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How to Create a Healthy Living Space

by Anat Cohen BMed(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 80 - September 2002

Introduction

For years we've been raised on the saying, 'Your home is your castle'. The concept of 'home' has an immediate connotation with a safe haven, a shield, a shelter to protect us from external threats and deadly hazards.

In fact, the modern home might be an extremely dangerous arena. It is a source of toxic pollutants as well as other hazards that threaten our well-being and health.

Awareness is undoubtedly the most important part of creating a clean, healthy living space. We tend to spend over 70% of our lifetime indoors, and it is pretty tough to admit that our beloved home might undermine or challenge our optimal health. It takes a lot of character to follow this recognition by taking serious action to create bold changes in order to fix the problems. The good news is that with enough devotion you can find some creative solutions that make this process easier.

Accurate identification of trouble spots in the modern home is the first step towards improving your personal environment. This article ventures through different rooms in the house in the hope of pinpointing wherein lie the main problems. For each living area it provides some practical, green advice, useful tips and alternative techniques that foster health. After all, a healthy, robust body is your real castle.

Table 1. Safe alternatives for home-made cleaning products
Product Safe alternative ingredients

Bleach

Borax, lemon juice, sunlight
Window glass cleaner Vinegar in water
Ant repellent Spray cayenne powder in holes
Mint pots discourage ants from entering the house
Fly repellent Plant several pots with basil (herb that repels different insects)
Floor cleaner Vinegar and few drops of eucalyptus oil
Mosquito repellent Simmer citronella oil
Mildew remover Hydrogen peroxide to remove
Borax for inhibiting growth
Shoe polish Banana peel
Furniture polish Few drops of olive oil plus vinegar
Copper cleaner Lemon juice
Oven cleaner Baking soda and water; sprinkle inside, let sit overnight and scour
Silver polish Baking soda and sea salt

Drain opener

Flexible metal snake, a plunger, salt

Stainless steel cleaner

White vinegar
Dishwashing liquid Sea salt, lemon juice, hot water, few drops of orange essential oil
Stain Remover Borax and water
Carpet spot remover Sprinkle with cornflour and let dry, then wash with bubbling water and vacuum

Fabric softener

Add baking soda during rinse
Brass, copper and aluminium polish Paste of lemon juice and cream of tartar

 

The Bathroom

Cleaning Materials: Sink, Toilet Bowl and Bathtub
An ancient Indian proverb suggests a universal law: cleaning something is always involved with dirtying something else.

For example, when you scrub your filthy clothes in the river, they will ultimately become clean, but the water will end up dirty. This deep insight must be well remembered when it comes to cleaning the sink, the toilet bowl or the bathtub. Personal sanitation accessories are meant to assist with cleansing the human body but, according the aforementioned Indian equation, within time they absorb this dirt. The endeavours taken to make them shine spick and span once again pose the danger that the cleaner's body might absorb some other dirt in exchange.

image of food

Bleach ingredients and ammonia are highly common among the household chemicals designed for the bathroom. The fumes produced by mixing ammonia and bleach elements may result in some severe lung problems. When bleach and ammonia are combined together, a new gas dubbed 'chloramine' is created.

Chloramine releases free radicals in the lungs. Inhaling small amounts of these fumes can cause only minor irritations; however, the inhaling of higher concentrations may cause corrosion of the respiratory tissues and damage the cells of the lungs.

For several decades the detergent industry has been perpetuating the myth that their products are necessary for disinfecting bathrooms from germs. But why compromise your health? You can fight dirt in the bathroom without exposing yourself and your family members to toxic fumes.

Borax and lemon juice make a highly effective mixture for bathrooms. Sprinkle this combination on the surfaces of the sink, toilet bowl and bathtub and then scour with a brush. If your main intention is disinfecting sanitary accessories from bacteria, consider using a compound of 3% hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. This can be a simple, adequate alternative to toxic disinfectants.

Personal Care Products

Soaps, Shampoos, Conditioners and Cosmetics
Of all personal care products (shampoos, soaps, conditioners and body creams), 90% contain one of the following four chemicals: diethanolamine (DEA), sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) and propylene glycol (PG).

