You’ve probably heard the expression, “Children are not little adults.” This has never been truer than when it comes to dealing with environmental health issues. Because children are smaller, developing and changing rapidly, and exploring their surroundings with never-ending curiosity, they are more susceptible than adults to toxins in their environment. Consider this:
- Toxins in the home account for more than 90% of all reported poisonings each year, with calls coming into the U.S. Poison Control Center every 8 seconds. Children (aged 5 and under) comprise 52% of these calls (American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2009).
- Pound for pound, children consume more food, air, and water than adults do.
- Children are not usually concerned with what they touch, eat, or put into their mouths.
No matter how hard parents try, they can’t protect their children against every danger. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to protect your children, yourself, and your home from many common environmental toxins, leading to a healthier environment for all.
Ways to Reduce Environmental Toxins
No one can avoid toxins completely, but there are many things you can do every day to reduce your exposure and your children’s exposure to them:
- Eat low on the food chain. Consume less dairy and meat (to avoid the ingestion of hormones and antibiotics given to livestock), and eat more grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
- Cook with and eat organic foods as much as possible. Choose foods certified as “organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If eating 100% organic is too expensive for you, wash your fruits and vegetables well and choose to buy organic for at least the “dirty dozen”—the 12 fruits and vegetables, according to the Environmental Working Group, with the highest pesticide residue:
Celery – Peaches – Strawberries
Apples – Blueberries – Nectarines
Sweet bell peppers – Spinach – Cherries
Kale and collard greens – Potatoes – Imported grapes
- Have the paint, plumbing, water, and soil in and around your home tested for toxins. If toxins are found, have them removed by a trained professional.
- Filter your water.
- Avoid the use of plastic bottles and plastics, especially those with a PC recycling code (found on the bottom of most plastics) of 7. Safer options are marked with PC recycling codes of 1, 2, and 3.
- Limit the use of canned foods (since they can contain high levels of BPA).
- Regularly wash toys, bottles, stuffed animals, and pacifiers.
- Remove shoes at the door to avoid tracking soil-bound toxins into the home.
- Avoid eating foods with high levels of mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish) and reduce or stop eating ahi, marlin, orange roughy, and tuna (since they often contain mercury as well). Choose canned light tuna over white or albacore (which have higher levels of mercury).
- Replace toxic cleaning agents with nontoxic alternatives. Use white distilled vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and tea tree oil.
- Avoid the use of products with phthalates (found in shampoos, lotions, creams, and other personal products). Phthalates are often listed on the label as “fragrance,” or dimethyl phthalate (DMP), di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP).
- Choose paints with low VOC levels and home products made with environmentally friendly materials (such as cotton or bamboo).
- Keep your home free of dust by vacuuming at least weekly, and use cotton, nylon, or cloth products (such as shower curtains, clothing, toys, and personal products) instead of plastic ones.
- Reduce your risk of pollutants entering your body by washing your hands/body with soap and water.
- Don’t use air fresheners (they release harmful chemicals into the air), stop smoking, don’t allow smoking in your home, and grow plants in your home (to help absorb indoor air pollutants). Open your windows whenever possible to allow fresh air inside your home.
- Choose products with the fewest ingredients and with ingredients whose names you can read and understand.
Keeping your home toxin-free is an ongoing process. You’ll always be faced with choices and decisions that may vary based on what’s happening in your life at any moment. As long as you stay informed and make healthy choices, your health, the health of your family, and the health of the planet will benefit.
Commonly Found Toxins
The list below includes some of the most dangerous toxins commonly found in homes. Check it against what you have in your home and follow the guidelines (left) to reduce your family’s exposure to harmful pollutants.
- Lead is found in paint in older homes, old plumbing, and soil near highways and busy roads. It results in neurological and kidney damage, learning disabilities, hearing loss, headaches, slow growth, behavioral problems, high blood pressure, disrupted blood cell production, and reproductive problems.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) is a common component of plastic and plastic products (such as water bottles, baby bottles, sunglasses, food and beverage liners, and dental sealants) and has been implicated in cancers of the breast and prostate and in reduced sperm counts. As of January 2011, 8 states have begun banning BPA and 17 others are considering similar bans.
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include substances such as pesticides, “off gasses” from carpets and furniture, paint, paint thinners, paint stripers, and solvents such as acetone (found in nail polish). These mobile elements resist breaking down and bioaccumulate in human tissue, so when they are consumed in food they remain in the body. They can cause irreversible damage to the reproductive, neurological, and immune systems.
- Mercury is a neurotoxin that results from gold and coal mining, coal-fired power plants, and chlorine chemical plants. It is discharged into the water, ingested by fish, and carried up the food chain, with large fish and mammals as well as humans becoming the most contaminated.
- Carbon monoxide kills hundreds of Americans each year, usually when an unserviced furnace burns propane, butane, or oil.
- Phthalates are chemicals used to soften PVC plastics (used in garden hoses, nail polish, perfumes, lotions, shower curtains, car interiors, soft children’s toys, blood storage, and intravenous bags and tubing). They often don’t appear on the ingredients list because they are often components of other elements or protected trade secrets. They have been linked to endocrine system disruption and they can interrupt genital development of boys and lower sperm counts in men.
- Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. This colorless, odorless, natural radioactive gas seeps into homes through cracks in a home’s basement or foundation and well water. It enters the body through the lungs.
- Formaldehyde is often found in homes due to “off gassing” from cushions, carpets, carpet cushions, particleboard, and adhesives used in manufacturing inexpensive wood-based products. It often causes eye and upper respiratory irritations and may cause cancer.