Thanks to the wonders — and pitfalls — of modern technology, most of us spend the majority of our lives indoors with easy access to air-conditioning, big screen TVs and microwavable popcorn. What you may not know is that some of those very luxuries are exposing us to gases, chemicals and other pollutants that can cause headaches, eye irritation, allergies, fatigue or worse. Did you ever live in an apartment building where the superintendent cleaned the hallways and the smell was so strong, it started to irritate your lungs? Or the time the lotion you used gave your kid a rash? Since we spend roughly 90 percent of our lifetimes indoors, it's no wonder our indoor environments have a huge impact on our overall health. The good news is, while we may not have control over much in this world, we can control — and research and choose consciously — what products we bring into our homes.
Have you ever thought about how you can make your indoor environment a safer and healthier space for your entire family? Here are some of our favorite tips, many of which you may not have thought of before. Most of these indoor lifestyle changes are ridiculously easy — and you may be surprised by the difference they make.
Yes, you can control what you bring into your home — unless you're tracking pollutants and nasty substances into it from outside, that is. So use a doormat, and once you're at home, remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers or socks or go barefoot.
Some water sold in plastic containers may contain bisphenol A, a known carcinogen, or other chemicals called phthalates. Either of these can migrate to your — and your kids' — food through its packaging. The latter group of chemicals has been linked to genital defects in male children and learning and behavior problems in older kids of any sex.
Additionally, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, an organization that aims to prevent breast cancer by limiting exposure to chemicals and radiation, more than 300 studies on animals and humans have linked BPA to breast and prostate cancer, asthma, obesity and reduced sperm counts. When buying food that's packaged in plastic, select containers that are labeled free of BPA and phthalates. And rather than storing food in plastic, use glass, ceramic, stainless steel or wooden containers.
Phthalates are also in pesticides and herbicides. To avoid these troublesome chemicals, try eating meat and dairy that's organic. For a product to be labeled "organic," the USDA doesn't allow it to use most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. If eating organic isn't possible (or financially feasible) for your family, you can also aim for low-fat products since these harmful substances are present in greater concentrations in high-fat foods. (Note that while grass-fed products may be free of phthalates, they are not always considered organic since the grass or hay the animals consumed may have been treated with pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.)
Many cans are lined with BPA because it keeps them from corroding. According to a 2017 study of canned goods at four large food retailers, the Center for Environmental Health found BPA in 38 percent of the cans it studied.
In a 2016 study of 7,669 people in the U.S., cream of mushroom soup and pasta were found to have higher concentrations of the chemical than canned fruit and vegetables did (this research was published in the journal Environmental Research). The study also found that people who had eaten food from a can within the past day had a 24 percent higher concentration of BPA in their bodies than those who had not; people who had eaten cream of mushroom soup had a 229 percent higher level of BPA than those who had not consumed canned food at all. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that these elevated levels were still safe, but it's important to be aware and stay on the safe side — especially where your kids' health is concerned.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, secondhand smoke is a factor in the deaths of about 41,000 adults who do not smoke — and 400 infants — annually. The health problems it may cause include lung cancer, stroke and coronary artery disease. Children who are around smokers are at increased risk of respiratory ailments, sudden infant death syndrome, severe asthma, middle-ear problems and more. So if you or a guest must smoke, go outside. Or how about quitting? It's New Year's resolution season, after all.
Every home that has a gas-powered appliance such as a heater or stove, an attached garage where people park their cars or a fireplace should have one of these. Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that can kill, and detectors are easy to install and affordable. Some CO detectors simply plug into your electrical outlet. Others are battery-powered and can last up to 10 years.
Does this one surprise you? The truth is, the air inside your home is usually more polluted than the air outside. Wall-to-wall carpeting is an ideal place for dust mites, fleas and more pests to thrive. So for your next home-remodel project, consider ripping up that wall-to-wall and replacing it with area rugs made from wool, cotton or other natural fibers.
A portable air purifier with a filter is a simple fix to help to remove pollutants, and they're especially useful in kids' bedrooms. Pro tip: A HEPA filter captures more pollutants than a standard one. Want more tips for cutting down on pollutants? Mop your tile and linoleum floors once a week, and vacuum carpets weekly.
This tip works in a literal sense. Houseplants are known to remove harmful chemicals — including benzene, xylene, ammonia and formaldehyde — from your home's air. Some recommended plants for doing this are the spider plant, dwarf date palm, bamboo palm, Boston fern and snake plant. And on a less-literal level, plant-based cleaning products are a great idea too. Ode to Clean even uses plants to make biodegradable cleaning wipes.
Dry cleaning is chemical cleaning, and even after your clothes are dry cleaned, they still emit those chemicals. If you must dry-clean, here's your best bet: After getting your garments back, remove the plastic wrap, which traps in chemicals. Then hang your clothes outside if possible until the fumes are gone. Another idea is to switch to "wet cleaning," a dry-cleaning alternative that uses water, special equipment and detergents instead of chemical solvents.
Some studies report that pots and pans containing polychlorofluorocarbons may let the chemicals seep into food. The EWG says that at 700 degrees F or after three to five minutes on the stove, nonstick cookware can emit 15 toxins, two of which can cause cancer.
Replace nonstick cookware with cast-iron skillets or pots, which are safer (and also wonderful for cooking). Use stoneware and aluminum pans to replace nonstick baking sheets. Aluminum also works well for roasting. Glass products don't leach toxic elements into food, and Pyrex dishes are safe for use in your oven.
And remember: All technological advances that make your life more convenient are not necessarily in the interest of your health or your kids' health (as much as we might wish they were). So, especially with kids in the house, it's important to carefully weigh your options and do your research when deciding what products to integrate into your daily life. Informed families are happy families!
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