“Going green” means making choices that are good for your health and the planet.
“’Green cleaning’ is worth it because it poses fewer health risks, especially in the home,” says Nancy Simcox, assistant teaching professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington. “It prevents or limits the use of toxic chemicals in the air or on surfaces where exposure can harm lungs, skin, and other organs.”
Go green at home and “you can protect the public health and environment of your family, pets, and community,” Simcox says.
Even a few simple changes can help you create a cleaner, healthier home. Here’s how to get started.
Unhealthy Air Inside
Whether it’s exhaust from a truck muffler or smoke from a wildfire, polluted air outside is often easy to see or smell. But the air inside your home can be dirty, too. It can come from:
Everyday items: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that many items, ranging from natural gas to cleaning products, contain large amounts of toxins. Since many of us spend 90% of our time inside, the health impact of these items can be severe.
Dust and mold: Indoor air can be loaded with dust mites, pet dander, mold, and pollen. In fact, air quality inside homes can sometimes be worse than outdoors. Anyone can feel the impact of poor air quality, but “children, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems can be more vulnerable to chemicals and pollutants,” says Khanya Brann, a spokesperson for the EPA.
How Household Products Affect Your Health
The items you use every day can impact how you feel. For instance, “cleaning products may contain ingredients that have unintended consequences for human health and the environment,” Brann says.
Among them are products that contain chlorine bleach. While it does a good job at killing germs and mold, bleach can irritate your skin, eyes, and lungs. Even tiny droplets of a diluted bleach spray can find their way into your lungs and trigger asthma or make it worse in people who already have it.
Many other household items give off toxic gases called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. In the short term, VOCs can harm your eyes, nose, and throat, upset your stomach, and make it harder to breathe. They’ve also been linked to cancer.
Cleansers and disinfectants may contain VOCs. You can also find them in products ranging from craft glue and permanent markers to caulk and paint to air fresheners and body spray.
And while you may love how your house smells when you spray air freshener, the fragrance in products can be harmful. Hundreds of chemicals may be used to create a fragrance. Some may raise your risk of cancer or disrupt your body’s hormones, but it’s hard to know which ones to avoid. “Many fragrances lack toxicological data,” Simcox says.
The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to reduce the health risks in your home.
Choose “green” cleaning supplies. Making your own cleaning supplies is easier (and cheaper) than you may think. For instance, you can create a mild household cleaner by mixing ½ cup vinegar, ¼ cup baking soda, and ½ gallon hot water in a spray bottle. Ready to clean your hardwood floors? Add 1 cup of vinegar to a pail of water. Mix, spray, and mop.
At the store, you can look for cleaning products with a blue and green label that reads “Safer Choice.” “Safer Choice is a voluntary EPA program that certifies cleaning products are made with safer ingredients, use more sustainable packaging, and work as well as comparable products,” Brann says.
Look for a “Fragrance-Free Safer Choice” label to ensure a product doesn’t contain harmful scents.
Freshen the air naturally. Start by opening a window or using a fan to circulate the air in your house. If you crave a scent, simmer cinnamon, cloves, or other strong spices on your stove. You can also make your own air freshener. Buy a natural essential oil in a scent like orange, lavender, pine, or peppermint. Add 8-10 drops to a spray bottle with 1 cup of water and spritz around your house as needed.
Essentials oils can be toxic to animals, so keep it away from your pet.
Clean your clothes a healthier way. Chemicals called “surfactants” help lift dirt from your clothes so it can wash away. They stay in the water once it drains from your washing machine and are known to harm fish and other ocean life. Surfactants can also build up in your body and may block or interfere with your hormones. Hormones control many of your body’s processes, including growth, reproduction, and metabolism.
A better option for you and the planet? Choose a detergent with the EPA’s Safer Choice label. Over 200 eco-friendly options are on the list.
Choose a healthy mattress. Many new mattresses give off a strong odor from VOCs. This “off-gassing” can give you a headache, irritate your eyes and skin, and make you dizzy or sick to your stomach.
A “natural” mattress doesn’t mean that it’s free of VOCs or other chemicals. When you’re in the market for a new bed, look for a certification that it was made with healthy materials.
For instance, a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification means 95% of the materials used to make the mattress are organic and certain harmful substances, like chemical flame-retardants, were not used. Latex mattresses can earn a Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS).
5 More Ways to Make Your Home Healthier
These tips can help you make your home a greener and healthier place to live:
Take off your shoes at the door. The soles of your shoes carry more than 140 times more bacteria than the insides do. Take them off by the front door so you don’t spread those germs and dirt around your home.
Keep your floors clean. Carpets trap dust, pollen, and pet dander, which can make allergies worse. Opt for wood floors over wall-to-wall carpet when you can. Vacuum often, using a central vacuum or a cleaner with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
Watch out for moisture. Mold and mildew can affect the quality of air inside your home. Use an air conditioner or dehumidifier to keep the humidity lower than 50%.
Get the air moving. “Consider increasing ventilation during and after cleaning to reduce exposure [to chemicals],” Brann says. “Products with the Safer Choice label are formulated to minimize indoor air pollution from VOCs.”
Treat all cleaning products with caution. “Cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants contain toxic chemical ingredients,” Simcox says. Aside from the health dangers these products can cause, “additional safety hazards include fire, chemical reactions if stored with an incompatible product — for instance, bleach and ammonia form a toxic gas — and spills.”
Read the labels, use as directed, and keep all products on a high shelf or locked in a cabinet, out of the reach of children and pets.
The same advice goes for “green” cleaners. Although they’re better for your family and the planet, you should still treat them with care.
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Photo Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images
Nancy Simcox, assistant teaching professor and director of continuing education programs, environmental and occupational health sciences, University of Washington, Seattle.
Khanya Brann, spokesperson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.
EPA: “Improving Your Indoor Environment,” “Learn About the Safer Choice Label,” “Safer Choice Criteria for Fragrance-Free Products,” “Indoor Air Quality In Your Home.”
American Lung Association: “Volatile Organic Compounds.”
Michael Sevilla, MD, family physician, Salem, Ohio.
New York State: “Benefits of Green Cleaning Products and Programs.”
Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education, Second Edition.
Children’s Environmental Health Network: “FAQs: Fragrances.”
University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture: “Clean and Green Homemade Cleaners.”
Connecticut Department of Public Health: “Fact Sheet: Air Fresheners.”
ASPCA.org: “The Essentials of Essential Oils Around Pets.”
American Cleaning Institute: “The Chemistry of Cleaning.”
Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research: “Study on Characteristics and Harm of Surfactants.”
Consumer Reports: “How to find an eco-friendly laundry detergent,” “VOCs and other toxic chemicals in mattresses: What to know,” “Organic mattress labels you can trust.”
CDC: “You Can Control Mold.”
Cleaning Industry Research Institute: “Study Reveals High Bacteria Levels on Footwear.”
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Dust Allergies.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Get the Dirt: How Safe Are Cleaning Products?” “Hormones.”
Molecules and Cells: “Non-Ionic Surfactants Antagonize Toxicity of Potential Phenolic Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, Including Triclosan in Caenorhabditis elegans.”