Last week’s New York Times featured an article about a Dr. Jeremijenko, not a physician but an engineer who offered clients tips for making their personal environments healthier, more naturally pleasing, and more environmentally friendly. Dr. Jeremijenko’s suggestions ranged from planting sunflowers and EDTA soil supplements to leach harmful lead in yards to surrounding yourself with more houseplants for both their aesthetic value and healthy ability to absorb toxic VOCs in the air. She even offers clients reports on the “top polluters in their neighborhoods” and other information on environmental concerns relevant to their areas.
The good doctor’s story got us thinking. We all chat quite a bit about the best diet, the ideal exercise routine, even effective sleep strategies. Yet, our personal environment, we’ve said, includes a great deal we have little to no control over: air pollution, water impurity, and the chemical makeup of modern “stuff” – (i.e. chemicals included, some for good reason and others not so much, in the products we use every day). Wise supplementation (shamless plug ;)) can help counter some of their effects, but what if we knew how to reduce toxic impact from the get-go?
The idea here is reducing our own biological “chemical load,” the number and amount of toxins we carry in our bodies. This includes everything from heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead to virtually omnipresent flame retardant compounds called PBDEs to chemicals like phthalates, formaldehyde, PCBs, and bisphenol A (just to name a few). These toxins are invaders, and the body knows it. Some, like the heavy metals, impact neurological functioning. Others, like phthalates, disrupt the endocrine balance. PBDEs, at lower levels, can seriously impact thyroid functioning (an issue for a number of our readers) and at higher levels, can impair reproductive and neurological functioning. In short, this issue is nothing to shake a stick at.
Scientists in both the human health and environmental sciences are learning from the growing use of biomonitoring surveys, in which blood and urine samples from humans (and animals) are tested for the presence of certain toxins. A person’s chemical load is, in part, determined by where they live and how old they are, but it’s also strongly influenced by what kind of lifestyle they lead and the measures they take to minimize their exposure to environmental and consumer toxins in their home and work places.
We’re all about taking charge of our health and well-being, we thought. “So,” we asked, “What are some easy and inexpensive ways for all of us to reduce our chemical load?” Check it out.
Got chlorine in your water? Most likely, since it’s commonly used in municipal water treatment programs. Once that chlorine comes out in the fine, hot spray of your morning shower, there’s concern about breathing it in day after day. Quick fix? Buy a simple shower filter, which usually go for about $30-45.
And while you’re at it, you might want to take a look at ye olde shower curtain as well. We suggest getting rid of a vinyl (PVC) curtain, which contains phthalates that can be absorbed by the skin. Again, if you’re purely a bath person, you probably don’t have much to worry about. However, if you are a shower lover, that aforementioned hot water can allegedly help release phthalates into your otherwise soothing shower experience. Simple solution? Choose a nylon, linen, or PEVA plastic. They come as cheap as $4.
All those flame retardants? They’re most critical for synthetic fabrics. (That polyester jumpsuit in the back of your closet will go up in flames much quicker than your everyday merino wool suit.) But we’re talking about more than clothes here. Look around your house. PBDEs can make up to 30% of the weight of synthetic foam in furniture items, and those chemicals get spread around the house every time you sit down or get up from your furniture. As a result, PBDEs are found in the household dust of nearly every American home. Choose natural fiber rugs and carpets whenever possible. And look for furniture made with wool, natural rubber and latex instead of synthetic materials especially for high-use furniture like mattresses. We recognize, however, that fully natural furniture can be difficult to afford. Other options? Look for options that use non-PBDE retardants. Though PBDEs aren’t the only flame retardant, they’re generally considered the most lasting and insidious. Alternatives like borate retardants have their issues as well but are considered safer overall. Oh, and it’s best to skip any stain guard coatings. Tell the kids to keep it in the kitchen instead.