DEA, frequently found in bath products, might pose a serious health risk. The dangers of this substance were reported by Dr Samuel Epstein, a well-known expert in environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Dr Epstein discovered that DEA is a potential carcinogen even in small doses and that repeated use of it might increase the risk of cancer.[1]

SLS and its sister chemical SLES are other commonly found ingredients in personal care products. These chemicals are used as cheap detergents which produce a lot of foam and bubbles. They are not necessarily toxic as email rumours claimed a few years ago, but they can irritate both the skin and eyes.

PG is the third toxic ingredient in shampoos, soaps and cosmetics. The industry uses it as a humectant ingredient to prevent the drying out of the product. Research at the American Academy of Dermatologists Inc. published in 1991 connects PG with rashes, dry skin and dermatitis.[2]

Fortunately, the market offers non-poisonous alternatives to personal care products. Try to locate more natural, home-made soaps with herbal extract bases that use aromatic oils as fragrance. Even then, read the little letters on the label and avoid products that contain the above-mentioned chemicals.

Toothpastes and Mouthwashes
Oral hygiene is essential for your health. By keeping your gums perfectly clean you decrease the chances of developing severe systematic problems such as heart disease. Most people rely completely on their toothpaste to do the cleaning job but most commercial toothpastes are actually toxic due to the common presence of fluoride in their ingredients. Fluoride is a deadly poison especially for young children. Researchers from the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan found that fluoride has the ability to cause DNA damage and even 'cell death' in human cells.[3]

Flossing is the best way to keep your gums clean. Dentists actually claim that the mere brushing movement on the teeth and gums is enough to remove food debris that is stuck in the mouth. However, if you must use a cleaning substance, use a natural, home-made toothpaste. You can mix six parts of baking soda to one part sea salt. This formula is notably effective in reducing microbial concentrations in the gums. Other possible ingredients for home-made toothpaste are Calendula herb extract and tea tree oil, both of which have a strong antiseptic effect with no toxicity. For gingivitis or periodontitis, add Rathania, a superb herb with astringent qualities, to treat bleeding, swollen gums.

Finding natural alternatives for toothpastes is especially highly recommended for young family members. Although creams, shampoos, cosmetics and soaps can be absorbed easily through the skin into the bloodstream, toothpastes and mouthwashes are in fact far more dangerous because they can also be ingested during use by small children.

Fungal Organisms/Mould and Mildew
Rooms with excessive moisture are doomed to develop mould, a fungal organism with airborne particles which add to our toxic load. Visible mould or mildew on walls and marble surfaces are found frequently, particularly in bathrooms that lack enough windows.

If you already suffer from allergies, depression, fatigue or asthma, consider that breathing mould particles in the air might be part of the clinical problem.

The instant and tempting solution for removing mouldy spots would be chlorine bleach. This substance excels in destroying mould, but it is damaging to the environment and is toxic to humans as well.

The best strategy for fighting mould is avoidance. Ventilate damp rooms during any use and use fans that send the air outside.

For exterminating existing mould, use a formula of 3% hydrogen peroxide with vinegar.

Kitchen

Hidden Hazards Behind the Faucets
Water quality is essential for enjoying optimal health. Is your home tap water pure and safe? Not likely. Harmful particles such as heavy metals, chlorine, arsenic, aluminium, nitrate, pesticides, bacteria and viruses may infiltrate our drinking water supply.

image of taps

Several studies show that long-term consumption of chlorinated or fluorinated tap water can double the risk of rectal and bladder cancers in humans. In addition to the chlorine/fluoride problem, lead and copper can dissolve from old pipes into the water. Excessive consumption of copper translates into upset stomachs and diarrhoea in children. Lead is even more dangerous since it is a heavy metal and can easily penetrate the blood/ brain barrier. Therefore, lead poses a great danger to the developing neurological systems of young children. There is solid evidence that exposure to this toxic metal in childhood may manifest into learning disabilities and behavioural defects.[4]

Consequently, it would be a wise choice to stay safe and avoid drinking tap water. If you can't afford to buy bottled mineral water, install a good filter that purifies tap water in the kitchen. Unfortunately, most filters do not remove fluoride unless their purification method is based on reverse osmosis.

