When we think of pollution, we envision a thick layer of smog over a 1970s LA skyline; factories emitting smoke and waste-filled plumes; sludgy, grey air cloaking buildings in Beijing as pedestrians don dystopian-looking, white anti-pollution masks. But what about indoor pollution in your own own home? Maybe it’s even more insidious, because often it’s invisible. We chatted with Environmental Working Group (EWG) Database & Research Analyst Samara Geller, who comes clean with helpful solutions.
Indoor pollution refers to the quality of air within a structure as it relates to the health of its occupants. According to the World Health Organization, 4.3 million people a year die from exposure to household air pollution. It can be caused by carpet fumes, furniture, paint, polluting stoves, fireplaces, household cleaners, disinfectants, mold, glues and other arts and crafts products, formaldehyde, building products, pesticides and even “personal care products,” says Geller. The EWG Healthy Living Home Guide reports the air inside of our homes can be two to five times more dangerous than the air outside—yikes!
Some ingredients have short- or long-term toxicity, says Geller, adding that certain chemicals can actually cling to carpeting and other plush surfaces, off-gassing long after they’re released from the product.
But how dangerous are common home chemicals … really? “Very,” says Geller. “These chemicals can cause both acute and chronic effects.” Serious risks from overexposure can include asthma, respiratory irritation, fertility issues, birth defects and cancer.
EWG cites a list of ingredients to watch out for including: chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) and many other hard-to-pronounce chemicals. It says to watch out for using pine or citrus oil on smoggy or high ozone days, because the compounds in the oils can react with ozone in the air to form the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde. Also be on alert for dye (companies often hide chemical information behind this word) and even fragrance.
Before you enclose your family in a plastic bubble, know there are lots of misconceptions about cleanliness. “One of the big ones is germophobia,” Geller says, adding that too much germ killing can lead to the creation of stronger bacteria strains. “There’s a time and place to use a sanitizer, but usually there isn’t a need to do it too often,” Geller explains. Check with a doctor about how to sanitize your home if there’s an immune-compromised individual around or if there’s a high risk of serious disease transmission from an infected individual.
Another myth is the association of a clean home with a fragrant smell. “People will finish up a home-cleaning protocol with a spritz of fragrance or air freshener,” says Geller. “Fragrance can be linked to cancer or sensitivities so maybe opt for a fragrance-free product or get to the source of the odor rather than covering it up.”
How to Clean up Your Act at Home
It sounds scary, but there are alternatives to basking in a chemical stew at home. EWG’s Guide To Healthy Cleaning is a good resource to search for ingredients to avoid, based on individual health and other concerns. You can also search its top-rated products and brands that are less toxic. Factors considered include transparency in listing ingredients, toxicity and environmental impact.
Also, when it comes to babies and little kids, “Pound for pound they are taking in more pollutants than your average adult. They’re also on the floor crawling around getting these chemicals on their hands and putting their fingers in their mouth,” says Geller. “So we recommend being really cautious using cleaning products especially around kids … also check labels to minimize your child’s exposure to fragrance allergens.”
Other solutions include:
Perhaps the best way to keep harmful chemicals at bay is to not let them in at all. Wipe your feet on a mat when you come in, and leave your outside shoes at the door. “There are all of these little things that over time can add up to reduce our exposure,” says Geller. And at the end of the day, “A little bit of elbow grease goes a long way.”