you can to stay elsewhere for that time, especially if you have young children.
  • Natural linoleum made from linseed oil is an option for flooring and countertops.
  • Bamboo is also healthy flooring alternative.

For more information on non-toxic flooring, go to Greenbuildingsupply.com. And, for more information on green builders, visit the U.S. Green Building Council.

Now, take a deep breath. I know that was a lot of information and it can be difficult to digest, let alone determine where to begin to make your house a non-toxic haven for your children. Choose three things off this list to tackle each week, or perhaps each month if it’s too overwhelming and slowly transform your home to a green nest for your family. Baby steps…

Original article written by Ronnie Friedland, Care.com editor and adapted by Little Green Moments.

Notes:

  1. http://www.slideshare.net/rachellsarnoff/pregnancy-needtoknowfrommommygreenest
  2. http://products.mercola.com/laundry-detergent/
  3. http://safemama.com/2010/01/28/safemama-cheat-sheet-dishwashing-detergents/
  4. http://home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/construction/materials/low-voc-paint.htm
  5. http://living.amuchbetterway.com/toxic-carpet-dangerous-toxins-that-live/
  6. http://living.amuchbetterway.com/toxic-carpet-dangerous-toxins-that-live/
  7. http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Four-Tips-To-Eliminate-Chemical-Poisons-From-Your-2357822.php
  8. http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Four-Tips-To-Eliminate-Chemical-Poisons-From-Your-2357822.php
  9. http://www.rodale.com/flame-retardant-chemicals-0
  10. http://healthychild.org/blog/comments/pvc_the_most_toxic_plastic/
  11. http://www.practicallygreen.com/actions/get-some-houseplants-to-improve-your-homes-indoor-air-quality
  12. http://www.enviroblog.org/2012/11/toxic-fire-retardants-are-everywhere-in-homes-new-studies-find.html
  13. http://www.care.com/housekeeping-creating-a-toxin-free-home-p1017-q14637.html
  14. http://www.care.com/housekeeping-creating-a-toxin-free-home-p1017-q14637.html
  15. http://www.care.com/housekeeping-creating-a-toxin-free-home-p1017-q14637.html