If occasionally you must drink tap water, let it run at least three to five minutes which can help flush possible contaminants from the internal pipe walls and water tank.

Dishwasher
As a fume-spewing appliance, your dishwasher releases a steamy mist of chemicals. This happens any time you open the dishwasher door after the cleaning process has ended. Using detergents that contain chlorine generates indoor pollution through a process called 'volatilization'. Toxic chemicals are transferred into the air which we then later breathe. Make sure you choose a safer dishwasher detergent. Phosphate-free and chlorine-free detergents can often prevent the mephitic vapours from rising out of the dishwasher.

Insects and Pests
Very few insects such as cockroaches are actually hazardous to humans. In fact, there are some 'good' critters that assist with maintaining the indoor natural ecology as well as fighting against other nasty insects. Spiders, for instance, serve as terrific hunters of mosquitoes and are mostly non-toxic towards humans.

However, many modern peoples perceive insects as odious, loathsome creatures and instinctively react to them with phobias and disgust. If this is your situation, don't be tempted to rush in and use insecticide sprays or other instant toxic formulas that can injure your health. The best answer is dealing with the problem directly rather than spraying poisonous chemicals all over your kitchen. Tracking ant holes and plugging them, maintaining good housekeeping, and storing foods properly will usually keep insects out of your kitchen. Exclusion is also the main key for handling household pests such as mice and rats. Prevent these animals from finding their way inside by installing screen doors and windows. If they have already come indoors, utilize traps and baits rather than toxic pesticides or anticoagulants which may imperil children and even pets as well.

Laundry Room

Danger lurks in the laundry room too. Like the common dishwasher detergents, most laundry soaps contain chlorine, which mixes with the dirt in clothes to generate airborne, toxic, organic chemicals. Substitute these detergents with eco-friendly, biodegradable and chlorine-free products.

Another menace lies in the clothes dryer, which is a possible source of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas, which cannot be seen or smelled except at high concentrations when it can then kill a person within minutes. Since carbon monoxide is generated by combustion in home appliances, you should verify that your clothes dryer is installed and maintained properly. Obstruction or improper venting of the dryer's exhaust ducts can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. Check these ducts from time to time and make sure they vent outdoors.

Garden and Outdoors

Swimming Pools

Swimming is a superb physical activity that is considered of great benefit to one's health. However, chlorinated pools may sabotage any health benefits. Lungs and skin absorb toxic molecules, which are shifted into the bloodstream. Private pool owners should search for chlorine alternatives such as ozone or hydrogen peroxide. In adequate concentrations, these two substances are non-toxic to humans and exceptionally efficient in purifying the pool.

Herbicides
Toxic chemicals in herbicides sprayed on your lawn or in your garden are harmful, especially to children and pregnant women.

One of the best natural substances for keeping your garden organic is neem seed oil. It is absolutely safe for humans but, when sprayed on garden plants, discourages all types of fungi, moulds, ants and other insects. The only problem with neem is its unpleasant sulphur smell. If you can't tolerate the odour, fix yourself a home-made formula. Mix some garlic paste with horseradish and hot pepper and spray on your plants. This excellent combination will deter most pests and insects from your garden and spare unnecessary use of dubious chemicals.

Further creative solutions for maintaining a toxic-free garden are found at www.organicgardening.com

Bedrooms
If you enter your bedroom and immediately start sneezing or develop symptoms such as a runny nose, tearing eyes, scratchy throat or itchy skin, you may be allergic to your bedroom. Bedding, carpets, furniture, books and magazines are typical dust catchers.

If you have a weak immune system or suffer from rashes, respiratory problems or allergies, endeavour to minimize your exposure to dust mites. These little creatures tend to be harboured by bedcovers, mattresses and pillows, especially those that contain feathers. Again, prevention is your best strategy. Dust more often and use a HEPA (high efficiency particle arrestor) vacuum cleaner. This appliance is capable of catching particles as small as 0.3 microns in size.

