Wendy Lawrence, nationally-published freelance author from Ann Arbor, discusses how to make a home eco-friendly, green and safe for kids, and what resources are available to parents in Washtenaw County.
Many parents are not aware of the dangerous chemicals and toxins that are in almost all of the everyday objects that we bring into our homes--items we purchase regularly, use daily, and utilize to construct our living spaces.
Even in Washtenaw County--where many educated parents have information about toxic everyday items and unsustainably created products, and they want to avoid potentially toxic environments within their homes--it can be very challenging to minimize toxins in the home.
Wendy Lawrence, nationally-published freelance author from Ann Arbor, is also a parent, and she has written about taking on the challenge of greening her home for her family; she shares ways that parents in Washtenaw County can rid/decrease the number of environmental toxins in their homes through smart purchasing, education, and changes in lifestyle.
Wendy's recommended resource for tips and tools for a greener and healthier lifestyle that’s good for you and the environment: Ecology Center (Ann Arbor)
Some Tips for Reducing Toxics Inside Your House
Simple changes in our everyday routines can reduce our long-term exposures to low levels of potentially harmful substances—changes in how we choose the products we buy, or the ways we clean our houses and take care of the yard.
Until recently, indoor air pollution has been largely ignored as a source of exposure to toxicity. But studies have shown that levels of harmful chemicals in indoor air may exceed the standards set by the EPA to protect us from harmful chemicals. You can avoid such levels in your home by buying and using products that are free of toxic chemicals whenever possible.
Choosing the products you buy
Whenever possible, buy products that are free of toxic chemicals. Alternatives are available. The market for non-toxic household products is growing in response to customer demand. When purchasing products, take a minute to carefully read the label. Look for products that appear to disclose all their ingredients. "Signal words" will help you spot ingredients that are harmful: caution, warning, danger, and poison ("caution" is least hazardous and "danger" is most hazardous; extremely toxic products must also include the word "poison.")
- Before you use a product, carefully read the directions and follow the instructions. Be sure to use the correct amount of a product.
- Select products (cleaners, shampoos, etc.) made from plant-based materials, such as oils made from citrus, seed, vegetable or pine. By doing so, you are selecting products that are biodegradable and generally less toxic.
- Choose pump spray containers instead of aerosols. Pressurized aerosol products often produce a finer mist that is more easily inhaled. Aerosols also put unnecessary volatile organic chemicals into your indoor air when you use them.
Bath, beauty and hygiene products
- Avoid using antibacterial soaps. Antibacterial agents, while not directly harmful to you, contribute to the growing problem we face when bacteria mutate to strains that are more drug-resistant.
- Use eye drops, contact lens solutions, and nasal sprays and drops that are free of thimerosal or other mercury-containing preservatives.
- Look for unscented and natural dyes in products
Keeping your house clean
- Remove your shoes when you enter your house. Your shoes can track in harmful amounts of pesticides, lead, cadmium and other chemicals.
- Vacuum carpets and floors regularly. Children playing on your carpet may actually be more exposed to pesticides lodged in the carpet than from the outside, because pesticides break down less readily indoors than outdoors in the sunlight.
- Use a fine particulate filter, such as a HEPA filter, in your vacuum cleaner, if possible. Otherwise, the dust vacuumed up is redistributed into the air where it can be inhaled.
- Single-ingredient, common household materials such as baking soda, vinegar, or plant-based soaps and detergents can often do the job on your carpet or other surfaces. Soap and water has been shown to keep surfaces as free of bacteria as antibacterial soaps do. If your carpet needs professional cleaning, enlist a carpet service that uses less-toxic cleaners that are low in VOCs and irritants.
What you eat
- Choose organic fruits and vegetables for your family whenever possible. They have been shown to have less pesticide residue.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables thoroughly to remove fertilizer residues.
