You would never cross the street without looking both ways, walk alone down a dark alley alone at three a.m., or tell your child to accept rides from strangers. So why let hazardous, toxic, and even carcinogenic chemicals into your home everyday?
The message driven home for millions of Americans each day via TV and internet commercials is this: No need to scrub or scour. With just one squeeze of the spray bottle, you can wipe away dirt, grime, and bacteria.
Alas, there’s that dark alley again. Air fresheners, disinfectants, and cleaners found under your sink are more dangerous than you think. Mix bleach with ammonia, for example, and you’ve got a toxic fume cloud used by the military in WWI. And they weren’t cleaning kitchens.
Here is a list of the ten products you should ban from your home forever, along with suggested alternatives.
1. Non-Stick Cookware When non-stick pans were first introduced into American households in the 1960s, they were thought to be a godsend. Gone were the days of soaking pans for hours and scouring pots with steel wool. In the forty years since then, however, we’ve learned that the ease of cleaning comes at a steep price: the coating that makes Teflon pans non-stick is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short. When PTFE heats up, it releases toxic gasses that have been linked to cancer, organ failure, reproductive damage, and other harmful health effects.
The problems with PTFE-coated pans seem to occur at high temperatures, so if you must use Teflon, cook foods on medium heat or less. Avoiding non-stick pans altogether is the safest option. If you’re able to do so, try anodized aluminum, stainless steel, or cast iron pans with a little cooking oil. SustainLane reviewers like LeCreuset cast iron pans and more cost-effective ones like Lodge Logic. Using a lower setting on the stove will reduce the chances that your food will burn, which is how it usually gets stuck to pans the first place. If you’re worried about the extra calories cooking oil adds, try baking or steaming your food.
2. Plastic Bottles By now you’ve heard of dangers of BPA in those ubiquitous neon water bottles. BPA mimics the effects of hormones that harm your endocrine system. While the company at the heart of the controversy has switched to BPA-free plastic, those aren’t the only toxic bottles. Single-use plastic bottles are even worse for leaching chemicals, especially when you add the heat of the sun (think about bottles left in your trunk) or the microwave. Aside from the fact that bottled water sold across state lines is not as regulated as tap water, the bottles themselves are spawning grounds for bacteria and are a source of needless waste. Each year, more than one million barrels of oil are used to manufacture the more than 25 billion single-use plastic water bottles sold in the U.S. Choose a reusable, stainless steel or glass bottle instead. SustainLane users have reviewed several water bottle alternatives.
3. Conventional Cleaning Supplies These routinely make the top ten lists of worst household offenders. They contain toxic chemicals that negatively affect every system in your body. All purpose cleaners often contain ammonia, a strong irritant that has been linked to liver and kidney damage. Bleach is a powerful oxidizer, which can burn the skin and eyes. Another danger lies in oven cleaners, which can cause chemical burns and emit toxic fumes that harm the respiratory system. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that more than 120,000 children under the age of five were involved in incidents involving household cleaners in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available.
To protect you and your family from the hazards conventional cleaners pose, choose non-toxic, or natural cleaners. SustainLane reviewers have particularly enjoyed Method and Seventh Generation, which are commonly found on supermarket shelves. Bon Ami is a safe alternative to Comet and Ajax. If you have the time and want to go the extra mile, you can even mix your own using common household items like vinegar and baking soda. Check out these easy-to-make recipes household cleaners.
4. Chemical Insecticides and Herbicides Since the purpose of these products is to kill pests, you can bet that many of them have ingredients in them that are also harmful to humans. For example, the active ingredient in Round-Up – a weed-killer popular with gardeners – is known to cause kidney damage and reproductive harm in mice. And cypermethrin, one of the active ingredients in the popular ant and roach-killer Raid, is a known eye, skin and respiratory irritant and has negative effects on the central nervous system.
There are several companies that sell natural and organic weed- and pest-control products. Buhach makes a natural insecticide from ground chrysanthemum flowers that controls ants, flies, fleas, lice, gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, and deer ticks, among other pests. Boric acid is an effective, natural solution for cockroaches as well; sprinkle it around baseboards, cracks and other places likely to harbor roaches. You can use this boric acid recipe to control ants. For weeds, check out E.B. Stone Weed-N-Grass or try spot-spraying with household vinegar.
