Green, Healthy Homes – Baby Steps for Healthier Families

Green, Healthy Homes - Baby Steps for Healthier Families

Green, healthy homes are something we become more concerned about when a baby joins our family. And so we should, because the negative impacts of toxic chemicals are greater for babies and small children.

By Wendy Priesnitz

When a baby joins our family, we suddenly become more concerned about the safety of our home, its contents, and the products we use in it. And so we should. Toxic chemicals are everywhere in our environment, not just in our food and water. The negative impacts are greater for babies and small children because of their smaller size, still developing brains and metabolisms, and because they’re often on the floor and love to put things in their mouths. In addition, the residues of household chemicals remain on indoor and outdoor surfaces long after application and chemicals applied outside can be tracked into the house on shoes. While not all chemicals are bad, and not all levels of exposure are dangerous, there are real risks to your baby’s health. It can be overwhelming trying to figure out which products are safe and which ones aren’t, and there are many things you can’t avoid unless you’re building and furnishing your home from scratch. However, there are many steps you can take to protect your family and here are some places to begin to create our green, healthy homes.

Hand Sanitizers and Antibacterial Soaps

Experts agree that the use of antibacterial soap in the normal household is unnecessary for preventing infections and causes far more harm than good, but they acknowledge that these products are still very common, especially in homes with babies. Yale University pediatrician and one-time chair of the AMA Council on Scientific Affairs Dr. Myron Genel says, “There’s no evidence that [antibacterial soaps] do any good and there’s reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem” by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria called “superbugs.”

Your use of antibacterial cleaners may also be hurting your baby’s immune system. Microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University, who has worked with the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA), explains that exposure to bacteria is essential for development of an infant’s immune system. A baby, he says, must be exposed to germs during its first year in order to develop the antibodies needed to fight infection later in life. At any rate, most childhood illnesses are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

One of the chemicals often found in antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers is the pesticide triclosan. (It’s also used as an anti-fungal agent in clothing, kitchenware, furniture, toys, laundry detergents, antiperspirants and deodorants, toothpastes, and some cosmetics.) Although the FDA claims it’s safe, recent animal studies have shown that it alters hormone regulation. Other studies in bacteria have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It is a skin and eye irritant and, in the environment, it is potentially toxic to aquatic organisms, and is bioaccumulative and persistent.

A related chemical called triclocarban, is also used in antibacterial soaps. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have recently discovered that a mother’s prolonged use of antibacterial soaps containing triclocarban may seriously harm nursing babies.

Pure, natural soap will get rid of most harmful bacteria without destroying your family’s natural immunity. It can take its place safely in green, healthy homes.

Plastics

There are many different kinds of plastics and they’re ubiquitous in our lives (and, due to their longevity, in the environment). Although some people have managed to phase most plastics out of their lives, that’s just not practical for most of us.

One substance of concern is Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to a wide range of other serious health problems. PVC, which bears the recycling number 03 (blister packs and clam shell packaging, shower curtains, shrink wrap, piping, lunch boxes, outdoor furniture) and those stamped with the number 07 (hard plastic food containers, clear plastic baby bottles, toys, sippy cups, etc.) have been found to leach BPA. The chemical is also found in eyeglass lenses, nail polish, dental sealants, and – importantly but not commonly known – in the lining of food cans.

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Cincinnati announced in the journal Toxicology Letters that when polycarbonate bottles were exposed to boiling water, BPA was released fifty-five times more rapidly than when exposed to cold water. That finding had huge implications, given the widespread use of this plastic for baby bottles and cups, which are routinely boiled for sterilization purposes.

In many places, BPA is banned from of some products like baby bottles. However, it is being replaced with another equally toxic analog in the same chemical class, known as bisphenol S (BPS). One way to avoid the problem is to replace plastic packaging and baby bottles (if you use them) with glass.

Plasticizers, which are commonly added to PVC as softeners to make the plastic flexible and durable, pose another concern. Phthalates are a common class of plasticizers, and used in everything from electrical cables, hoses, gaskets, and vinyl sheet flooring to toys, teething rings, and medical equipment. They have also been found in infant shampoos, powders, and such. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and their use is being restricted or phased out of some products – such as children’s toys – in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

About ten years ago, scientists at the Consumers Union found that some plastic deli wraps use a plasticizer known as DEHA, which has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor in rats, and that it could leach from the plastic into fatty foods such as cheese and meat.

