a greener home

by jennifer mccharen
Throughout your house, hiding in their crisply designed bottles and jars, are toxic, noxious chemicals. Why are they here? You’ve invited them in, one by one, while trying to keep your bathroom sparkling, your kitchen disinfected, and your laundry smelling fresh. Most cleaning products are labeled clearly enough that you’d never mistakenly eat them, but they aren’t the only chemical intruders in your own personal environment. Carpets, plastic water bottles, and anything made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can be added to the list of innocuous objects that invisibly compromise your health.
Your child’s vinyl toys are slowly, microscopically deteriorating, offgassing endocrine disrupting phthalates (pronounced “thay-lates”). That nonstick skillet, when heated, releases enough poisonous fumes to kill pet birds and give sensitive humans a passing illness referred to as “teflon flu.” Even the carpet your baby rolls around on is held together with harmful substances that, over time, make their way into the atmosphere of your humble abode.
Why do common products contain these frightening compounds? There’s no simple answer. Policy in the United States allows it to happen, and manufacturers end to stick to business-as-usual. The European Union has stricter regulations on chemicals, and to the extent American factories hope to sell their goods in the EU, they will have to clean up their processes. Until then, consumers will have to pay attention on their own, and choose products carefully to avoid unnecessary exposure.
Replacing cleaning products is easy. You probably have what you need in your kitchen right now. Simply use lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. Lemon and vinegar are solvents and can disinfect surfaces. Baking soda can be used as a gentle scrub for tougher stains. Always test small areas of sensitive surfaces before coating them with acidic juice, and don’t use vinegar to clean marble or granite.
The best skillets are stainless steel or cast iron. For kicks, try to say this three times fast: perfluorooctanoic acid. That is the chemical released by Teflon when it is heated above 400 degrees. Any molecule with four o’s in its name and dozens of online forums filled with awful stories about how it has killed beloved budgies and canaries does not belong in my house.
Just avoid PVC. Poisonous phthalates are added to improve the compound’s flexibility, so the softer the vinyl the more it contains. Pipes, for example, are stiff, and contain fewer phthalates. These chemicals are released easily into the surrounding air. They disrupt our hormones and can cause the early onset of puberty, as well as a host of other problems that are too disturbing to dwell upon. Get rid of that stuff already! Be particularly careful to avoid childrens toys containing PVC (which are often chewed on), or anything used to prepare or store food.
Synthetic carpet off-gasses many toxic chemicals, such as toluene and xylene, known neurotoxins. The familiar “new carpet smell” is caused by 4-phenylcyclohexene, an eye and lung iritant. Thankfully carpet off-gassing reduces with time, but choosing a carpet made from natural fibers like wool or jute would be a safer alternative.


april, 2022