What You Can Do for Personal Environmental Health
What can you do to create a healthier personal environment?
Assess your nest
Working with a home inspector, public health professional, contractor, or other construction expert as a guide, ask yourself some questions to evaluate your current house or apartment's environmental health:
- Are you free of the "big three?" Radon, mold, and lead are all common home toxins. Radon testing is widely available, and best practices exist in new construction to minimize radon entry into the property. Check for moisture problems that act as hotbeds for mold growth, and look into mold testing if necessary. Finally, lead is present in many older homes' paint and pipes. Call your local public health department for information on testing for and eliminating lead in your home.
- How well-ventilated is your home? While solid construction decreases your home's energy loss, a home that is too airtight can seal in indoor air pollutants. Proper ventilation also helps control moisture and reduces risk of mold and other environmental health concerns. Simple fixes to increase ventilation include installing ceiling fans and operable skylights and windows.
- Does your landscaping contribute to your environmental health? Large lawns traditionally require greater pesticide use and increase air and noise pollution generated from mowing. Consider planting perennial groundcovers, native foliage, or other low-maintenance landscaping. Even better, landscape with edible plants and devote a portion of your yard to organic vegetable gardening.
Before you rent or begin new construction, consider these additional questions:
- Will your new space support recycling/reuse with storage space for cans, bottles, paper, and other items?
- What is your potential home's proximity to major noisemakers like airports, railroad tracks, or highways?
- What will keep you warm? Although most mainstream commercial insulations are considered safe, check out some healthy alternative insulation, including those made with recycled denim and other cloth, wool, icynene and nanogel.
- How big is your planned home? Small is good. A well-planned home with less square footage uses fewer building and maintenance resources.
Clear the air
Consider these steps toward improving indoor air quality:
- In your home, radon and mold tend to be the most serious barriers to indoor air quality. Relatively inexpensive tests exist to assess your home's mold and radon levels.
- The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers guidelines about common workplace air quality complaints, which usually focus on temperature, humidity, lack of outside air ventilation, or smoking. Find out more.
- For employees in farming and industrial fields, on-the-job outdoor air quality is also a concern. Each state has a department of environmental health within its main health department that can advise workers and employers on outdoor air quality regulations. To find your state's health department, visit the Centers for Disease Control site.
- If you smoke, stop. If you live with someone who smokes, insist on a strict outdoor smoking policy. Approximately 3,000 American adults die of lung cancer each year due to secondhand smoke exposure. In young children, secondhand smoke increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and asthma.
Know your H20
Increase your water quality with these tips:
The longer water has been sitting in pipes, the more lead it may contain. Run or "flush" your tap for up to two minutes, depending upon how long it's been between uses.
- Since hot water is more likely to contain lead, only drink, cook, and make baby formula with cold water.
- The only way to be totally certain about your home's water quality is to have it tested. This is especially important for people in high-rise buildings, where "flushing" the pipes may not be as effective. Your local water supplier, health department, or university can offer information about credible testing resources.
- Water filters have been shown to increase purity. Filters can range from simple pitcher-based systems to more elaborate reverse-osmosis home units.
- Remember that bottled water is not necessarily of higher quality than regular tap water. And according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 60 million plastic bottles a day are manufactured, transported, and then disposed of in U.S. landfills, compromising your community's environmental health.
Increase your chemical awareness
While it's impractical to try to have no contact with chemicals, you can reduce your chemical exposure in relatively simple ways:
- Some beauty products contain chemicals that are anything but pretty. For example, nail polish, body lotions, and perfumes often contain phthalates, a controversial substance linked to birth defects in animals and possibly humans. Shampoos that attack dandruff may pose some health issues; the active ingredient selenium sulfide is a possible carcinogen. Hair dyes often have coal tar, another chemical linked to cancer. So read labels, and choose a product that will be as lovely for your health as it is for your appearance.
- Don't create toxic trash. If you're tossing old medications, resist flushing them down the toilet, where they can invade water supplies. Also consider calling your local recycler, many of which accept old cleaning products, paint, oil and other chemicals that create even more treacherous landfills.
- Be sure to air out your garments after a trip to the dry cleaners. Many dry cleaning establishments use a chemical called perchloroethylene, which is actually toxic to humans. Seek out an environmentally conscious cleaner whose methods do not contain "perc." Better yet, when possible choose clothing that only requires a trip to your laundry room, not a professional cleaner.
- Be mindful of plastic use. Some plastics contain bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen-like chemical that may interfere with the regulation of the body’s natural hormones. (Bisphenol A also coats the inside of the food cans and is sometimes found on cash-register receipts.) The National Toxicology Program at the Department of Health and Human Services says it has "some concern about the possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children.” A 2013 study by Columbia University researcher Donohue also linked BPA with childhood asthma.
- Experts also advise against microwaving food in plastic containers; although research is inconclusive, the heating process is thought to release chemicals from the plastic into your food. Reusing plastic bottles is another source of controversy. Some experts think reuse is safe if you carefully wash and dry the bottles between each use, while others feel that wear and tear on the plastic causes toxic chemical leakage. An always-safe alternative is glass.
Raise your EMF awareness
It is important to note that research on EMF exposure has generally found little risk from exposure to devices such as cell phones and microwaves, but there are few studies on the effect of long-term exposure. So these easy actions just might improve your wellbeing.
- When possible, use a land line rather than your cell phone.
- Use a hands-free device or speaker phone function if using a cell phone.
- Do not stand directly in front of your microwave oven while it's in use, or simply use your conventional oven.
- Sit several feet from your television screen.
Reduce the roar
Decrease sound pollution at home and work with these simple suggestions:
- Try recordings of natural sounds, such as water or birds, to mask the noise from urban environments that cause stress.
- Plant trees, especially evergreens, as a noise screen.
- Before you begin new construction projects, communicate with your architect and/or contractor about noise reduction options. Some building materials and methods offer greater sound absorption or masking than others.
- Always wear hearing protection if you are working with noisy machinery or in a really loud environment.
- Be mindful about your personal noise production. For example, are you really watching your television, or is it simply on as "background noise?" Could you use a push mower instead of a power model? Select "vibrate" rather than the latest ringtone? Even small actions increase the peace.
Little touches can make your home into a healing environment.
- Choose colors that you find appealing for your walls and furniture.
- Bring nature into the space with a landscape picture or plants.
- Place photos and objects with special meaning to you where you see them often.
- Reduce the clutter.
- Maximize your light--take advantage of any natural light you have and add a variety of light sources, such as a floor lamp.
- If you like the sound, add a water element.
- Consider getting a diffuser or vaporizer to disperse essential oils that you find appealing.