- Don't microwave foods in plastic containers. Chemicals from the plastic container can become absorbed by food during microwaving. Cover with waxed paper or paper towel instead of plastic wrap to keep food from spattering.
- In order to survive, pests need food, water and living space. Remove all food sources through good sanitation and storage habits (i.e., screw-cap jars, zip-lock bags, garbage pails with tight-fitting lids).
- Avoid using no-pest strips. They contain pesticides that are released to the air in your home.
- When storing winter clothing, use cedar blocks or bags of cedar chips hung with your clothes. Avoid mothballs that contain p-dichloro benzene or naphthalene
- Consult your veterinarian for non-toxic pest control products for use on pet pests such as fleas and ticks.
- Use non-toxic head lice treatments, including combing, enzyme-based treatments and mayonnaise or oil.
- Instead of more complicated detergents, try using a combination of washing soda and borax in your machine.
- When possible, hang clothes to dry outside to avoid using the dryer, which uses energy and depletes resources.
- Avoid bleach when possible. If whitening is needed, use non-chlorine bleach, which is oxygen based and often highly effective.
- Buy clothes that don't need drycleaning or use an alternative called "wet cleaning." Clothes that have been drycleaned emit perchlorethylene, a chemical that can cause cancer. The wet cleaning process uses water so there are no harmful gases emitted from the cleaned clothing.
Building and remodeling
- When building or remodeling your home, ask for building materials and supplies that have the least amount of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. VOCs have been shown to cause cancer or developmental problems. Toxic fumes can come from unexpected sources like new carpet and cabinets.
- Choose no- and low-VOC paints and varnishes when finishing walls, floors and furniture. Make sure you have proper ventilation.
- Ask for carpeting that meets standards for indoor air quality established by the Carpet and Rug Institute. Once a carpet is installed, thoroughly air out the house for at least 48 hours.
- For decks and playground equipment, use reclaimed cedar or redwood, which is naturally resistant to fungus and insects. Or use recycled plastic lumber. Ask about these products at your home improvement store.
- Avoid using "green-treated" lumber, which is treated with the toxic compound copper chromium arsenate (CCA, banned since 2004). In particular, don't use it for eating surfaces on picnic tables or children's play equipment. Clean up all scrap treated wood and sawdust and dispose of it properly—it should go to a lined landfill or licensed waste incinerator. Treated wood should not be burned at home for bonfires or stoves/fireplaces.
Ensure Your Drinking Water is Safe
- Investigate your home's water quality by calling your local municipality for water-test results. If necessary, rid your drinking water of harmful pollutants, such as asbestos and radium, by installing a water-filtration system.
Go Natural with Your Landscaping
- Landscape with native vegetation to reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, both of which are easily tracked into the home. If you do use these products, be sure to remove your shoes before entering the house. To be extra safe, shower immediately after applying pesticides, and wash the clothes you were wearing separately from other laundry.
Ventilation is Key
- In the name of energy efficiency, new homes are often sealed so tightly that there are no leaks to supply fresh air. To counteract that, Mark LaLiberte, a building consultant with Building Knowledge, Inc., in Minneapolis, says homes should include a ventilation system to exhaust stale air and bring in fresh. The system should be based on the home's size, structural tightness, climate, and number of occupants.
- Go au natural. Look for toys made of natural materials like solid woods (with no finish or a non-toxic finish) and organic textiles (cotton, wool, felt, etc).
- Read labels. What’s this toy made of? Where does it come from?
- If you’re looking at global supplies, opt for European, Canadian or Japanese imports as other countries may have lax toy regulations.
- Purge plastics. Okay, this is near impossible these days, but make your best effort. If you do buy plastic, look for safer plastics like those labeled #1, 2, 4, or 5. Not labeled? Call the manufacturer.
Couches and Furniture
- Most couches sold in the US have been doused with chemicals including toxic flame retardants that can affect our health. This is why, other than our beds, the second most important furniture investment we have made in our household is a non-toxic couch.