WebMD Health - Home and Health

Mar 11, 2010 4:37 PM

How to Create a Greener, Cleaner, Healthier Home

These days, green is the new black when it comes to the way we live. And we've all heard the message: Recycle waste, buy locally grown food, and drive more fuel-efficient cars to make our lives and homes "greener." But what does going green mean for your health? Can even a small shift in your life help minimize allergic reactions, reduce asthma attacks, and improve your sleep and breathing, along with other healthy benefits? The answer is yes. Here's what you need to know -- and what to do. (Looking for quick ways to keep your house cleaner and healthier? See the 5 Ways to Green Your Home section.

Indoor Air Pollution

You hear a lot about pollution outside, but have you ever wondered what you're breathing in your own home? Surprisingly, the air inside your home is dirtier than the air outside. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates about a dozen common pollutants found in items such as paint and many cleaning and cosmetic products have levels two to five times higher inside homes than outside. And since most of us spend about 90% of our time inside, the health impact can be significant.

Indoor air can be loaded with dust mites, bacteria, and mold as a result of the way we live, says Jordan Josephson, MD. Josephson is a sinus and allergy expert and director of the New York Nasal and Sinus Center in Manhattan. The more stuff you have, he says, the worse it is. A cluttered home leads to a buildup of indoor dust -- and pet dander, if you have a pet. Studies show that the dust and dander contain high concentrations of hazardous materials like heavy metals, lead, pesticides, and other chemicals.

In addition, the everyday products you use to clean your kitchen, disinfect your bathroom, paint your home, and rid it of pests can pollute your breathing space with toxic fumes and vapors. For example, disinfectants, laundry detergents, aerosol sprays, and air fresheners emit gases called VOCs -- volatile organic compounds -- that can cause allergic skin reactions, headaches, and dizziness.

Household Products and Your Health

Consider the effect on health of products with chlorine that you use to get rid of the grime on bathroom and kitchen surfaces. Sure, chlorine is effective at killing germs and mold. But as Toni Bark, MD, points out, it can also cause eye and respiratory irritation. Bark has a family practice and is a medical consultant in Evanston, Illinois. She is also one of the few physicians in the United States certified as a LEED AP, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accredited professional. LEED is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to provide standards for environmentally sustainable construction. Bark says that the use of products with chlorine can cause allergies, asthma, and even bronchitis.

Cleaners aren't the only product that can cause trouble. While we all love a sweet-smelling home, household products with fragrance can also create toxic indoor air. If you do one thing, Bark says, try to get all perfumed items -- cologne, hair spray, and particularly air fresheners -- out of your house.

"Air fresheners are just a way of injecting chemicals into the air," says Ted Schettler, MD, MPH. Schettler is science director of the Science & Environmental Health Network, a consortium of environmental agencies concerned with environmental and public health policy.

Christopher Gavigan is chief executive officer of Healthy Child Healthy World, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping create healthy environments for kids. Gavigan points out that "fragrance can be loaded with hundreds of chemicals and that, by law, cleaning manufacturers don't have to label what's in their fragrance." That means there is no good way for consumers to know exactly what they are breathing when they use a perfumed product.

Natural Cleaning Products

Experts recommend taking a more natural -- not to mention cheaper -- approach to dealing with household dirt and grime. "Using 3% peroxide instead of chlorine bleach is a safe and effective way to clean surfaces," Schettler says.

Both Bark and Schettler suggest mixing up your own nontoxic batch of cleaning fluid by combining two cups of white vinegar, two cups of water, and 25 drops of your favorite essential oil for a pleasant smell. You can use this highly effective natural solution for cleaning windows, mirrors, floors, and kitchen and bathroom surfaces and for brightening tiles.

Bark suggests trying other nontoxic alternatives to standard cleaning products. For instance:

  • Biokleen Spray & Wipe All Purpose Cleaner works with the use of natural enzymes. Bark says it's "just short of miraculous for cleaning up crusted messes and soaking up unpleasant smells."
  • Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose Cleaner eliminates harsh chemicals and synthetic aromas and can clean most household surfaces.
  • Trasan Heavy Hitter microfiber cloths have microscopically thin fibers that will sanitize any surface in your home, picking up microscopic-size particles, such as viruses. Just wet them with water and clean. According to Bark, Trasans are used to sanitize patient hospital rooms in Sweden.
  • Method Multi-Surface Natural All Purpose Cleaner cleans tough stains on almost any surface without harsh chemicals like phosphates and chlorine. Just be sure to choose the Go Naked version, which is fragrance free.

Switching to natural products doesn't mean you have to sacrifice great-smelling rooms. To freshen air naturally, use essential oils and boil citrus fruit sections, cinnamon, and cloves in a pot with water for an hour.

