Indoor pollution: how to protect yourself this winter

In the hard winter months we bundle up and stay indoors more often. We rarely air out our homes, although we should do this even when it is cold outside. These are just a couple of the reasons why we’re more likely to get sick in winter – germs thrive best in closed spaces. There’s another reason why we get sick more in winter that you may not have thought about, and it has to do with the kind of long-term, often subtle illnesses that result from exposure to indoor pollutants. Winter is the time of year when our body burden can increase the most.

Polluted indoor air and the body burden

The body burden refers to the total amount of chemicals present in the body at any given time. Most of these chemicals are harmful or potentially so, and have been classified by the EPA as possible, probable, or known human carcinogens. Nowadays no one is spared from exposure to toxic chemicals, even in some of the most remote parts of the world, because of persistent environmental toxins like dioxin. Even though dioxin is no longer allowed for commercial use, it remains in the environment and accumulates in the fat of the animals and animal products we consume. Another major contributor to the body burden is the use of conventional household cleaning products, most of which are petrochemical-based.

indoor air pollution

The levels of chemicals produced in your home are often hundreds of times higher than the outdoor air of the most polluted cities in the world. The worst part of it is that long-term, low-levels of exposure to these chemicals are just as harmful to the human body as high levels of exposure in a short amount of time, as scientists, medical professionals, and health advocates now know.

The threat household cleaners pose to your health

The majority of household cleaning products sold in retail stores contain one or more chemicals that are known to be harmful to human health. Products containing bleach can release dioxin – one of the most toxic chemicals ever known to human civilization – when they interact with certain chemicals present in the air. Many cleaning products contain formaldehyde, which usually does not appear in their list of ingredients, but is often a component of other chemicals that do appear on that ingredient list: formalin, formalith, oxy-methylene, urea, 1, 3 dioxetane, quaternium-15, methanol, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, paraform, and BFV. Often, aerosol spray cleaners, air fresheners, and stain removers contain methylene chloride, a carcinogen, neurotoxin and reproductive toxin that can cause liver and brain damage, irregular heartbeat, and even heart attack when inhaled. Many common household cleaners, including laundry detergents, cause or exaggerate allergies, asthma, eczema, and memory loss. Switching to non-toxic varieties can result in a rapid reduction of these and other symptoms if you have been experiencing them.

Use or make safe, non-toxic household cleaners

These days, there are many options to purchase safer, non-toxic cleaners and disinfecting agents. Online retailers like Vitacost, health food chains like Whole Foods, and your local organic or health food shops sell many such products. Online-only companies also offer various non-toxic options for household cleaners. A few of these companies have been around since the 1950s, while others were founded in the 1970s and 1980s, when the wellness industry became popular in North America (and parts of South America), Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Many, though not all, of their products use plant-based agents and provide a list of ingredients on the label. Some of these companies also offer residual income programs for people who are willing to become regular monthly shoppers and help others to do the same. These can sometimes be cost-prohibitive options. However, there are other alternatives to toxic cleaning agents that even the poorest households can afford.

indoor air pollution

Before World War II, most people cleaned their homes using relatively safe, everyday ingredients: baking soda (mixed with a little water to make a paste), vinegar, salt, lemon juice, vegetable oil, soap, borax, soda water, cornmeal, and hydrogen peroxide are effective cleaning, stain-removing, and disinfecting agents that do not cause cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, or any of the other adverse health problems associated with the use of most commercial retail cleaning products. They are also inexpensive and easily found. Click here for a list of non-toxic alternatives to personal care and cleaning products that you can make yourself or buy inexpensively next time you go grocery shopping.

Greenwashing: buyer beware

Unless you are carefully reading the labels on the products you buy to clean your home, you are probably cleaning with formaldehyde and other chemicals known to be toxic to the human body. Even some of the “green” labels have engaged in “greenwashing” their products: making them appear to be non-toxic when in fact they do contain harmful chemicals. One good practice is to look for products that are listed as “readily biodegradable” or “non-toxic to humans and pets”. However, the best practice is to educate yourself, and those around you, about the kinds of ingredients and/or products you should avoid. The Environmental Working Group has developed a list of recommended cleaners (many of these commercially available products will surprise you!) and another list of cleaners to avoid. You can view the list here. You can also sign up for access to our library of free resources. One of the resources available is a cheat sheet of harmful chemicals to avoid in the personal care products you purchase. Print and clip the cheat sheet or download it to your mobile phone and use it to familiarize yourself with the ingredients you should avoid as you shop.

These are just a few of the small changes you can make to reduce your body burden, improve the indoor air quality in your home, and avoid the potential long-term health problems that come with short-term and long-term exposure to harmful chemicals. Start with small steps and it won’t take long to notice a big difference in your health and overall feeling of wellness.


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indoor air pollution