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 reduce 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.
Green your cleaning.
Are your cleaning products messing up your health? While we're far from knowing the health impact of all chemicals used in cleaning agents, you can easily (and very inexpensively) create your own house-healthy cleaners. Some tips:
- Mix either vinegar or baking soda with warm water in a spray bottle, and you've got an effective, all-purpose cleansing agent.
- Bypass commercial air deodorizers, many of which contain formaldehyde. Instead, add cinnamon, essential oils, cloves, or any herbs you like to a pan of boiling water, and let the sweet steam deodorize.
- On laundry day, reach for Borax (sodium borate). This natural mineral acts as a stain-remover, bleach alternative and detergent booster. Baking soda can remove stains and deodorizes, and cornstarch absorbs greasy stains and starches your clothing. Lemon juice can also double for bleach.
- Salt (sodium chloride) is a mild abrasive for cleaning bathrooms and kitchens.
- Consider hiring a "green" cleaning service, or ask your traditional housekeeper to use the methods and products you find healthiest.
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 might also play havoc on your health; the active ingredient selenium sulfide is a neurotoxin and 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 drycleaners. Dry cleaning employs a chemical called perchloroethylene, which is actually toxic to humans. Some environmentally conscious cleaners use methods that do not contain "perc;" seek them out. 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 potentially linked to cancer. 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. Finally, you can reduce the amount of plastic produced by recycling. Look at the bottom of your plastic container for a number from 1-7. Items labeled 1 or 2 (usually soft drink, jjuice, water, milk, and detergent containers) are eligible for curbside recycling. Numbers higher than 2 are either unrecyclable or require special drop-off at a recycling center.
Reduce the roar.
Decrease sound pollution at home and work with these simple suggestions:
- Employ low-tech solutions like earplugs and heavy curtains to block street noise.
- White noise machines and noise-cancelling headphones also create quiet.
- Double-paned windows reduce outdoor noise, including jet traffic.
- 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.
- When you are engaged in construction projects, or if you work in construction or another noisy trade, always wear hearing protection on the job.
- 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, a shovel rather than a snow blower? Could you bike instead of drive? Select "vibrate" rather than the latest ringtone? Even small actions increase the peace.
Raise your EMF awareness.
It is important to note that research on EMF exposure is ongoing. But 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.
- Limit your computer time.
- Use manual versions of personal care tools: an old-fashioned toothbrush rather than an electric model, or a razor instead of an electric shaver.
- Don't sleep under an electric blanket.
- Sit several feet from your television screen.
Enjoy local and organic foods.
The foods you choose not only impact your health from a nutritional standpoint, but from an environmental angle as well. Think about these fast facts:
- Eating locally grown produce means less transportation is required to get that apple from the tree to your table. This translates to reduced air and noise pollution in your community.
- Organic farming doesn't employ the pesticides often used in non-organic methods. That means that eating organic produce may reduce your ingestion of chemicals, and that pesticides will not leach into local water supplies. Joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food plan might "cleanse" your diet and help your water supply.
- Research indicates that raising livestock increases greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes water supplies, and contributes to land degradation and deforestation. Food for thought next time you're choosing between a steak and a salad.