In the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, it’s not just food and personal care products that must be carefully vetted. Household and work environments can also be laden with dangerous chemicals and toxins.
New and old items each come with their own risks. An older home or car may still contain chemicals that were found to be dangerous and phased out years ago. A brand-new purchase might bring industrial chemicals from foreign markets with lax regulations. Even everyday items that we use without a second thought could be insidiously poisoning us.
While it may seem like nothing is safe anymore, our goal is not to be alarmist. The idea is to get informed so that you can gradually move away from conventional (potentially toxic) products and introduce a cleaner environment for your family.
Here are 10 toxic items to look out for, plus how to opt for better alternatives.
Who doesn’t love those giant packs of tealights that you can buy super-cheaply from IKEA? I know I’ve bought them before. Unfortunately, the reason they cost so little is that they are made from paraffin wax, a toxic industrial byproduct.
When paraffin candles are burned, they give off benzene and toluene, both of which are known cancer-causing agents that are also found in diesel exhaust fumes. These airborne toxins are considered as dangerous as second-hand cigarette smoke and have been found to cause tumors in animal studies. Yikes!
A simple non-toxic alternative is to invest in beeswax candles or vegetable-based candles (preferably made from non-GMO soy). They are more expensive but are certainly worth it for a healthier home environment.
Air fresheners and perfume
Along the same vein, air fresheners and perfumes certainly do not keep the air (or you) “fresh.” In fact, they pollute the indoor environment with chemicals such as formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, acetaldehyde, phthalates and aerosol propellants. And that’s just the stuff we know about.
Manufacturers can include anything they want in scented products because “fragrance” is a catchall term that covers hundreds or even thousands of different chemicals. These substances don’t need to be individually listed or disclosed.
Testing done by organizations such as the Environmental Working Group have revealed ingredients that can promote cancer, birth defects, allergies and hormonal imbalance.
The natural alternative? Clean the environment, and yourself, with natural gentle soaps, vinegar and baking soda. Then add fragrance if necessary with essential oils, which promote health rather than hinder it.
While the smell of a newly installed carpet may give a space a fresh feel, that scent is actually the carpet off-gassing hazardous VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These can include the likes of toluene, bromine, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene, and acetone. Fibers containing nylon and olefin should be avoided, as should many strong adhesives used to install carpeting.
Opt for area rugs made with natural fibers instead. Some examples are hemp, sisal or corn husks. A rug can be thoroughly cleaned and aired out, which helps to avoid dust mites and contaminants from getting trapped in the fibers.
These toxic bug repellents are made with paradichlorobenzene and naphthalene, both of which can cause serious health effects. Choose gentler alternatives like cedar blocks, cedar chips, or essential oils to keep moths away.
The vast majority of upholstered products, such as car interiors, sofas, furniture, baby cribs, strollers and mattresses must legally contain fire retardants in order to be sold. While preventing fire is certainly a priority, this chemical exposure is a major concern.
Try visiting thrift stores, local ad boards or websites to find products that are gently used — as in one or two years old. This will ensure they are modern and safe, and they will have already off-gassed the majority of the potentially hazardous chemicals.
Pressed wood products
If you live in a home built in the 1970s, or have purchased vintage furniture, be sure to check for pressed wood products, including paneling, particle board, fiberboard and insulation. These products may have been made with glue that contains urea-formaldehyde, a respiratory toxin that may cause cancer. This is particularly dangerous if surfaces are being sanded or refinished. Stick with newer products which are better-regulated and somewhat safer. Better yet, buy real wood that has been naturally sealed or finished.
Laser printer chemicals
Many laser printers give off ultra-fine particles that can cause lung diseases when inhaled over time. A safer alternative might be to forgo having a printer at home and simply visit a print shop when hard copies are needed. This will help save paper (aka trees!) as well.
I can’t help but cringe whenever I see young girls with their nails painted. Why? Because nail polish contains toluene, formaldehyde and phthalates. These chemicals have been linked with damage to the nervous system, hormone imbalances, and impaired fertility. Exposure to these chemicals, especially at a young age or during one’s child-bearing years, is just not worth the risk. Stick with good nutrition that makes for naturally attractive nails, and take good care by filing and buffing nails for a nice shape and shine.
Renovation equipment and byproducts
The dust created by renovations can be extremely dangerous because it can contain chemicals such as lead and asbestos. It’s important to use masks and HEPA filter vacuums to remove anything remaining from renovations in your home.
Many chemicals used in pesticides, paints and cleaning products are highly toxic. If your garage, basement or shed hasn’t been cleaned out for a long time, you may have items sitting around that have been banned from use. Anything containing strychnine, lye, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), lead paint, DDT pesticide, diazinon, chlorpyrifos or creosote should be immediately contained to prevent exposure. Find out how to dispose of them safely through a local toxic waste agency.
Many of us have mold in our homes and don’t even know it. Mold can cause major nervous system and respiratory issues when inhaled over time. To prevent the growth of mold, use an essential oil diffuser with an oil like clove or cinnamon, and keep excess trapped moisture at a minimum by providing enough ventilation. Have an eco-friendly professional investigate your home for mold — it’s well worth the investment for the health of your family.
Don’t let these everyday toxins take you by surprise with health problems down the road. With a little bit of research and a few simple actions, a non-toxic home is well within your grasp. For further reading, check out this study which found that dollar store products often contain toxic chemicals.