Healthy Laundry Detergents

Throwing on a soft T-shirt with that just-out-of-the-dryer smell is one of life's small pleasures. Alas, that sweet aroma comes with a price. The chlorine bleach and other harsh ingredients used in laundry products to whiten and freshen clothing not only pollute indoor air but also eventually find their way into waterways where it can be toxic to aquatic life. But among the worst offenders are those fabric softener sheets you toss in the dryer to give your clothes that clean scent, Bark says.

Laundry detergents also contain chemicals called surfactants to penetrate clothing and carry away dirt in the wash cycle. But while they may be great at removing stains from your son's soccer shirt, studies show they are easily absorbed through the skin and can disrupt the body's hormone signals that regulate reproduction.

For healthier laundry options, look for products that leave the harsh chemicals behind. Bark suggests a few alternatives:

  • Trader Joe's Liquid Laundry Detergent with lavender oil and optical brightener -- the stuff that keeps your whites white -- cleans clothes just as well as your average detergent, Bark says. But it does it without phosphates -- which pollute the water -- or formaldehyde.
  • Oxi-Brite Laundry Detergent uses oxygen instead of chlorine to effectively remove stains and brighten clothes. According to Bark, oxygen-based cleaners lift dirt and stains from material without the toxicity of chlorine bleach.
  • Earth Friendly Ecos All Natural Laundry Detergent is made entirely from plants and cleans without the use of harsh chemicals or synthetic aromas. You can choose scents like lavender or lemongrass, which come from essential oils.

Creating a Healthy Bedroom

Here's an unsettling thought: "Anything labeled as kids' sleepwear or pajamas, by law, has to be treated with fire retardants, which are carcinogenic," Bark says. Mattresses, it turns out, get the same chemical treatment. These chemicals can protect people from burning in case of a fire. But they are also toxic and environmentally harmful, Schettler says.

When shopping for your child's winter sleepwear, instead of choosing clothing officially labeled "pajamas," look for tight-fitting, organic, all-cotton, merino wool or bamboo long underwear. And, bamboo, says Bark, is naturally flame-retardant. "That's what parents in the know buy for their kids."

In addition to fire retardants, new mattresses are packed with formaldehyde. Bark says that for anywhere from seven months to a year and a half after the purchase of a new mattress, formaldehyde is released into the air and into the skin in the form of gas. And memory foam beds are even worse than standard coil mattresses.

"They are made of synthetic foam rubber and latex, which do mold to your body, but are made of toxic gases," says Bark. These gases are given off for the life of the bed, she adds, and can cause headaches, muscle aches, and a general ill and fatigued feeling.

What should you buy instead? Bark recommends mattresses made of natural (not synthetic) rubber and covered with natural wool or organic cotton. True, they will cost you more (about the same as a memory foam bed). But, according to Bark, they last forever. Dust mites and other living organisms that routinely collect in regular mattresses can't live in the natural wool and rubber. "So, these beds are also naturally hypoallergenic," Bark says.

Finally, Bark notes that cotton is the most heavily pesticide-sprayed crop in the world. That's why it's worth investing in sheets made of organic cotton grown without pesticides. Bamboo sheets are toxin-free as well.

For a greener night's sleep, Bark recommends trying the following:

  • Lifekind natural rubber mattresses contain no fire retardants, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals.
  • Coyuchi organic cotton sheets are made with organic cotton that has been grown without harmful pesticides.
  • Bambooclothes.com offers comfortable organic bamboo sleepwear for young children without the pesticides or chemicals used in most kids' PJs.

5 Ways to Green Your Home

Make your home a greener and healthier place to live with these five tips:

  1. Get on the list. Avoid products that don't list their ingredients on the back of the packaging. And check labels for third-party certification, such as the Green Seal and EcoLogo, environmental expert Ted Schettler, MD, PhD, advises. These seals ensure that the products meet certain "green" criteria and that you're not taking the claims of the manufacturer at face value.
  2. Take 'em off. The soles of your shoes have walked some grimy roads. Schettler suggests simply removing your shoes at the door each time you enter your home to prevent outside pollutants from coming in.
  3. Floor it. Carpets trap dust mites, mold, and other pollutants, which get released into the air you breathe. This can be especially harmful for those with allergies. If alternate flooring isn't an option, says Jordan Josephson, MD, a sinus and allergy expert, consider using a vacuum cleaner with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. This kind of filter traps the very small yet harmful particles that other vacuum cleaners send back into the air.
  4. Stay dry. Josephson recommends minimizing mold and mildew, two major threats to quality indoor air, by keeping the humidity in your home below 60% and keeping moist areas dry.
  5. Decorate with care. Parents-to-be are often eager to ready their baby's room with a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting. Both emit toxic gases harmful for expectant mothers, not to mention a new baby, Schettler says. He suggests looking for low-VOC paints, which release fewer toxic fumes. He also suggests asking the company providing your new carpet to "off-gas" it before installing it. They will "cook" the carpet to release harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde.

The opinions expressed in this feature are the opinions of the experts quoted and are not the opinions of WebMD. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

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