6 Simple Steps to a Safer Home

dad and kids vacuuming
Source: Photographer

The easiest way to eliminate toxic chemicals from your life is to not bring them into your routine and home to begin with. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to start fresh with a new build out of the greenest of green materials, buying as little as possible, and then, always green? Unfortunately, problematic chemicals are already in our lives, and starting fresh isn’t even really green, because it’s wasteful and would be extremely expensive.

Mike Schade from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, talked to us about how we can mitigate the effects of “chemicals of concern” as the organization calls them, including VOCs, phthalates, and flame retardants. We’re listing them out from small steps to take, to big steps.

1. Wash your hands 

(20 seconds)

Almost like viruses, toxic chemicals can enter your system most easily through your mouth—you could be touching dust particles that have trapped chemicals, then touching your mouth or food, and ingesting those chemicals. The simplest way to limit your exposure to chemicals is old-fashioned soap and water. Avoid antibacterial soap that can contain nasty chemicals and encourage antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Anything plastic is made from petrochemicals (that means plastic is an oil-based product). Things that are plastic that are likely to heat up, like a television, laptop, or phone, is treated with flame retardants before it’s sold, Schade explained. When the technology heats up, the flame retardants become gaseous and enter the air in the room, where they may settle in dust. It’s important to wash your hands after handling electronics for this reason. 

2. Take off your shoes 

(30 seconds)

Take off your shoes at the end of the day. They may have tracked in dust, or chemicals your feet came in contact with over the course of a long day. Where have your feet been? Maybe they’ve gone from your house to sidewalk, to car or bus floor, to the office, a public restroom, into a store or two, back into your car or public transit or bike, and then back into your home? Your shoes have been through a lot.

Keep a natural fiber mat by the door to wipe your shoes on and leave there. If you have cold feet, leave slippers by the mat for use inside the house.

3. Open doors and windows

(2 minutes)

Did you know outdoor air is typically of higher quality than indoor air? Let your house breathe a bit by opening up doors and windows when weather allows. If you have poor ventilation, frequent cold weather, or respiratory issues like severe allergies or asthma, an air purifier with a HEPA filter can do even more to refresh your air, though it’s not energy-free or as cheap as opening your windows. HEPA stands for High-Efficiency Particle Absorber. To qualify as HEPA, a filter must remove 99.7 percent of particles 0.3 micrometers or larger.
Learn about how trees near your home can filter the air outside your windows.

4. Call companies and state representatives

(3 minutes)

Schade has made a mantra of “you can’t buy your way to a better home,” meaning at this point, some products have no toxicant-free alternatives. We must all create the nontoxic marketplace we want to see.  He said that when you call, companies are listening.

“Customer service staff at companies are usually very friendly and want to find a solution to your problem. They might not have the answer, but they will often relay the messages to their higher ups, and real change can be made this way,” Schade says. 

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families created an annual report card on toxic chemicals policies from major retailers called “Mind the Store.” In its 2018 update, the campaign found that average grades from companies show steady improvement year-over-year, showing that putting pressure on businesses does work.

Though it may seem scary, calling a business or representative only takes three minutes and can make a big difference in the long term use of chemicals of concern. Getting answers and even just making your voice heard to a company can be an empowering experience.

An email, tweet, or tagging a company in a photo can also be effective in getting answers and communicating when you want them to make changes, Schade says.  

California, Washington, and Oregon have all passed laws limiting the use of flame retardants on furniture and mattresses, because of community activism.

The best part about leaving a voicemail for your elected representative or emailing a company is that it doesn’t just benefit your family. When companies improve their practices and states put tighter restrictions on chemicals, even people who aren’t aware of toxic chemicals will see the benefits. 

5. Dust, vacuum, and wet mop

(1-2 hours)

Unless you love cleaning, this is probably the least fun step, but it can be extremely effective. A study from the Silent Spring Institute found an average of 26 chemicals in household dust, including hormone disruptors, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, and flame-retardants.

It’s easier to get rid of dust than to swapping out products (see step 6), so that makes cleaning a relatively simple step towards the health of your family. 

The Environmental Working Group recommends vacuuming three times per week with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter. Remember to change the filter frequently. Schade also recommends dusting and wet mopping on hard surfaces. Sweeping tends to push around dust instead of picking it up. 

When dusting, stay away from conventional cleaners, which can reintroduce VOCs, artificial fragrances, and hormone disruptors. Instead, use natural ingredients. Make a dusting spray using one part vinegar, four parts water, and 1-2 drops of an essential oil (like lavender or lemon). For more natural cleaner recipes, read our article “10 Simple Ways to Clean Green.”

Steam cleaners can also be used to disinfect furniture, flooring, and even countertops using only water. Though steamers can be expensive, they can replace chemical cleaners and therefore be a good investment in your health.

6. Replace products with the safer alternatives 

(a few minutes to a few hours)

You can’t shop your way to a green life, but you can definitely replace problematic materials with less problematic ones, especially when you’ve gotten a good life out of what you already have.

To create less waste, Green America recommends using items with chemicals  as safely as possible (like vacuuming your mattress regularly instead of tossing it today). Schade recommends bringing toxic products you’re ready to part with to a local hazardous waste collection site.

When it’s time to replace a product or renovate a part of your house, consider using the greener versions of conventional products. See some ideas on p. 24, and find green products and services, including green builders and architects at GreenPages.org.