You can also use dust-proof bedding covers. It is well known that tightly woven encasements surrounding feather pillows work as barriers, which lock allergens inside and prevent them from reaching you while you sleep.

Make sure you launder bedclothes such as sheets, pillowcases and bedspreads at 56°c at the least. Lower temperatures will not affect mites.

Remove Carpets

Carpets are a leading source of dust mites. Every time someone walks over a carpet, dust mites are spread and pollute the air with allergens. However, this is only a small fraction of the problem. New carpets out-gas toxic fumes and add to one's toxic load especially if they are placed in bedrooms, a room where most of us spend at least one-third of our day. If you must use new carpeting, make sure to set it out in strong sunlight for a few days. Have carpets installed in the summer so you can leave all windows open for ventilation. These procedures will significantly reduce their toxicity.

Tile floors and hardwood flooring are the best choices for people suffering from respiratory problems. Wall-to-wall carpets cannot be cleaned adequately, although steaming carpets thoroughly may be somewhat helpful.

Dust your furniture regularly with a damp cloth. Keep pets out of your bedroom and shut the door.

Books and magazines are classic dust collectors as well. If you must have them in your bedroom, store them in enclosed glass bookcases.

Children's Rooms

Dangerous Toys
What could be more innocent than a child's toy? Unfortunately, it appears that toxic fumes and tastes pervade this industry as well.

Diisonyl phthalate (DINP) is a material used in the production of children's toys to give them softness and pliability. However, there is some convincing data that show this substance to be highly toxic to the human endocrine system. Apparently, DINP can dangerously leach out of plastic toys, particularly in the case of mouthing toys.

image of toy bear

Several European countries have already banned DINP in toys designed for children less than three years old. Smart parents will not take chances on something as precious as their child's health and therefore must avoid toys made of soft plastics. Always be prudent and look for phthalate-free items when purchasing new toys.

Toxic Gases in Baby Mattresses
Another great health concern lies in baby mattresses. One famous scientific research project from New Zealand found a positive correlation between cot deaths (sudden infant death syndrome – SIDS) and certain PVC baby mattresses. Fire retardants such as phosphorus, arsenic and antimony, which are added in the production of baby mattresses, interact with fungi that commonly grow in newborn baby bedding. This interaction creates some highly lethal gases.

High room temperatures may activate fungi in the mattress and accelerate this lethal process. Therefore, avoid overloading your baby with blankets or excessive clothing.

Mattresses wrapped in a special polyethylene cover can block body fluids (saliva, urine) from reaching the mattress and establishing fungi.

Study Room/Offices

Electromagnetic Fields
For several years there has been a controversy concerning electromagnetic field (EMF) effects on health. Some clinical studies connect this type of radiation with a suppressed immune system, hormonal imbalances and disruptions of other biological systems. There is also evidence that associates EMFs with leukaemia in small children.

EMFs are always immediately associated with CRT computer monitors. However, there are other home appliances that emit a much stronger EMF due to their close distance to the body. Hence, it is recommended to avoid the use of electric clock radios, electric blankets, heating pads and hair dryers. Computer monitors are much less of a risk. First of all, the new models are designed to emit low radiation. Second, radiation only comes out of the back and sides of the monitor. Thus, it is recommended to place the monitor with its back to the wall. If you want to take further precautions, put a little more distance between you and the source since the amount of radiation falls off exponentially with increased distance.

Allergy to Your Monitor

On the other hand, a recently purchased, new computer monitor may make you sick by emitting a flame-retardant chemical called triphenyl phosphate (TP). This chemical can trigger allergy symptoms when inhaled.

The TP used on computer monitors gets into the air as the computer terminal heats up with use. Levels begin to drop after a week or two of continuous use. The best way to minimize the hazards of TP is to turn on a new computer monitor and leave it on for several days in a well-ventilated room before beginning to use it.

Toners for photocopiers and laser printers contain chemicals such as carbon black and resins that have the potential to harm at high concentration. Prolonged exposure to toner powder causes irritation of the eyes and the upper respiratory system. When handling the toner cartridges, always use disposable gloves to avoid skin contact with its chemicals.

