Stop for a moment and ask yourself this question: how much of your day is spent inside buildings?
For most Americans, the answer is about 90 percent and we spend more hours at home than anywhere else. That’s why it’s vital that your house is as healthy and hazard-free as it can be.
Unfortunately, modern life serves us up a dose of unhealthy synthetic chemicals and pollutants in much of the air we breathe and in so many of the items we use on a daily basis.
“At its worst, indoor air can be about 20 times more polluted than the air outside your home,” says Jo Immig, coordinator of the not-for-profit group the National Toxics Network. “That’s because we’re often introducing extra pollutants inside our home in the form of chemicals that are emitted from some cleaning products, plastics, paints, carpets, and furniture.”
But there’s no need to be alarmed, Immig says creating a non-toxic home is achievable. “There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer but where there’s a will, there’s away.” Here are some of the key ways to improve the health of your home.
If you’re building or renovating, take the opportunity to use as many natural materials as you can. Include excellent ventilation and specify materials that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
“Who wouldn’t want their home to be as healthy as it can be?” says Marc Bernstein, architect, and director of Melbourne Design Studios. “I think it’s a duty of all architects to design homes to be as healthy as possible for their occupants and the environment. Unfortunately, budgets can derail good intentions, low- or zero-VOC materials aren’t always readily available and sometimes builders simply don’t follow the specs as they should.”
However, homeowners should stick to their guns if they’re passionate about protecting their family’s health, he says.
Feel the flow.
In an existing home, one of the most effective means of improving the health of your house is the simplest: ventilation.
“Let air flow through your house to flush out indoor pollutants and pockets of stagnant air,” says Immig. “Pollutants can come from manufactured sources or they can occur naturally; it’s important to remember that mould and damp can cause air-quality problems too.”
Where you don’t have good ventilation, look to a mechanical solution. “If condensation is building upon the walls or windows of your bathroom, it’s not adequately ventilated and you could be on your way to mold problems,” says Nicole Bijlsma, a building biologist and author of Healthy Home, Healthy Family.
Try green cleaning.
If you’d like to minimize the number of solvents, bleach, ammonia, and chlorine in your home remember that cleaning with a mild detergent, a little water, and a bit of elbow grease is usually as effective as using a supermarket cleaning product, says Gardner. “Microfiber cloths have changed the way we clean. They’re great at lifting dirt from surfaces,” she says.
A vacuum cleaner with a good-quality high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is one of the best investments you can make to improve air quality at home, says Immig.
Choose healthy paint.
Paint manufacturers have risen to the challenge of eliminating VOCs from household paints — there are many excellent low-VOC and no-VOC paints on the market. “There’s a very strong clinical argument for using low-VOC paint, especially if you have respiratory sensitivities, suffer from asthma, have children or you’re pregnant,” says Daniel Wurm, managing director of GreenPainters, which operates a national eco-certification program for painting contractors.
Another issue for existing homes is the presence of lead in old paint. Exposure to lead is a health hazard and even small amounts of dust or chips of paint containing lead, which can be generated during minor home repairs, can pose a health risk, says the Federal Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities.
“If you think you have lead paint in your home, get it tested,” says Professor Mark Taylor, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University. “Never sand lead paint. Doing that releases millions of tiny particles that can cause lifelong behavioural and cognitive impairment in children. Instead, call in an expert.”
Check if your furniture has been treated.
Always ask if furniture or soft furnishings have been chemically treated before you buy, says Wittig, who says she avoids products that claim to be antibacterial, stain-resistant, UV resistant, or treated with flame retardant. “These chemicals can break down into household dust and be ingested or inhaled,” she says.
Stick to natural fibers where possible and keep your mattress, pillows, cushions, and soft furnishings in good condition by airing them out, says Bijlsma. Given the time spent in them, beds are important to get right, she says, and recommends that homeowners look to a natural latex mattress or a spring mattress with a natural latex pillow top.
Furniture made from pressed-wood products can be one of the key sources of VOCs in the home, says Immig. “The resins and glues in plywood, particleboard, laminates, and MDF can off-gas formaldehyde for years,” she says.
Formaldehyde emissions can cause burning eyes and an allergic skin reaction, warns the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).
Know your plastics.
Many of us worry about the health risks associated with using plastic, especially to hold and store food. Some plastics contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC), which can interfere with the production, action, and/or elimination of human hormones.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is probably the best known EDC but there are others of concern, too. “Phthalates, especially diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) which is a commonly used plasticiser that’s used to make plastics like PVC soft and flexible, should be avoided,” says Immig.
While scientists, manufacturers and lobbyists continue to debate just how dangerous — or not — plastics are to human health, the World Health Organization has this to say on the topic. “EDCs have the capacity to interfere with tissue and organ development and function, and therefore they may alter susceptibility to different types of diseases throughout life. This is a global threat that needs to be resolved.”
Her advice is to be cautious about plastics. “We’re finding out new information all the time. I think the health risks associated with plastics will continue to become clearer.”
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Homes to Love.