In this two-part series, our guest writer Amanda Tharp of the New Collective is sharing non-toxic home tips for making your space safer and healthier. Part 1 focuses on improving the air quality in your space!
I know I am not alone in saying that this year, I have clocked more hours in my home and thinking about our human health than ever before.
This winter, as we remain indoors for health safety reasons, we have an opportunity to take the health of our homes into our own hands (in between virtual happy hours, that is).
The health or toxicity of our homes and workspaces has been an important topic for decades. It began with big picture regulations to protect our health and the health of the planet. In the 1960s and 70s, the US had fallen far down the rabbit hole of environmental atrocities.
A major oil spill in California, the release of a groundbreaking book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson on the negative effects of pesticides, and unchecked manufacturer pollution leading to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire were among the many events that led to the creation of the EPA and the country’s first environmental protection acts (Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Clean Water Act).
Since that time, we have come a long way as a country thanks to the work of environmental advocates, policymakers, scientists, and the internet — but, there is still much to do to protect ourselves and our planet.
Luckily, the conversation has moved forward towards transparency, which is where we as consumers have more power than ever before!
Empowering my clients to take their health and wellbeing into their own hands is a passion of mine, so I am excited to share some tips with you on how to make your spaces healthier, starting today.
There are so many avenues we can take to do this, so this post will focus on improving air quality and part two will dive more deeply into the products we come into contact with, things we may ingest at home, and more.
Note: We are all on our own path with unique circumstances and a lot on our plate (thanks, 2020) so be kind to yourself and use this guide to create your own list of priorities that works for you rather than worrying about tackling everything at once.
The Air We Breath
According to the EPA’s Ann Brown, “the average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day.” With each breath, you invite the dust, allergens, toxic chemicals, and other particulates in your home into your lungs and move it throughout your body.
The healthier your products and materials, the clearer and cleaner the air you breathe becomes.
For that reason it’s incredibly important to understand what is already in your home needing to be remediated and to know what is in a product, and therefore may “off-gas” in your home before you make future purchases.
15 Tips To Improve Your Air Quality
1. Get to Know Your Home
Test your home for radon, perform a DIY air quality test, or install air quality monitoring sensors in your home (both available for purchase online).
At a minimum, be sure you have carbon monoxide detectors installed (with battery backups if you have plug-ins).
2. Start Swapping Out Toxic Products
From your toilet cleaner to your perfume, everything you clean with, spray in the air or put on your body should be safe enough for you to breathe — because breathe it, you will!
Ask questions about your products and do some research in EWG’s Skin Deep Database. If a product is not yet in the database, type in the individual ingredients to learn about how safe or dangerous they are for you and your loved ones.
Determine what risk level you’re willing to accept. (I avoid products with numbers higher than 3 on EWG’s scale, with 10 being the worst). And then, either
Determine what risk level you’re willing to accept. And then either replace or simply don’t rebuy items (some products may be unnecessary or redundant) as you run out of your current stocks.
Or, start with the items you use every day such as moisturizer, lip balm, or sunblock, and work your way to those you use most rarely.
If you choose the latter option, try to recycle or repurpose what you can! Earth 911 has guides for how to responsibly discard or reuse nearly everything.
The process is faster than you’d expect and the benefits will serve you for the rest of your life.
Note: Be wary of products claiming to be free of any particular chemical buzz words (for example, BPA-free plastic). Often, although one chemical has been removed, a lesser-known but equally dangerous alternative has been added in its place. Until there are stricter chemical regulations in this country, the job of vetting product ingredients falls on the individual, unfortunately.
3. Avoid Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Products with VOCs “off-gas”, meaning they release harmful chemicals into our air we breathe. This can go on for the life of the product but is strongest when the product is new.
New furniture, mattresses, carpeting, adhesives, plastic shower curtain liners, or rugs, and wood sealants (among many other products) all off-gas. These VOCs are irritants in the short term and dangerous to our health in the mid to long term.
To ensure a healthy, non-toxic home, opt for natural products like solid wood furniture with a wax finish or natural fiber rugs.
Most major manufacturers have specifically formulated low or no VOC paint, stain, sealant, and adhesive options as well. Even when using these preferable options, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for proper ventilation.
If low VOC furniture, finishes or decor cannot be found, be sure to unwrap the product outdoors. If possible, store it outdoors and away from any outside air intake vents for a week or more so the initial discharge of VOCs is not released in your home.
Don’t have an outdoor space like this? Place the item in an enclosed, unused room with a high-quality air purifier for as long as possible (two weeks or more is ideal) before letting it out of its “VOC quarantine”.