To avoid plasticizers in toys, avoid secondhand plastics, and shop for cloth, wool, felt, and wooden toys. Be mindful of the paint used on wooden toys, which could include lead if the toys are old or from countries like China, and avoid pressed wood products which may be treated with formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA. It has no place in green, healthy homes. Formaldehyde is a common indoor air pollutant emitted by building materials and furniture made of plywood, particleboard, and other pressed-wood products; carpet and carpet glue; paint and floor finishes; foam insulation; fiberglass; permanent press clothing and draperies; air fresheners; and most brands of nail polish.

Short-term exposures can cause allergic skin and mucous membrane reactions, flu-like symptoms, and asthma and other respiratory problems. Formaldehyde has also been linked to nose and throat cancers, and leukemia.

Keeping formaldehyde out of your home and your children’s environment is largely a matter of avoiding products that emit it. That is, of course, easier when you’re building new, renovating, or redecorating. On the other hand, formaldehyde emissions from products diminish over time, and so are most problematic when the products are new. You can also seal new pressed wood items with formaldehyde-free paint or varnish. Ensure that new rugs and carpets are formaldehyde-free and insist that they are installed using tacks rather than glue. Good ventilation will reduce formaldehyde concentrations.

Scented Products

Many fragrances contain dozens of toxic chemicals, including the earlier mentioned phthalates. And they don’t just occur in personal care products and perfumes; chemical-based fragrances are found in most household products. The Environmental Working Group’s research shows that approximately half of all products on the market contain added fragrance – complex mixtures of chemicals, some persistent, some neurotoxic, and some newly found to harm wildlife, and most derived from petroleum.

baby steps to a green, healthy homesFragrance is increasingly cited as a trigger in health conditions such as asthma, allergies, and migraine headaches. In fact, an Institute of Medicine study sponsored by the EPA put fragrances in the same category as secondhand smoke as a trigger for asthma in school-age children. Up to seventy-two percent of asthmatics report their asthma attacks are triggered by fragrance.

Severity and triggers as well as symptoms can vary from person to person. But when used in a confined area like a house, the intense amount of toxins in a small area can be especially problematic. Children are particularly susceptible to harm from chemicals in indoor air. In addition, some fragrance materials have been found to accumulate in adipose tissue and are present in breast milk. Other materials are suspected of being hormone disruptors. At least one study has demonstrated links between heavy perfume exposure during pregnancy and learning disabilities and behavior disorders in children.

To clear the air, you might be tempted to use air fresheners. But that is a case of the cure being worse than the problem. Known toxic chemicals that can be found in air fresheners include formaldehyde, camphor, ethanol, phenol, artificial fragrances (which, as we have seen, contain their own mix of toxins) and benzyl alcohol. These chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing, and more. Some of the substances in air fresheners are also known carcinogens and others are hormone disruptors.

So to protect your children’s health, skip the scented cleaning products, laundry detergent, and fabric softener, avoid using air fresheners, and avoid wearing fragrances.

Household Cleaners

Aside from the fragrances, most household cleaning products contain other harmful chemicals, many used in untested combinations. Babies, children, older people, and those who are already sick are especially at risk from these chemicals and they have no place in green, healthy homes.

One product category culprit is fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which will, along with making your clothes soft, static-free and smelling “fresh,” make them toxic. Health problems can range from headache, lightheadedness, and fatigue to serious organ and central nervous system damage, and even cancer. The effects are more acute when heated in clothes dryers, making dryer sheets worse than liquid softeners. And, of course, dryers exhaust the toxic fumes into neighborhood air.

Because fabric softeners are made to stay in your laundry, the chemicals are slowly released, either into the air for you and your baby to inhale or onto your skin for you to absorb. You may have noticed that using fabric softener sheets results in less-absorbent towels; that’s because of the residue that is left in the towels.

Babies often react with rashes, frequent crying and/or diarrhea. Some researchers have even suggested the need for research into a possible connection between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the use of these products for washing baby clothes and bedding. They say that in at least some cases of SIDS, an anaphylactic reaction is responsible, so fabric softener, with its many chemical components, shouldn’t be ruled out as a possible cause.

