PROTECT Yourself: Avoiding Harmful Chemicals in Your Home

1. Wash hands frequently. Not only does hand washing prevent spreading germs, studies have shown that hand washing reduces the amount of flame retardants that enter our bodies. Remember to use regular soap and water, and avoid antibacterial soaps that may contain a chemical called tricolsan, which has been shown to disrupt thyroid function in humans and animals.

2. Avoid flame retardants in your household furnishings. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are commercially produced flame retardants that are used in many commercial products. They are also endocrine disruptors that affect thyroid hormones. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from such natural fibers as wool, cotton, and hemp, which are naturally flame retardant. Decline Scotchguard™ and stain-resistant treatment of furnishings and fabrics. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling in furniture, so if your couch or chair upholstery has rips or tears, sew these closed to reduce your exposure. Avoid furniture made from pressed wood or particleboard, which releases the irritant formaldehyde. Read more about flame retardants in furniture at the Green Science Policy Institute’s website, and learn how to buy flame retardant free furniture here.

3. Avoid phthalates in your household furnishings. These plastic softeners are found in polyvinyl flooring, wall coverings, and shower curtains. That strong odor you smell when you open up a new vinyl shower curtain comes from phthalates. To avoid exposure to these endocrine disrupting compounds, choose untreated cloth curtains and curtain liners — such as those made from nylon — and natural flooring and wall covering options.

4. Choose building materials, paints, stains, and sealants that are identified as “low VOC” or “no VOC.” VOCs — volatile organic compounds — are major sources of air pollution, both indoors and out, and are found in many building materials and products. Many VOCs are known to cause cancer in animals, while some are suspected of causing or are known to cause cancer in humans. Take care in using glues, paints, and solvents — when you do use them, do so outside or in a well-ventilated area. Limit your exposure to products containing methylene chloride, a probable human carcinogen. This chemical can be found in such consumer products as paint strippers, adhesives, adhesive removers, fabric cleaners, furniture polish, paint strippers, wood sealant and stains, spray paints, adhesives, shoe polish, and art supplies.

5. Choose electronic equipment that does not contain PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. These endocrine disruptors are commercially produced flame retardants that are often added to polyurethane foam, various plastics, and electronics equipment.

6. Avoid tracking pollutants into your home. Pesticides and other harmful chemicals often enter your home tracked in with dust and dirt on the bottom of your shoes. To minimize the spread of these pollutants, place a doormat on the outside of each entrance to your home and a rug on the inside of each entryway. Adopt the habit of removing your outdoor shoes upon entry and ask your guests to do the same.

7. Control household pests without using pesticides. Seal the holes through which pests enter your home and control them by using borax or sticky traps that do not contain pesticides, even if they are plant-based, such as rotenone. Healthy Child Healthy World recommends using mint and lavender to ward off mice and sprinkling red chili powder, paprika, dried peppermint, peppermint essential oil, powdered soap, or borax where ants enter your home. Beyond Pesticides offers Least Toxic Control of Pests In the Home and Garden a series of fact sheets on alternatives for controlling pests ranging from ants to gypsy moths to weeds.

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Image by Arlington County from Flickr.