Is your house making you sick? If you’re experiencing chronic symptoms that have not responded to changes in diet and lifestyle, the answer might be yes! Chemicals, pesticides, bacteria, gases, and mold are everywhere, but can be especially problematic when we’re exposed to high levels indoors. Modern homes and business are designed to be leak proof, which is great when it comes to regulating indoor temperatures. Unfortunately, this also means toxins are sealed in and fresh air is sealed out!
In healthcare, this is referred to as “sick building” syndrome, and usually presents as physical symptoms including eye, nose, and throat irritation; congestion and sinus issues; brain fog; unexplained fatigue; skin conditions such as rashes, eczema, or psoriasis; and/or headaches. These symptoms may appear more pronounced when you’re in the home and may dissipate within an hour of two of leaving.
A 2004 analysis published in the British Medical Journal states “it is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are key determinants of human disease—accounting for perhaps 75% of most cancers.” While environmental factors are still being investigated, there are many that have raised reasonable cause for concern.
The following toxins are among the most prevalent in our air, water and/or food supply. Taking steps to reduce exposure, especially inside the home, can help reduce the bodies “toxic load,” and may help improve symptoms naturally.
Pesticides: According to the World Health Organization, pesticides are “potentially toxic to humans,” especially with repeat or long term exposure. Over 1000 pesticides are used in agriculture and pesticide residues have been detected in 70-90% of food in the United States. Conventional (non organic) fruits, vegetables, and meats contain some of the highest levels of pesticides. Household pest control products and chemical lawn treatments that are tracked inside can remain in carpet for years.
Pthalates: a highly toxic group of chemicals used to increase flexibility of plastics and extend the shelf life of fragrances. They are found in detergents, fabric softeners, cosmetics, personal care products, plastic wrap, food storage containers, and baby products. They have been linked to hypothyroidism, asthma, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, male fertility issues, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): There are over 400 VOCs that have been identified in the home, over 200 in carpeting alone. According to the EPA, VOCs tend to be two to five times in indoor air versus outdoor air, likely because they are present in so many household products. Household items with high VOC content include furniture, interior paints, new plastics and electronics, deodorants, cleaning products, shampoos, cosmetics, dry cleaned clothing, air fresheners, and tobacco products. VOCs have been linked to various health issues, including ulcers, allergies, cancer, and liver/kidney problems.
Mold: One in three people have an allergic reaction to mold. The toxins produced by mold (known as Mycotoxins) have been linked to a wide array of health problems, including chronic allergies, MCAS (mast cell activation syndrome), CIRS (chronic inflammatory response syndrome), neurological issues, and cancer. Even small exposures may trigger reactions in sensitive individuals.
Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs): PBDEs are industrial chemicals used primarily as flame-retardants on furniture, clothing, mattresses, and other commercial items. These chemicals accumulate in body fat and long-term accumulation may cause reproductive issues, hormone imbalances, neurological problems, and decreased immune function. Products manufactured before 2005 are more likely to contain flame retardants that have since been removed due to safety concerns.
Chloroform: a byproduct of chlorine and other disinfectants added to tap water. It’s considered a biocide, a poisonous substance that kills or inactivates bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens. According to the EPA, it is classified as a carcinogen and can cause nervous system suppression and liver damage.
Toxic Gases: Radon and carbon monoxide can be deadly in high levels in the home. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas released from the natural decay of metals in soil. It can also be released from building materials or from well water. Long-term exposure to these particles can lead to lung cancer. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas formed by incomplete combustion of fuels. Exposure to this gas displaces oxygen molecules in the body and leads to poisoning.
While we can’t control everything in our environment, taking steps to reduce exposure to toxic substances can make a big difference. The following suggestions can help reduce levels of toxins in the home, and improve overall health:
Drink filtered water. Tap water contains chlorine, fluoride, and other chemicals. We recommend reverse osmosis (RO) filtered water, which removes over 90% of chlorine and chloroform found in tap water. Reverse osmosis removes more contaminants than other forms of purification, but also strips the water of its mineral content so it’s important to add these back in using trace mineral drops. Home systems for RO are available, or you can fill glass or BPA-free plastic jugs at many grocery stores.
Go organic. Conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains are often sprayed with harmful pesticides. Factory farmed meats may also contain measurable amount of chemicals. If you can’t afford to go fully organic, focus on the most heavily sprayed items listed on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen.
Keep filters clean on heating and air conditioning systems. Dust, mold, and other harmful particulates can accumulate in these systems and recirculate into the air we breathe if not properly maintained.
Switch to “greener” products. Opt for a chemical free mattress (such as Avocado), use natural cleaning and household products (such as Branch Basics), and make the switch to natural skin/body care products (the EWG’s Skin Deep database provides toxicity ratings for thousands of brands/products). This includes hair products, lotion, skin care, toothpaste, deodorants, and cosmetics.
Be Wary Of Plastics. Switch to glass food storage containers and avoid drinking out of plastic water bottles (use glass or metal instead). Avoid eating food stored or microwaved in PVC plastic. Look for phthalate free baby products (bottles, teething rings, pacifiers, toys, etc).
Address Leaks and Water Damage Immediately. Fix leaks and replace damaged areas (flooring, dry wall, etc) as soon as possible. If water damaged has occurred or you can see/smell mold, find a company to help test for mold and remediate if necessary. The Mold Pros is a free resource that helps connect clients with local testing and remediation companies.
Keep more plants around the house. Plants act like a natural purifier, helping filter out harmful chemicals from the air in our homes. You can also purchase an air purifier, preferably one with a HEPA filter, to reduce dirt, dust, and other contaminants.
Increase ventilation. To improve air flow through the home, open doors and windows on opposite sides of the room. Even 5-10 minutes in colder weather can improve ventilation and reduce build up of chemicals in the home.
Get your home and water checked for radon. This process is inexpensive and steps can be taken to lower radon levels if your test levels come back high. You can buy test kits at home improvement stores, hardware stores, or online. To order a test kit over the phone, call the National Radon Hotline at 1-800-SOS-RADON (1-800-767-7236).
- Allow new products to “off gas” before bringing the in. If you buy new furniture, for example, unwrap it and leave it in the garage for a couple days before bringing it inside.
- Invest in low-VOC paints and carpeting. Look for low-VOC labelling, many paint brands carry ‘low’ and ‘zero’ VOC options for interior painting.
- Remove shoes before entering the home. This helps keep outdoor pesticides, especially lawn chemicals, from entering the home. Toxic chemicals residues may last for years in carpeted areas.
- Use natural pest control methods for your lawn and garden. Glyphosate (Round Up) is especially problematic, and there are many companies that offer non toxic alternatives (such as Earth Easy).