New furniture, new appliances, new cars. They all have that distinct smell, don’t they? Well, don’t breathe too deeply. These “fragrances,” if you want to call them that, are anything but fresh. Instead, they’re a composite of chemical “outgassing” emanating from new plastics, vinyl, solvents, paints, metal treatments, etc. One easy and economical way to avoid being the primary recipient of these gases? Buy used. We all hear about what good deals you can snatch in the used car market. But electronic consignment shops are a great place to shop, as are other “gently used” venues for furniture and household items. Prefer or need to buy new? Let items sit outdoors or in the garage for a few days to outgas as much as possible. If you’re in an apartment or townhome that doesn’t include these options, consider targeting your new purchases to warmer seasons when you can keep the windows open.
The good doctor wasn’t kidding here, and she’s not the only believer. NASA has been researching the power of common plants for years with hopes of designing healthy space station environments. Our green companions are particularly well suited for processing the benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene in our indoor environments (common substances in household furniture/building material outgassing). Here’s a few of the more common winners: English ivy, snake plants, spider plants, peace lily, golden pathos, bamboo, and philodendrons. For you floral lovers, chrysanthemums and gerbera daisies do the job quite nicely. Photosynthesis, baby!
Repainting the kids’ bedrooms? We all know to open the windows, but it’s getting easier (and cheaper) to find paints that don’t incite the miserable nausea and headaches to begin with. Many major brands now offer “eco” lines that contain low or no VOCs, the rogue-ish (and toxic) compounds that tend to overwhelm. Other independent companies offer even cleaner, more natural alternatives in the way of paint, stain and even indoor primers. They’re worth checking out, especially for the kids.
When you need to go conventional, use a mask and as much ventilation as possible. And take it outside whenever you can. Stripping and re-staining an old dresser? Painting cabinet doors? It’s worth the extra time and hassle to work in the great outdoors. Your body (and your family) will thank you for it.
Conventional cleaners can consist of up to 90% or more of phthalate-riddled “fragrance.” Look for plant-based alterative cleaners, or make your own with some basic (cheap) ingredients from grandma’s kitchen: white vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, good old hot water, etc. Borax powder and Bon Ami offer more powerful but still safer options for harder to clean areas of the house. The fact is a cleaner house isn’t always a healthier house. Numerous studies have linked conventional cleaners with an increased risk of asthma, especially in children. Let everyone in your home breathe easier, and keep some hard-earned dollars in your wallet.
You don’t need to grow a feral field in place of a lawn to make a safer yard. The biggest risk for you and your family comes with the use of conventional pesticides, which have been linked to everything from learning disorders in children to Parkinson’s and other immune disorders in adults. There’s nothing wrong with wanting an attractive lawn (and some neighborhoods require it!). But a little information and some less toxic alternatives can give you a better result for the same cost (or less) as the conventional choices. Fortunately, there’s an increasing array of safer and natural/organic options available, some do-it-yourself and others administered by yard care companies. Even the largest lawn care chains are beginning to add organic options to their product lineup.
Let’s face it. We can’t control every molecule of air in our home. We don’t live in Grok’s world, for better and for worse. Regular dusting, sweeping/vacuuming, and a good multi-function air purifier can go a long way in reducing the toxins in your house. And if an air purifier isn’t an economic option right now, chances are you’ll benefit considerably from just doing the old-fashioned thing and opening up the house. Study after study has shown that the air inside the house is almost always less pure than the air outside. Enjoy the breeze!
Finally, though we’re a personal health blog, we recognize and appreciate that there’s a more altruistic side here. Taking steps to reduce your chemical load likely helps reduce the chemical load of others. The less toxins we use, the less we have floating around out there. Good health, good karma. What’s not to love about that?
Comments, questions, other suggestions in reducing toxin exposure in everyday life? The more, the merrier, we say!
Interested in reading more about biomonitoring, pollution in your area, and safer suggestions for everyday life? Check out these sites:
The Green Guide (Sponsored by National Geographic)