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January 20, 2012
The Threat of Indoor Air Quality Comes From What You Buy

We spend 90 percent of their time indoors, but have you ever thought about the purity of the air that you are breathing as you sit inside your home, office or even a restaurant?


Unlike food and drugs, cosmetic and home cleaning products like fabric softener are largely unregulated due in part to an incorrect assumption that their chemicals are not really absorbed into the body.

The basic argument - which the giant corporations are more than happy to repeat - is that such chemicals could not be absorbed through the skin because the skin is a strong barrier against external agents.

Indoor air quality is considered to be the fourth greatest pollution threat to Americans by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Even if you can never see, and can’t always smell, the chemicals inside your home, they are there. It comes from cleaning products, drycleaning chemicals, plastic products like computer keyboards, furniture, paint, carpeting and more.

With the help of the Greenguard Environmental Institute, part of Underwriters Laboratories, “Good Morning America” set out to investigate exactly what kind of threat indoor air pollution posed to the average person by setting up a child’s nursery with a new crib, changing table, rocker and decorations.

Seven days of testing later, the results were in. The air in our new nursery contained 300 different chemicals -- compared to just two right outside the same house. The EPA confirms that indoor air is usually more polluted than outdoor air.

The rocker in the nursery contained seven times California’s recommended level of formaldehyde, a chemical known to cause cancer. The crib mattress gave off more than 100 different chemicals, including industrial solvents and alcohols. Meanwhile, the paint used on the nursery’s walls contained chemical gases at five times the recommended limit.

Yet, none of the products used in the “GMA” testing were in violation of any law. Fortunately for consumers, there are easy, practical steps you can take today to minimize you and your family’s exposure to¬†your home’s chemicals.

Look for certifications. Certifications for low chemical emissions are in their infancy, but the more people who buy and request certified products, the more there will be. Greenguard, part of Underwriters Laboratories, certifies furniture, paint, and other office and household products. Scientific Certification Systems is another certifier. And, for carpet, you can look for the “Green Label Plus” created by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).

Choose unscented products. Many manufacturers make both scented and unscented versions of their products. Always choose the unscented ones.

Avoid pressed wood. Pressed wood and wood composite materials are manufactured using strong glues that often contain volatile organic compounds.

Unwrap. When you buy new furniture, unpackage it outdoors and let it sit outside for at least one week to air out. Similarly, make sure to unwrap your dry-cleaning outdoors before bringing it into your house.

Ventilate. Try to paint in the spring and fall when you can comfortably leave your windows open for ventilation. Same goes for new furniture or cabinetry. Keep your windows open for a couple of weeks, if possible.

Paint first. It’s a good idea to paint your home first, then ventilate for several days before installing new carpeting and other textiles. That’s because these products can absorb chemicals from the paint and re-release them into the air over time.

Buy used. Chemical emissions are at their highest when a product is brand new, so one solution is to buy used furniture that has already off-gassed in somebody else’s house. (Unless that used furniture has just been refinished.) Just be careful, because you want the latest safety features in things like baby cribs. And you should look for furniture built after 1978, when lead paint was banned

Here are ten toxic products, in no particular order, that you don't need. And, once you read about them, you probably won't want them either. Be aware that different homes may have different products that are more toxic than these. This is just a basic list of some of the most commonly purchased products that are almost entirely unnecessary, but pose significant risks.

1. Air fresheners: Most air fresheners mask odors with a synthetic fragrance or numb your sense of smell with chemical anesthetics. But, they do nothing to eliminate the source of the odor. Also, aerosol air fresheners spew out tiny droplets of chemicals that are easily inhaled into the lungs. Instead, ventilate well and choose natural deodorizers, such as zeolite or baking soda, which contain minerals that absorb odors. How to Freshen Indoor Air Naturally includes recipes for other homemade remedies. Plants are also helpful for purifying your indoor air.

2. Drain, oven and toilet bowl cleaners: Yes, three products instead of one, but they all fit under the category of cleaners - and these are the three nastiest. Corrosive or caustic cleaners, such as the lye and acids found in drain cleaners, oven cleaners and acid-based toilet bowl cleaners, are the most dangerous cleaning products because they burn skin, eyes and internal tissue easily.

* To clean extra-greasy ovens, mix together 1 cup baking soda and 1/4 cup of washing soda, then add enough water to make a paste; apply the paste to oven surfaces and let soak overnight. The next morning, lift off soda mixture and grime; and rinse surfaces well.
* Prevent clogged drains by using hair and food traps.
* To de-grease and sweeten sink and tub drains, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down drain followed by 1 cup vinegar; let bubble for 15 minutes; rinse with hot water. You might have to repeat the whole procedure more than once. This same mixture can be used prior to scrubbing your toilet bowl to deodorize and scour away grime.

