You go organic in the produce aisle, makeup counter, and even at the liquor store to avoid the health impacts of harmful toxins. But what about your home? Could chemicals seeping from household items such as cabinetry, cleaning products, and paints be making you sick?
There’s no place like home to shake off the day’s stress. But consider this: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, indoor concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—just one group of chemicals that are often the source of health problems—are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors.
VOCs (including benzene and formaldehyde, which cause cancer) and other chemicals such as toluene (a reproductive toxin) and 1,4-dioxane (a carcinogen) are present in household products, including paints, varnishes, wood preservatives, cleaning products, and furnishings. The toxic soup can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; nausea; damage to the liver, kidney, or central nervous system; or cancer.
But don’t lose hope: there are plenty of places to procure safer products. Read on to find out which organic, low-toxin, or natural household products should be on your radar.
Traditionally, your kitchen and bathroom cabinets contain formaldehyde, leading to long-term off-gassing.
“It’s almost like you’re bringing in a bunch of buckets of formaldehyde, sitting them in the middle of your house, and letting them evaporate over the course of months and years,” says Mike Reynolds, co-founder and editor of Ecohome.net.
Reynolds recommends doing a Google search for local contractors and asking them if they supply formaldehyde-free cabinetry.
“People are more concerned about health and home, so contractors are following suit,” says Reynolds.
Many paints contain VOCs. Look for low-VOC or VOC-free paints at your home improvement store.
“I would specifically ask when you’re buying paints if the colourants have [VOCs] as well,” suggests Reynolds.
Milk paint and natural paints can be purchased commercially, though recipes can be found online to create your own milk paint. Natural paints are derived from substances such as citrus and balsam, as well as minerals. Milk paint, which is made with milk protein (called casein) and hydrated lime, with natural pigments added for colour, has been used for centuries and is safe, nontoxic, and environmentally friendly.
Reynolds favours natural oil finishes over varnishes. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but now there are some available that don’t contain VOCs. Options include tung oil or linseed oil.
Rest your head on rubber: rubber mattresses are free of glues, springs, flame retardant, and dust mite spray.
“A natural rubber mattress is about as eco-friendly and free of toxins as you can get,” says Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green.
Find these at your mattress retailer, or—as they can cost thousands new—go online shopping or seek out second-hand mattresses on platforms such as Craigslist.
Often, pillows are made from synthetic materials such as petroleum-based polyester.
For an environmentally friendly pillow that won’t off-gas, try kapok pillows, which are made from the silk thread of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) flower.
Other healthy pillow choices include organic wool or buckwheat. Organic cotton, silk, and bamboo duvets are also available at your local eco-bedding, linen, or department store or online.
After being pressured by consumers and advocacy groups, most major cleaning manufacturers now list the ingredients of the products on their websites. Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth advises taking a closer look at two elements: fragrance and disinfectants. Fragrances may be synthetic, and disinfectants may be made of unnecessarily harsh chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine bleach.