By Deborah de Moulpied
Reducing toxins and unwanted chemicals in our day-to-day lives has been getting a lot more attention recently. The core of the organic movement is based on minimizing pesticide use and exposure, especially as more research confirms the logical connection between disease and chemicals designed to kill things. However, reducing chemical exposure goes beyond eating organically or using organic personal care products. Entire homes and offices are potential toxic bubbles surrounding you with unsafe chemicals 24/7. This fall I began teaching a course titled Healthy Home and Office: Living Toxic Free as an 8-week adult education class teaching students how to create healthier and safer home and office environments.
The course begins by defining what toxins are, how they are absorbed, and which ones are "the worst." A brief overview of your home environment broadens the scope beyond how people normally think of daily toxins. Finally, a discussion about conventional products and how they are regulated -- and defining terms such as green washing, natural, and organic -- builds a base for understanding how products are marketed to the consumer.
The rest of the course focuses on your living space room by room: kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, home office, and the often neglected laundry room, basement, garage, and yard. Each room has typical areas or products of potential concern. The most important part of the course is finding practical solutions to reducing chemical exposure in any given situation, or in any room, as in this case. Think of it as a chemical audit (versus energy audit) for the home.
So what is a toxin anyway?
The formal definition: A toxin is a poison that can cause sudden or extreme illness or death. This definition is typically used by scientists in the chemical industry. The informal definition defines a toxin as a substance that causes disturbances to organisms. It is this looser definition that has allowed the word toxin to become an everyday word. While sometimes misused, it has allowed us, the consumers, to jump up and down and ask, and sometimes demand to know what insidious long-term effects a specific chemical might have on human health and disease.
Almost all everyday personal care products and household toxins or chemicals in question come down to one original source -- petroleum. Petroleum is the base for solvents and chemical pesticides. Petroleum is also the mother of plastic and all the "plasticizers" used in millions of products from stain-proof carpets to hair conditioners. It is these petroleum derivatives that can potentially cause health issues ranging from immediate death to cancer decades later.
While the daunting subject of home toxins can easily fill an 8-week course or a book for that matter, there are some very general tips you may follow to get you started in reducing your chemical exposure.
1: Refresh indoor air daily (a.k.a. open windows). It has been determined that indoor air can have more "chemicals" than even outdoor city air. Adding "air quality" plants to your home also helps clean indoor air.
2: Use HEPA filters in vacuums and heaters/burners -- using a central vac is ideal. Wet mop floors instead of sweeping -- the idea is to minimize dust going back into the air.
3: Choose natural untreated fibers whenever possible for clothing, bedding, upholstery, and curtains while avoiding words such as "stain/mildew resistant," "wrinkle-free," "permanent press," and "non-flammable."
4: Minimize plastic use, including Teflon. Store food in glass or stainless steel containers (think like Great Aunt Tilly 100 years ago).
5: Learn to read ingredients for food, personal care products, and cleaning solutions. If there are no ingredients listed, don't use it. You should be able to pronounce the ingredients and the list should not be too long. Ingredients that are ALL CAPS are usually short for chemicals in question.
6: Minimize the use of "fragrance" or perfumes found in personal care products, cleaners, laundry products, air fresheners, and candles. Typically derived from phthalates and other petroleum by-products, these are serious hormone disruptors. Instead, use pure essential oils from plants for scents.
7: Minimize exposure to "things that smell;" typically called VOCs -- volatile organic compounds. This can include a range of items from paints, markers, glue, garden products, solvents, and certain plastics, such as PVC shower curtains and vinyl in new cars. After all -- the nose knows.
Deborah de Moulpied is owner and founder of Bona Fide Green Goods, an award-winning green living department store located in Concord, New Hampshire. Bona Fide specializes in offering personal care and cleaning products with low-chemical profiles, minimal ingredients, and organic certification. She is also the environmental toxin faculty member of the new Anticancer - A New Way of Life Program based out of the Payson Cancer Center at Concord Hospital. Ms. de Moulpied is also a writer/speaker for various organizations on green living and toxic-free homes. She lives near Concord with her 11 chickens but loves to sneak up to the White Mountains for a hike whenever she can.