Ten Ways to Clean the Air Inside Your Home
First published in Corporate Knights, December 2005
1. Make Your Home A Smoke-Free Zone
Studies show that the pollution inside our homes can be up to a hundred times worse than the pollution outside them. The dramatic increases in childhood asthma, chemical sensitivity, and allergies all have their origins in the home. One study, done over a 15 year period, concluded that women who worked at home had a 54% higher death rate from cancer than women with jobs away from the home. Banishing smoke is a natural starting point: environmental tobacco smoke contains at least 60 chemicals that are known to be carcinogens. Make your home a smoke-free zone: that goes for marijuana, candles, and wood fires, too. If you have an inefficient woodstove, change to a new, super-efficient one.
2. Change Your Cleaning Products
Alas, we have traded borax and elbow-grease for chemically-based oven cleaners, detergents, spot removers and scum removers that cause much more harm than the dirt they clean. A 1985 EPA report concluded that the chemicals in regular household cleaners are three times more likely to cause cancer than outdoor air pollution. Trisodium nitrilotriacetate is a suspected carcinogen that hangs out in some laundry detergents; ethoxylated nonyl phenol is a gender-bender, that does likewise (banned in the EU, but not in Canada); 2-butoxyethanol is a solvent used in carpet and specialty cleaners that causes liver and kidney damage. Get them out of here! The American Lung Association estimates that 25% of asthma is attributable to domestic cleaning work. “Conventional cleaning products … actually leave indoor air polluted with a toxic smog of petrochemical volatile organic compounds, and the synthetic fragrances used to mask them.” (Worldwatch Institute). So go green! There are plenty of safe, healthy, cleaning products to choose from.
CancerSmart Consumer Guide: www.leas.ca
3. Banish Your Carpets
Poor carpets! They feel so comfortable, but they unwittingly harbour an arsenal of poison, attached to a million molecules of dust. That new carpet smell comes from the chemicals in the carpets: they’re laden with antistatic agents, fire-retardants, fungicides, pesticides, adhesives, binders, and stain resisters, which off-gas into the air. Once installed, they become a storehouse for dust, mildew, smoke, and chemicals that off-gas from dry-cleaning, fire-retardants, plastics, and pesticides that your pets carry in on their paws. A Swedish study found a link between childhood asthma and the dust from PVC plastics in the carpets in children’s bedrooms. Switch to natural cork, wood, linoleum or bamboo flooring, with rugs that you can shake and air out. And take your shoes off at the door!
Healthy Flooring Network: www.healthyflooring.org
4. Mop Up Your Molds
It’s damp, there’s condensation on cold surfaces, and you’ve got mold, spreading its spores, irritating your lungs, triggering asthma, and spoiling your lovely décor. There’s no getting round it: you’ve got to analyze the problem, and eliminate the source of the damp. Improve your ventilation, add more insulation, do whatever it takes!
Mold Resources: www.epa.gov/mold
5. Change Your Cosmetics
Oh honey, that smells so sexy. There’s just one problem. You said we wanted a baby – but your nail polish contains glycol ethers, which are linked to birth defects and reduced sperm counts. Your Calvin Klein Eternity contains phthalates which may harm the testicles of our future son, and so does your Poison. Just one spray of these fragrances may fill the air with 600 different chemicals. After analyzing 2,983 chemicals used in personal care products, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found 884 of them to be toxic. For the sake of our children, can we go fragrance-free?
Safe Cosmetics: www.NotTooPretty.org
6. Clear Out Your Chemicals
In September 2005, the Environmental Working Group tested 10 samples of umbilical-cord blood from new mothers, collected by the American Red Cross. They found an average of 287 contaminants in the blood, including mercury, fire retardants, pesticides and the Teflon chemical PFOA. These same chemicals are also in the babies, most of them from the air in our homes. “Of chemicals commonly found in homes, 150 have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer and psychological abnormalities.” (Consumer Product Safety Commission). So we need to clean out the cleansers, cosmetics, deodorizers, fabric softeners, moth repellant cakes, toilet disinfectants, pesticides, and paints. When these things offgas, they evaporate, and are transported directly to the brain.
Pollution in NewBorns: www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2
7. Throw out Your Air Fresheners
You’ve seen them on television – they promise instant fresh air out of a little box that you plug into the power. So what’s inside? Instant Himalayan air, teleported from Nepal? In reality, they produce nerve-deadening volatile organic compounds that interfere with our ability to breathe and smell by coating our nasal passages with an oily film such as methoxychlor. The American Lung Association says that room deodorizers contribute to asthma; British research found that 32% more babies had diarrhea in homes that use air freshening sticks, sprays and aerosols, and their mothers are 26% more likely to experience depression. When the VOCs mix with air pollution from other sources, they generate formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. “Fresh air”? Where is Advertising Standards Canada, when you need them?
Air Fresheners: www.ourlittleplace.com/air.html
8. Fill your Home with Plants
In summer, just open the window! Even in the city, it’s better than indoor air. Year-round, grow house-plants – orchids, peace lilies, bromeliads, philodendrons, spider plants, azaleas, dracaenas, gerberas, and chrysanthemums. When NASA researched the effect of houseplants to eliminate pollutants on spacecraft, they found that these kinds of plant could remove 87% of the indoor pollutants within 24 hours, using photosynthesis. A good ventilation system is also essential if your home is sealed tight in winter for insulation.
Houseplants for Clean Air: www.swedish.org/16432.cfm
9. Fill Your Home with Love
Don’t fill your home with swear words, resentments, irritation, anger and blame: there is mental, emotional and psychic pollution, as well as chemical pollution. Your home is your haven for your soul, and your family. Fill it with laughter, warmth and kindness. Treat every part of it as living. Keep it clean, but not so tidy that it becomes a display for your neighbours, instead of a home for your heart.
10. Write a Letter
It is not right that we should have to tolerate toxic chemicals in our homes that are associated with birth defects, cancer, asthma, and nerve damage. This is something we are entitled to be upset about. Write to your MP, the Right Hon Ujjal Dossanjh, Minister of Health, and Dr. Carolyn Bennett MP, Minister for Public Health Agency of Canada (House of Commons, Ottawa, K1A 0A6), and ask when they will legislate the removal of all phthalates from cosmetics sold in Canada, and other dangerous indoor air pollutants. Clean air flows like political influence, from the barrel of a pen.
Canada’s MPs: www.parl.gc.ca
Guy Dauncey is a writer and speaker who lives in Victoria, BC. He is the author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society, 2001), and is currently at work on a new book, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic. He is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. www.earthfuture.com.