4. Embrace Bare Feet
Install textured floor mats outside of every entry and take your shoes off as you walk in the door to avoid bringing in industrial chemicals, pesticides, chemical dust, and other contaminants from outside. (And don’t feel bad asking your family and friends to do the same — next time they’ll know to wear fun socks when coming over.)
5. Get out your Roomba
Dusting with a damp cloth and vacuuming regularly (with a HEPA filter) sounds like yet another thing who has time for, but it’s very important.
We breathe in dust, which is a collection of contaminants released from our products, brought in by our pets and shoes. Reducing these by cleaning regularly will improve our air quality tremendously and help ensure a non-toxic home for you and your loved ones.
6. Opt for Easy-to-Clean Textiles
Taking your cleaning one step further as you work towards a healthier non-toxic home, it is also very important to keep your furniture, draperies, linens, and pillows clean to avoid build-up of contaminants and dust. Removable slipcovers on upholstered furniture, removable pillow covers, steamable linens, and low pile rugs can make this effort easier to maintain.
Experts recommend washing your bedding at least once a week in warm to hot water (check first with your bedding textile cleaning guidelines).
7. Take Your 2020 Frustrations Out On Your Rugs
Take rugs outside, far from open doors and windows, and beat them to release hard to reach dust and debris regularly.
Use your best judgment when it comes to frequency. In my house with two dogs, if I don’t do this once a week my fiance’s asthma and my allergies will start to flare up.
8. Portable Air Purifiers Are Your Friends
Another tool for creating a healthy non-toxic home is air purifiers. I’m a big fan of the Coway air purifiers we have in our home. There are also many options available online with ratings to help you make a decision that’s best for you. Make sure whichever you pick will automatically turn on when high levels of contaminants are detected. This option gives us peace of mind and saves energy as the unit is only running when needed.
Always vent your kitchen with a range hood or by opening a window while cooking, especially when cooking with gas-powered appliances.
9. Air It Out
If making home upgrades, consider upgrading and increasing your filtered fresh air supply system. New construction trends — stemming from the German-based Passive House building standard — are moving towards super-insulated buildings with filtered fresh air cycled through the space more often than in traditionally constructed homes.
The end result is an incredibly efficient home that provides a more thermally comfortable, acoustically protected space with cleaner indoor air than is typically achievable with traditional construction practices used in the US. This one is a game-changer for indoor air quality.
To learn more, ask your Mechanical Engineer or Builder about the potential for an ERV or HRV (depending on your climate zone) system and your Passive House renovation options.
10. Add Plants for a Detoxing Boost
NASA studies suggest keeping one plant per 100 square feet of space will help to remove benzene, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, xylene, and toluene, all harmful to your health, from your air. With a wide variety of additional health benefits, adding plants is an easy-to-do for the top of your list.
11. Leave the Steam for the Spa
Add a dehumidifier to your basement or damp spaces and keep your bathroom vent on or window open during and after showering to avoid high humidity levels and mold growth.
12. No Antimicrobial or Water-Resistant Finishes
These chemical-based finishing treatments applied to upholstery and clothing before you buy them are proven to be dangerous to human health. They can off-gas into your home, could be absorbed upon contact through your skin, and should be avoided.
13. Avoid Polyurethane Foams and Choose “No Added Flame Retardant” Options
Flame retardants are toxic to our health. They have been shown to cause cancer, IQ deficits, reproductive damage, hormone, and immune disorders. These chemicals — commonly found in mattresses, infant mattress pads, sofas, and lounge chairs — are released into the air, gather with dust around your space and join the air you breathe.
14. Opt for Natural
Choosing products that are as natural as possible (in conjunction with low-VOC sealants, adhesives, or finishes) can save you the headache of not knowing what you don’t know.
For example, did you know when you select furniture or cabinetry made with MDF (medium-density fiberboard) you will likely be bringing formaldehyde into your home, commonly used in the resin that binds the fiber particles to create MDF? This chemical is a known carcinogen that wreaks havoc on your body and hormones.
15. Go Electric
Funneling natural gas into homes may be common right now, but it is neither good for indoor air quality nor a good long term investment. In pursuit of utilizing 100% renewable energy by 2050, many US cities have already banned gas power in new buildings.
While you’re at it, consider adding solar panels to your non-toxic home. Many states are subsidizing solar panel installation with low to no up-front cost and very affordable monthly payments.
These are just a few avenues that you can take to improve your indoor air quality and create a healthier home environment, starting today!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article for more ways to create a healthier space in your home!
About the Author
Amanda Tharp is an Architect, Designer and founder of New Collective design consulting. She is passionate about helping her clients live well, be in balance with nature and create community through design. Follow her (and her puppies) @the_newcollective
Disclaimer: The advice given in this post is simply that — advice. These are not medical recommendations. Please consult your physician or another medical professional for specific suggestions related to your personal health.
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