Seven Ways to Tackle Indoor Air Pollution

When I first heard about the issue with toxic chemicals in consumer products, I asked, How are we exposed? And the answer I received made me smirk. One of our biggest routes of exposure is through the dust in our home…Really? Dust is so… harmless.

Since that moment of skepticism, I have delved into over ten years of personal and professional exploration about what the scientific literature tells us about toxic chemicals. Which ones are most important to address, how we’re exposed and – as it turns out – our household dust is a serious problem.

The innocuous act of running your hand across the back of a TV set, or the top of a fireplace mantel, may be one piece of an important prevention puzzle.

Air pollution takes many forms

For a brief stint I lived in Norfolk, VA less than three miles from the country’s largest coal port. Microscopic coal dust flies through the air, unseen by anyone, but felt by many. As coal is poured to and from ship to railcar, small particles of coal dust rise up into the air traveling in a seven-mile radius from the port. Norfolk is known for elevated rates of asthma. And heavy metals like mercury that contaminate coal, cling to the dust. This is a picture of after I had my car professionally washed to remove some of the coal dust.

coal dust

Then I moved to Los Angeles for a new gig with Beautycounter. LA is known for many things, and unfortunately air pollution is one of them. I picked the best neighborhood I could for air quality, trying to work my way around some of the countries busiest highways, shipping ports, and pollution hot spots from car exhaust. I am privileged and lucky to be able to choose an area of town that has some of the least air pollution. And yet it’s still LA. The wind still shifts from time to time and blows in pollution from the suburbs, bringing a layer of smog over the typically “cleaner” parts of town.

Finally, the products in our homes and workplaces are a significant source of air pollution since we spend so much time indoors.

Examples of indoor air pollution from household products:

  • Vinyl – all types including shower curtains, flooring, other soft plastics that have a strong smell;
  • Perfume, candles, air fresheners and scented personal care products – these products aim to help us smell good, but are often laden with toxic allergen chemicals and hormone-disrupting compounds;
  • Flame retardants – found in couches, arm chairs, children’s changing tables, spray foam insulation and most home electronics;
  • Lead – leaches into dust on window sills covered with lead based paint and places like the bottoms of our shoes.

Buzz kill. I can really clear a room at a party. The good news is there a few simple steps you can take to clean up your indoor air pollution.

7 ways to clean up indoor air pollution:

1- Dust regularly 

Use a microfiber cloth and dust at least once a week. Electronics, couches and building materials can leach toxic chemicals that end up in household dust and into our bodies. Don’t think that dust exposure could actually matter? Join the club, as I mentioned earlier I thought this was a joke. And then I learned that the levels of toxic flame retardants we have in our bodies from dust exposure are the same levels that have been shown to cause harm in scientific studies including: cancer, hormone-disruption, harming the developing brain and damage to vital organs like the liver. Cleaning up the dust means you and your family or roommates will inhale less toxic chemicals.

2- Clean up household cleaners

A variety of toxic chemicals are found in the products we use to clean our home (how ironic). Women’s Voices for the Earth found chemicals linked to hormone-disruption, asthma, respiratory problems among other problems in their report Dirty Secrets. I use a variety of household cleaners including white vinegar (for sinks, floors, toilets) which kills over 95% of germs and viruses. Bon Ami and baking soda make great shower and sink scrubbers. Easy and cheap! Check out my favorite household cleaners here.

3- Buy a vacuum with a HEPA filter

A HEPA filter is the best kind of filter you can buy for your vacuuming needs. Scientists recommend using a HEPA filter to suck up toxic chemicals found in our carpets and dust.

4- Take off your shoes when coming home

In addition to keeping gross germs off your floors, leave your shoes at the front door is a simple way to reduce the amount of heavy metals you track into your home.

5- Use plants to filter toxic chemicals

As it turns out various plants are known to be great at filtering toxic chemicals from our indoor air. Lori Alper, green lifestyle blogger at Groovy Green Livin wrote about the best plants for filtering indoor air (as recommended by the EPA). My home is full of snake plants, peace lilies and golden pathos. Don’t believe me? Believe NASA!

6- Avoid fragrance and scented candles

I love candles, but the majority of them contain harmful chemicals especially the ones with heavy fragrance. Skip the plug-ins, air fresheners and scented candles which have been found to contain: hormone-disrupting chemicals, allergens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and cancer causing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. If you want a safer option go for beeswax candles check out Big Dipper Wax Works. Find safer skin care products like the line provided by Beautycounter, which uses only cold pressed essential oils to fragrance select products.

7- Skip the fabric softener

Here’s an interesting study that found phthalates in ants (from the indoor air), which underscores the importance of cleaning up our homes. Fabric softener or scented laundry detergents may contain harmful chemicals or skin and respiratory allergens. Even if you’re not sensitive to the scented products, many people are and you’ll be doing your community and co-workers a favor!

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(Photo credit: Flickr CC- Maja Dumat)

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