To make problem worse, most fabric softeners have fragrance added to them in order to cover up the chemical smells. For many reasons, this is one type of product to avoid.

Some companies sell safer, less toxic cleaning products. And you can find recipes online for making your own cleaners and laundry soaps. But oftentimes, the easiest and safest way to clean your house is using vinegar, baking soda, and a little elbow grease.

Flame Retardants

Exposure to flame retardant chemicals commonly found in both products and the dust in our homes is extremely hazardous to the health of both children and adults. And exposure during pregnancy has been linked to lower birth weight babies.

The earliest flame retardants were PCBs, which were found to be highly toxic and banned in many countries in the 1970s. The chemical compounds that replaced them, such as brominated flame retardants like PBDEs, are now under increasing scrutiny as well. They are commonly found in foam furniture; baby products like crib bumpers and car seats; computers, televisions and other electronics; and carpet padding. They are increasingly being banned in certain products, but persist in older items produced prior to the bans, and they migrate into the dust found in our homes, cars, and businesses.

In spite of all this alarming information, it’s wise not to try and purge all toxic chemicals from your home in a few weeks. Implement some of these tips slowly and phase in safer products. Begin now and take baby steps to a greener, healthier home!

Another common flame retardant is chlorinated Tris. It is a carcinogen that was removed from children’s sleepwear in the 1970s. But it is still found in polyurethane foam used in other children’s products (and children’s sleepwear is still doused with other flame retardants – for instance, synthetics like polyester have them built into the fibers.) The Center for Environmental Health recently found high levels of chlorinated Tris in nap mats that are sold to daycares in the U.S. and in other children’s products sold at chain stores.

One of the issues with flame retardant chemicals is that they accumulate in human fat cells after they’ve migrated into the environment. Studies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have found PBDEs in fish, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and infant formula. Biomonitoring studies estimate that detectable levels of PBDEs can be found in up to ninety-seven percent of Americans and they have been found at high levels in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims PBDEs currently in our indoor and outdoor environments could expose children to concentrations exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended safe level. These cumulative exposures are a ticking time bomb, since children ingest more PBDEs than adults because they stick to their hands, toys, or other objects that kids put in their mouths. Laboratory tests in peer-reviewed studies have found that a dose of PBDEs administered to mice on a single day when the brain is growing rapidly can cause permanent changes to behavior, including hyperactivity.

Other chemical flame retardants are replacing the old PBDEs, but more information is needed about exposure to the newer chemicals. More attention should also be given to finding non-chemical approaches to achieving fire safety.”

Because PBDEs are so prevalent in household dust, experts recommend that we take precautionary measures such as wet mopping when dusting and frequent hand washing, particularly before eating, to reduce exposure, especially in homes with babies and young children. Do not allow babies to put electronics products in their mouths. If you’re buying new electronics or bedding, check with the manufacturers to see which ones have stopped using PBDEs.

If you own furniture that you think contains retardants, steps to green, healthy homes include covering and sealing any rips in upholstery, and replacing old items where foam is exposed and crumbling. Cover mattresses with allergen-barrier casings to reduce the amount of PBDE-laden dust released.

You should also try to avoid plastic toys made in China. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicating that both hard plastic and foam toys manufactured in southern China were a major source of PBDEs. EWG says that between seventy and eighty percent of all plastic toys sold in the U. S. are manufactured in China.

In spite of all this alarming information, it’s wise not to try and purge all toxic chemicals from your home in a few weeks. Implement some of these tips slowly and phase in safer products. Begin now and take baby steps to green, healthy homes!

Learn More About Green, Healthy Homes

Natural Life Magazine’s Green, Healthy Homes by Wendy Priesnitz (The Alternate Press, 2011)

“The Plastic Purge” by Wendy Priesnitz in Natural Life Magazine, January/February 2013

“Air Fresheners or Air Pollutants?” by Wendy Priesnitz in Natural Life Magazine, September/October 2008

“What’s the Dirt on Household Cleaners?” by Wendy Priesnitz in Natural Life Magazine, January/February 2009

“What Chemicals Are Your Children Eating?” by Wendy Priesnitz in Natural Child Magazine, November/December 2011

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine and Natural Child Magazine, the author of thirteen books, and the mother of two adult daughters.

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