Although we don’t think of them that way, everything from common household products to outdoor pesticides and fertilizers are chemicals that we are exposed to and that we release into the environment. From lotions and soaps, to bug bombs and glass cleaner – we make decisions every day about the chemicals we use and bring into our homes. While many of them are benign, some of them can present risks to human health and the environment.
According to the EPA, only a small fraction of registered chemicals in the US have gone through complete testing for human health concerns. That means that some of the chemicals that we choose to bring into our homes can have toxic effects, whether immediate or after repeated long-term exposure. There is reason to be cautious with children in particular – pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and tend to put things in their mouths that they shouldn’t – increasing their exposure and possible impacts.
The chemicals we use can also have negative environmental impacts. When chemicals are flushed down the drain, most are broken down into harmless liquids at a nearby water treatment plant; however, many persist and are then emptied into streams and ecosystems. Common household chemicals can be found in 69% of streams across the country. This is dangerous for fish, plants and wildlife, but also a problem for drinking water sources across the country.
The good news is that most everyday household chemicals have harmless substitutes. A few changes in household and buying habits can lower your chemical exposure and the impact on the environment.
Household cleaners: The most toxic household cleaners to eliminate are toilet-bowl deodorizers, cleaning solutions with lye, and most spot removers, many of which contain harmful substances. A few basic ingredients like baking soda, lemon, and vinegar, can replace these and most other general cleaners found at home.
• Baking soda cleans toilets, sinks, and tubs, and can freshen drains as well.
• Vegetable oil with lemon juice can effectively clean wood furniture
• Need an air freshener? Try boiling some water with cinnamon and cloves.
• Vinegar and water in a pump spray bottle is a great cleaner for mirrors, glass and metal.
Soaps: Antibacterial soaps, while not directly harmful, are contributing to the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance. Soap and water have been shown to keep surfaces as free of bacteria as antibacterial soaps do.
Pests: No-pest strips contain pesticides that are released to the air in your home. Flea bombs, flea dips, and flea collars have similar issues, and might be substituted with regular bathing, flea combing, and vacuuming carpets. If the problem persists, vets may also be able to prescribe a monthly pill.
Laundry: Instead of detergents, you can try using a combination of washing soda and borax in your machine. These are usually as effective as more complex formulas and are also cheaper. You can also skip the dryer and save energy by hanging clothes to dry.
Lose the Shoes at the Door: Removing your shoes when you enter your house can prevent them from tracking in harmful amounts of pesticides, lead, cadmium and other chemicals. Keeping a floor mat at your doors for people to wipe their feet on when they enter will also help. While this seems like a minimal impact, it is especially important for households with small children who spend a lot of time on the floor.
Avoid Certain Chemicals. Certain contaminants are best to simply avoid. These include: synthetic fragrance, parabens, triclosan, BPA, nonylphenol, and octylphenol. Read labels to select products that do not contain these contaminants.
Other than these specifics, there are a few general rules that can also help, like reading product directions so that you can use as little of it as possible, always disposing of chemicals properly (not down the drain or toilet, ever), reading labels for eco-alternatives, and supporting local stores that sell organic or otherwise non-toxic products.Whenever possible, it’s best to buy products that are free of toxic chemicals. And the market for alternatives is growing. You can get green, plant-based options at most stores, protecting your health and the planet with your purchasing decisions.