Keeping your family healthy is about more than just making sure everybody eats right and gets plenty of rest.
Your home itself plays an important role in your health and especially that of young children.
Maintaining a visibly-clean home isn’t enough, as what you can’t see can be harmful. Airborne contaminants and irritants, such as bacteria, mold and pollen can circulate through homes that appear clean.
Chemicals in some cleaning products also can be damaging to your family and pets.
“According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air in an average home has two to five times more pollutants than outdoor air. These include dust, mold, carcinogens and other toxins that can severely affect the health and well-being of your family,” says certified green building professional Lisa Beres of GreenNest.com, who provides consultations to help people make their homes healthier.
Here are a few ideas to keep your home, your family and your planet clean and safe:
Check those linens
Dust mites and bacteria tend to collect in large numbers in your blanket, pillows and bed sheets. These types of microbes can trigger asthma and allergies.
Washing linens once a week in hot water is a good way to kill bacteria, but there also are products that help. These include mattress barrier covers, which are woven tight enough that allergens can’t penetrate them. A variety of bedding materials, including wool and natural rubber, are perfect for repelling dust from the average bed, which can potentially house millions of dust mites.
Many bedspreads, curtains and sheets are also treated with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen used to decrease wrinkles, and several industrial flame retardants as well, according to reports by the California Energy Commission and the EPA. Consumers can avoid many of these toxic substances by purchasing flannel, knit and organic cotton sheets or wool bedding, which has natural flame retardant qualities.
You can also avoid the need for using whitening bleaches and harsh detergents with phosphates by avoiding bright white sheets and bedding and instead purchasing neutral-colored ones.
Minimize exposure to PBDEs
Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are a class of toxic chemicals in wide use to prevent the spread of fire and are likely to be found in dozens of products in your home, from the padding below your carpet, to your bed, couch or television screen. They are most commonly found in polyurethane foam products and electronics.
The form of PBDEs used in foam furniture was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2005 after the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) and others reported widespread PBDE contamination in people, households, wildlife and common foods.
New foam items do not likely contain PBDEs. However, mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, foam pillows (including breastfeeding pillows), carpet padding, and other foam items purchased before 2005 are likely to contain them. PBDEs were also used in vehicle seating, car seats, and office furniture. We urge you to take these simple steps to avoid contact with PBDE-containing items still in your homes, offices and vehicles.
1. Inspect foam items.
Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you cannot replace these items try to keep the covers intact.
Beware of older items like car seats and mattress pads where the foam is not completely encased in a protective fabric.
2. Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter.
These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and other allergens from your home. HEPA-filter air cleaners may also reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
3. Do not reupholster foam furniture.
Even those items without PBDEs might contain poorly studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects.
4. Be careful when removing old carpet.
The padding may contain PBDEs. Keep your work area isolated from the rest of your home. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as small particles as possible.
5. When purchasing new products ask the manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use.
Avoid products with brominated fire retardants, and opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like leather, wool and cotton. Be aware that “natural” or latex foam and natural cotton are flammable and require a fire retardant method that may contain toxic fire retardants.
Clean the air
Even with all the corners and crannies of your home nicely scrubbed, many microbes, ragweed and pollen could be circulating through the air, contributing to allergy and asthma symptoms. There are several simple ways to air out your living space, like opening the windows, but nothing works as efficiently as a reliable air purifier.
“You definitely want to use an air purifier,” stresses Beres, who recommends the Sanyo Air Washer Plus. “It literally uses the power of water to clean the air and suppress the spread of bacteria and germs. It also uses the HEPA filtration system, which removes 99.97 percent of allergens and neutralizes odors.”
It’s all about cleaning the air, just as you do with your home’s surfaces. With this in mind, the portable Air Washer Plus features an air-distribution system that maximizes air flow and helps clean all areas of any room in which it operates.
Avoiding commercial air fresheners that contain harmful endocrine disrupting phthalates and candles (even those that are touted as natural) that contain artificial essential oils is a good idea as well.
One substitute is to put baking soda and borax together in a cardboard shoebox with holes punched into the top (tape the shoebox shut) and place it in a corner of areas such as a closet to get rid of musty smells.
Sophie Uliano, author of the book and blog, Gorgeously Green, also recommends using pure essential oil to make your own air fresheners. She shares a recipe for linen spray: Put two tablespoons of vodka in a spray bottle, add distilled water, leaving one and a half inches from the top of the bottle, and then add one teaspoon of lavender and one teaspoon of lemongrass essential oils for a fresh scent. Spray over linens, and don't forget to spray the hamper every so often.
Beeswax candles are healthy and economical alternatives that even those who suffer from allergies and asthma can live with.
Look for green cleaners
The right cleaning products can make your house spic and span. But many traditional cleaners contain solvents and chemicals that can be harmful to you and the environment.
Mixing different types of cleaners, like bleach and ammonia, also can cause health problems — including coughing, nausea and even pneumonia.
Fortunately, there are less-hazardous, environmentally-friendly cleaners now available. You even can mix your own eco-friendly cleaners at home, using non-toxic ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and water. A variety of recipes can be found by searching the Internet.
As we learn more about how contaminants circulate inside our homes, more families are realizing a dirty home isn’t just an eyesore, but also could be a health hazard.
The non-profit Environmental Working Group website contains science-based information on toxic chemicals in home products and is located at www.ewg.org.