Some photocopiers and laser printers produce small quantities of ozone as a by-product of the copying process. This is an irritating gas as well. Check ahead that your photocopier or laser printer is equipped with an ozone filter. As well as for other indoor pollutants, good ventilation in your study room is the best protection you can have.

Basement

There are two main concerns regarding the basement: moisture and radon. The former is seen and smelled and can be treated by lots of ventilation and dehumidifiers. The second is much more complicated to handle.

Radon is a natural radioactive gas that can defuse into your home through the basement walls or from the ground underneath. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and is especially hazardous since this gas is odourless and colourless.

Have your home tested for radon by a professional inspector.

Fixing a radon problem is not simple. It might be done by installing a special ventilation system that removes radon from the air in the basement. Also consider sealing cracks in the basement walls to prevent radon leakage from the soil into the foundations.

Radon levels between 2 and 10 pico-curies per litre (pCi/L) probably pose some risk and levels above 10 pCi/L are considered definitely dangerous by experts in the field.

Living Room

Surprisingly, old is better than new when it comes to furniture. New furniture might emit formaldehyde (in gaseous form). In small amounts this toxic chemical can irritate the eyes, skin and throat and cause nausea and lethargy. In high concentration and through long-term exposure, formaldehyde is a deadly carcinogenic substance.

Formaldehyde and other toxic glues are ubiquitous in the production of hardwood, plywood, furniture, and other pressed-wood products.

Formaldehyde leakage from new furniture is preventable by varnishing, painting and sealing the furniture with a waterproof finish such as polyurethane. Formaldehyde can be smelled in high concentrations. If you suspect that your indoor living room air is polluted by its fumes, make sure to improve ventilation and place lots of spider plant pots about the room.

A NASA report published in 1985 shows that spider plants are capable of absorbing gaseous formaldehyde and hence reduce formaldehyde in indoor air.[5]

Plants can create a pleasant aesthetic atmosphere and help in cleansing the air. You can get an instant natural and economical air filtration by placing adequate house plants all over your living space. Several plants are known to absorb specific pollutants from the air. Table 2 demonstrates some useful facts:

Table 2. House plants that purify indoor air
Pollutant
Commonly used in
Adequate purifying plant

Benzene

paint, plastic, ink, oil, carpeting English ivy, chrysanthemum, Gerbera daisy
Formaldehyde plywood, pressed-wood, furniture, fire retardants in mattresses Spider plant, golden pothos, bamboo palm, azalea, Aloe vera, Philodendron
Trichloroethylene printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes, adhesives Peace lily, warneckei, Dracaena marginata


Several natural materials were the basic cleaning ingredients in olden times. If you want to follow simple living, save money, avoid poisonous chemicals and at the same time enjoy a clean house – be creative and fix some highly effective, natural, home-made cleaning concoctions. It worked for grandma, it will work for you too.

References

1. Epstein SS, Friedman MA and Millar GN. Acute dose-dependent inhibition of liver nuclear RNA synthesis and methylation of guanine following oral administration of sodium nitrite and dimethylamine to mice. Int. J. Environ. Studies 4: 219-222. 1973.
2. The American Academy of Dermatologists Inc. Propylene Glycol causes significant number of reactions and was a primary irritant to the skin in low levels of concentrations. The American Academy of Dermatologists Inc. Jan 1991.
3. Tohyama E. Relationship between fluoride concentration in drinking water and mortality rate from uterine cancer in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. J Epidemiol 6(4): 184-191. Dec 1996.
4. Schwartz J. Low-level lead exposure and children's IQ: a meta analysis and search for a threshold. Environ Res 65: 42-55. 1994.
5. Giese MU, Bauer-Doranth C, Langebartels H, and Sandermann Jr., Detoxification of Formaldehyde by the Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum L.). Plant Physiology 104: 1301-1309. 1994.

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About Anat Cohen BMed

Anat Cohen is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Medical Sciences. For the last 14 years she has been working as a reporter covering health, education, technology and the environment. She can be contacted on Tel: +972-2-6526823; Anatcohn@netvision.net.il

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