WebMD Health - Home and Health

Mar 29, 2011 4:21 PM

Make Your Home and Yard More Eco-Friendly

Your home is where your health begins, so making your living environment as green as possible can only mean good things for your mind and body. Our living spaces, the air we breathe, and our yards offer numerous ways to make eco-friendly and health-conscious choices. Three environmental medicine experts offer tips on how to make your home "green" and how to ensure your family's well-being.

Making Your Home Green

From the kitchen to the carpeting, most homes can be made more eco-friendly and healthy for every member of the family.

Mold killer. Finding mold in your bathroom is easy -- just look inside your shower or toilet a few days after its last cleaning. Eliminating mold, however, means you need to get creative if you want to be green.

"Vinegar is naturally acidic," says William Rea, MD, a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon and environmental medicine expert at the Environmental Health Center in Dallas. "And acid is the key to getting rid of mold and other fungi that grow in humid environments like bathrooms."

Vinegar straight-up at 5% concentration -- the kind you can purchase at the grocery store -- with no water added, is a natural mold killer. Better yet, it earns bonus points for killing bacteria and germs as well as fuzzy fungi.

HEPA clean. You can vacuum till your fingers turn blue, but if you don't have a HEPA-armed vacuum cleaner you're just blowing dust in the wind. An acronym for high efficiency particulate air, HEPA filters have a well-deserved reputation as green-worthy.

"HEPA filters basically suck air in and clean it out," says Darryl Zeldin, MD, clinical director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "They pull allergens like pet dander, mold, and fungi out of the air and trap them in an exhaust system rather than blowing them back into your living environment."

You can retrofit your vacuum with a HEPA-designated filter. Or if you're buying a new vacuum, look for a certified HEPA vacuum with a minimum efficiency of 99.97% at a particle size of 0.3 microns.

Humidity be gone. Dehumidifiers are a home's best friend when it comes to minimizing mildew, mold, and dust mites.

"You want to keep your humidity levels in your home below 50%," says Zeldin. "Dehumidifiers are an inexpensive way to lower your allergen and exposure levels to molds and dust mites." So along with purchasing a dehumidifier, test the air moisture levels in your home with a humidity sensor, and shoot for that 50% mark.

Clean Indoor Air

While you might take the air you breathe for granted, it is a golden opportunity to go greener. In fact, taking clean air action is a must when you're improving your home to improve your health.

Go green -- literally. Placing houseplants around your home is just about as green as it gets when you're going green.

"Potted plants take in toxins and give out oxygen, which is a natural way to purify the air you breathe," says Toni Bark, MD, a medical consultant and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-accredited professional at the Center for Disease Prevention and Reversal in Evanston, Ill. According to research funded by NASA, plants like the butterfly palm, rubber plant, and philodendron strip toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide out of the air. Water your plants frequently and breathe easy.

Smoke out. Gas stoves and the fumes they release, especially when frying meat, are hotbeds of toxins.

"Gas fumes from gas-powered stoves may cause dizziness, nausea, depression, muscle aches, allergies and asthma, and a host of other symptoms that you might experience every day without understanding the cause," Rea says. Throw a slab of meat on a gas stove, he says, and the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other potentially harmful, cancer-causing substances in the air go up in smoke around you.

Simple solution? Make sure the venting over your stove is installed so it draws smoke outside instead of in, and always turn it on when cooking.

Kick the habit. You can properly vent your stove and install all the air filters you want, but if someone inside your home is smoking, environmental health experts say those efforts are a complete waste of time.

"Hands down, the biggest contributor to poor indoor air quality is cigarette smoke," Zeldin says. "Any changes you make to try to improve air quality in your home are trivial if you don't quit smoking."

Secondhand smoke is a known carcinogen, containing nicotine and toxic chemicals, according to the National Cancer Institute. Even thirdhand smoke -- residue from tobacco smoke that clings to furniture, clothes, rugs, and walls -- can affect your health.

Researchers from the University of California recently found that thirdhand smoke can hang around your house for months, mixing with common pollutants to form carcinogens and tiny particles that hurt your health. One in five U.S. adults still smokes, Zeldin says. If you're among them, start lighting up outside for the health of your housemates. Better yet, quit altogether.

The Eco-Friendly Yard

Walking through a lush garden is an idyllic way to pass the time -- just be sure your flower beds are maintained the way nature intended.

Green pest control. Bugs are a nuisance, and the typical way to get rid of them is chemical pesticides. Fortunately, the answer to your pest problem just went "au naturel."

"Diatomaceous earth is a rock powder that kills bugs like fleas, ticks, and slugs," says Rea. "It's completely natural and a harmless way to eliminate pests."

Diatomaceous earth is made up of tiny fossilized water plants, and it works by dehydrating bugs that inhabit your garden and devour your plants. The mineral-based pesticide's flower power comes from its all-natural composition, which chemical counterparts can't compete with.

Shoes off inside. Leave your yard outside. Before you step into your home, remove the dirt and germ magnets from your feet and take off your shoes. "When you wear your shoes in the house, you are introducing all kinds of chemicals into the environment," Bark says. "There's no point in making big changes if you don't start small and take your shoes off."

If you filled up your car with gas on the way home, you just trekked gasoline into your kitchen, where you prepare food, she explains.

Or if you entered a public bathroom, the industrial cleaners used to disinfect the floors are now on your carpet.

One of the cheapest and simplest solutions to going green is to invest in a nice pair of slippers and leave your shoes at the front door.

Coffee grounds for your garden. Coffee grounds are a little-known wonder for enriching the soil and fertilizing your flowers. According to Bark, the grounds are filled with nutrients like nitrogen that plants love. So the next time you brew a pot of coffee, just toss the grounds into your compost pile and sprinkle the nutrient-rich mixture right on top of your flower beds before watering, about once a week. It's an excellent way to boost your garden and recycle waste, Bark says, without any chemical fertilizers.

DIY Green Cleaning

Going green is an easy recipe to follow, and most of the ingredients you'll need are already in your kitchen cabinets. Here's a sample of cleaning products you can make at home, from the book Healthy Child Healthy World: Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home, by Christopher Gavigan.

Natural drain cleaners. While harsh drain chemicals work magic on clogged drains, so can a simple solution of 1 cup baking soda poured into the sink or tub, followed by 1 cup vinegar. After some bubbling and fizzing, your drain should be flowing freely.

Non-toxic mold remover. After donning gloves and a mask so you don't inhale spores, eliminate mold by spraying with vinegar at 5% concentration, or by scrubbing with a non-ammonia detergent such as borax, hydrogen peroxide, or tea tree oil.

Healthy air freshener. For a lemon-fresh smell to deodorize the air, mix 1 teaspoon baking soda with 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle. Spritz and savor!

Eco-friendly flea control. You don't need a pesticide to kill the pesky fleas on your dog. Instead, wash him with 1/4 teaspoon of an essential oil that is insect-repelling, such as citronella, cedarwood, eucalyptus, rosemary, or bay leaf, with 1 teaspoon of a chemical-free shampoo and 1 cup water. Pour it over your pet, let it dry a little, and then rinse.

Organic furniture polish. Two cups of olive oil and one juiced lemon in a glass makes for a natural furniture oil. After testing on a small section of your favorite furniture, apply with a soft polishing cloth and buff to a shine.

Green cleaner. A simple mixture of 1/2 teaspoon washing soda (sodium carbonate) and 1/2 teaspoon liquid Castile (vegetable-based, not animal-fat based) soap mixed with 2 cups hot water in a 16-ounce spray bottle makes for an all-natural, all-purpose cleaner that can be used on most surfaces.

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