3. Canned food: It's probably shocking to find a food item on a toxic product list, but it's no mistake. Food cans are lined with an epoxy resin that contains bisphenol-A (BPA). Most experts believe this is our main source of exposure to BPA, which has been linked to hormone disruption, obesity, heart disease, and much more. Eden Foods is currently the only company with BPA-free canned foods (other than the canned tomatoes, which they haven't found an adequate substitute for given the acidity of the tomatoes). Opt for fresh, frozen, dried or jarred foods.

4. Pesticides: This is a huge category of products, but they deserve inclusion in their entirety because of how extremely toxic they are. They're made to be. That's how they kill things. But, solving your pest problem may leave you with another problem - residual poisons that linger on surfaces, contaminate air, and get tracked onto carpet from the bottom of shoes. There are so many non-toxic ways to eliminate pests and weeds - next time you need to get on the offense, check out the recommendations at Beyond Pesticides.

5. Dry-cleaning: Okay, it's a service and not a product per se, but the chemical used to do it, perchloroethylene, has been linked to cancer as well as nervous system, kidney, liver and reproductive disorders. Even bringing dry-cleaned clothes home is risky. EPA studies have found that people who reported visiting a dry-cleaning shop showed twice as much perc in their breath, on average, as other people. EPA also found that levels of perc remained elevated in a home for as long as one week after placing newly dry-cleaned clothes in a closet. A Consumers Union study found that people who wear freshly dry-cleaned clothes, like a jacket and shirt, every week over a 40-year period, could inhale enough perc "to measurably increase their risk of cancer" - by as much as 150 times what is considered "negligible risk." Try wet-cleaning, CO2 technology, or even hand-washing.

6. Bottled water: Most people buy bottled water thinking they're avoiding any contaminants that may be present in their tap water. For the most part, they're wrong. Bottled water can be just as, or even more, contaminated than tap water. In fact, some bottled water IS tap water - just packaged (in plastic that can leach chemicals into the water) and over-priced. Also, from manufacture to disposal, bottled water creates an enormous amount of pollution - making our water even less drinkable. Do yourself and the world a favor and invest in a reusable stainless steel water bottle and a water filter.

7. Rubber duckies: How does such a cute toy end up on a toxic product list? When it's made from PVC - the poison plastic. Banned in over 14 countries and the European Union, PVC, also known as vinyl, is still legally sold by U.S. retailers although it threatens environmental and consumer health at every stage of its product life cycle, according to the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ). When it's in your home, PVC can leach phthalates (linked to hormone disruption) and lead (a potent neurotoxicant) - contaminating air, dust, and eventually you. Go PVC-free by reading packages and avoiding the #3 in the chasing arrows symbol (usually found on the bottom of a product). If a plastic is not labeled, call the manufacturer.

8. Couch cushions: No, you needn't get rid of all your cushions and consign yourself to a future of discomfort. Just avoid cushions, pillows, and anything with foam labeled as meeting California TB 117, as it is likely to contain toxic fire retardants. These chemicals migrate from the foam to dust to people. In animal research, these chemicals are associated with cancer, birth defects, thyroid disruption, reproductive and neurological disorders such as hyperactivity and mental retardation. Don't worry about increasing your fire risk, data does not show that this standard has resulted in increased fire safety. Look for foam and cushions made with polyester, down, wool, or cotton as they are unlikely to contain toxic fire retardants.

9. Perfume and cologne: Colognes and perfumes may make us more attractive. But mixed in with the colors and scents are a wide variety of unattractive chemicals. Perfumes and fragrances can consist of hundreds of chemicals. Testing of Calvin Klein's Eternity by an independent lab, commissioned by Environmental Health Network (EHN), revealed that the perfume contained over 800 compounds. Among the chemicals of concern is diethyl phthalate (DEP) that is absorbed through the skin and can accumulate in human fat tissue. Phthalates are suspected carcinogens and hormone disruptors that are increasingly being linked to reproductive disorders.

It's not so simple to avoid phthalates by switching products because they are rarely listed on product ingredient labels. Phthalates are claimed as a part of trade secret formulas, and are exempt from federal labeling requirements. Find out if products you currently use contain phthalates and find safer ones on Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Searchable Product Guide website.

10. Oil-based paints and finishes: There are 300 toxic chemicals and 150 carcinogens potentially present in oil-based paint, according to a John Hopkins University study. Still interested in coating your walls and furniture with this gunk? I hope not. Look for water-based options - ideally those that are low- or no-VOC. You could also explore natural finishes like milk paint and vegetable or wax based wood finishes.


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