5. Antibacterial Products The widespread use of antibacterials has been shown to contribute to new strains of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs.” The Center for Disease Control says that antibacterials may also interfere with immune system development in children. Triclosan – the most common antibacterial additive found in more than 100 household products ranging from soaps and toothpaste to children’s toys and even undergarments, accumulates in the body. In a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, 97 percent of breast feeding mothers had triclosan in their milk, and 75 percent had trace amounts of the chemical in their urine.
Make it your goal to be to be clean, not germ-free. People who are exposed to household germs typically develop strong immune systems and are healthier overall. Avoid buying antibacterial products or soaps containing triclosan. Soap and water is really all you need to clean most things. There are plenty of eco-friendly hand washes and other cleansers that are safe for you and easy on the planet.
6. Chemical Fertilizers These are notorious for causing damage to our water supply and are a known major contributor to algal blooms. Whenever it rains or a lawn is watered, the runoff goes straight into storm-drains, and untreated water is dumped into rivers, streams, and the ocean. This causes an imbalance in delicate water ecosystems, killing fish and degrading water quality.
If you have a lawn, choose organic fertilizers rather than chemical ones.
As another alternative to harsh chemicals, consider starting a compost pile to create nutrient-rich soil for your flower beds and vegetable gardens. You’ll be creating your own inexpensive fertilizer just by letting food scraps and yard trimmings sit. An added benefit: it’ll also help divert waste from landfills. SustainLane users have reviewed several compost bins here.
7. More Bulb for Your Buck A Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulb uses just a fraction of the energy regular light bulb uses. When your current bulbs burn out, swap them with CFLs, and start calculating your savings. General Electric has an online calculator that shows you just how much money you can save by making the switch.
One caveat of the low-energy bulb is that it contains mercury. Even so, CFLs are still your best bet, according to EPA Energy Star program director Wendy Reed. Coal-fired plants are the biggest emitters of mercury. Using CFL bulbs means you draw less power from the grid, which means less coal is burned for electricity. Because of the mercury, take precautions when disposing of these CFL bulbs. Rather than throwing them in your household trash or curbside recycling bin, take them to a hazardous waste collection or other special facility. This story from National Public Radio has a more through discussion of this topic.
8. Air fresheners Just like cleaning supplies, these are incredibly toxic and can aggravate respiratory problems like asthma. Even those labeled “pure” and “natural” have been found to contain phthalates, chemicals that cause hormonal abnormalities, reproductive problems and birth defects. Try simmering cinnamon and cloves to give your home an “I’ve-spent-the-whole-day-baking” scent, and leave a few windows open to let in fresh air. You might also boil a pot of water on the stove with a few drops of your favorite essential oil, or use an essential oil burner.
9. Flame Retardants A common flame retardant that was used in mattresses, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), is known to accumulate in blood, breast milk and fatty tissues. This chemical is linked to liver, thyroid, and neuro-developmental toxicity. According to the Environmental Working Group, new foam items often do not contain PBDEs, but foam items purchased before 2005 (like mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, pillows, carpet padding), are likely to contain them. Household furniture often contains flame retardants and stain repellents that use PBDE’s as well as formaldehyde and PFOA (the same chemical used in non-stick cookware).
If you are in the market for a new mattress or sofa, ask manufacturers what type of flame retardants they use. Look for products that don’t use brominated fire retardants. Organic Abode sells natural and organic furniture. If you’re looking to keep your existing mattress, but make it safer, use a cover made of organic wool to reduce PBDE exposure. You can find organic furniture and interior decor here.
10. Plastic Shopping Bags Remember: Like diamonds, plastics are forever. Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’ a giant mass of plastic twice the size of Texas that’s floating 1,000 miles off the coast of California. In the United States, only two percent of plastic bags are recycled, which means that the remaining 98 percent is dumped into landfills or blown out to sea. According to Californians Against Waste, the City of San Francisco, which recently banned plastic shopping bags, spends 8.5 million dollars annually on plastic bag litter.
The good news is, we can easily decrease our plastic bags use. Bring in your own reusable cloth bags when you go shopping. If you have kids, ask them to remind you to bring them. Or keep them in a place by the door where you’re most likely to remember them on your way out.