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5 ways to refresh your home safely

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If you’re planning on refreshing your home in the new year, whether that means a new lick of paint or a top-to-bottom deep clean, it’s important to consider the many toxic chemicals you may be exposed to in the process. Here are five ways to refresh your space while reducing your risks.

Choose VOC-free paints

If you’re planning on getting your home decorated or doing some DIY, go for nontoxic paint, varnishes, fillers and other products with the lowest VOC levels you can find. VOCs—volatile organic compounds—are chemicals that readily release vapors at room temperature. They’re a major contributor to indoor air pollution and have been linked to a range of short- and long-term health effects, from headaches, dizziness and memory problems1 to asthma, eczema and poor sperm quality.2 Several VOCs, such as benzene and formaldehyde, are recognized carcinogens, and others are suspected carcinogens.3

The good news is that a number of companies now offer paints and other decorating products that are free or virtually free of VOCs as well as other toxic chemicals like phthalates and heavy metals. 

In the US, try Bioshield (www.bioshieldpaint.com), Ecos Paints (www.ecospaints.net) and EarthSafe Finishes (www.earthsafefinishes.com). Lakeland Paints (www.lakelandpaints.co.uk) and Earthborn (www.earthbornpaints.co.uk) are good options in the UK. For nontoxic, solvent-free paint strippers, coating removers and heavy-duty cleaners check out international brand Eco Solutions (www.ecosolutions.co.uk), known as MAX Strip in the US (www.maxstrip.com).

Look out for lead

Another word of caution if you’re decorating your home or upcycling vintage furniture: watch out for lead. This highly toxic heavy metal could be hiding in old paintwork and varnish. Before sanding suspect surfaces, get a lead testing kit, such as those offered by 3M and Abotex. If lead is present, here are some tips for dealing with it safely:

  • If paintwork is in good condition, you can simply seal it in with an overcoating of modern, lead-free paint. 
  • If paintwork or varnish is in bad condition and needs to be removed, make sure you don’t use methods that create dust or fumes, such as dry sanding or a heat gun. Try a solvent-free water-based paint stripper instead, such as Eco Solutions Home Strip
    (www.ecosolutions.co.uk), known as MAX Strip Paint & Varnish Stripper in the US (www.maxstrip.com). Or call in an experienced professional. 
  • Always wear protective clothes, gloves and a face mask (suitable for lead particles), and remember to dispose of the removed paint or varnish in a sealed container and vacuum and clean the area thoroughly afterward.  

Ditch the plastic

Storage jars and containers are a great way to get organized in the kitchen, but choose glass or stainless steel rather than plastic to store food and drinks. Harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates can leach from plastic containers into the substance inside, and ultimately end up in your body, where they may have hormone-disrupting effects.4

Also consider organic cotton produce bags to store fruit and vegetables (try Vejibags, available from www.vejibag.com in the US and www.biggreensmile.com in the UK), and unbleached paper as an alternative to plastic wrap and sandwich bags (If You Care has a great range, widely available in health food stores and online). And if you buy food or drinks in plastic packaging, transfer them to a plastic-free container when you get home.

Clean without the mean

A thorough clean is a great way to refresh your home for the new year, but go for natural, nontoxic cleaning products rather than conventional ones, which are usually chock-full of harmful chemicals. 

One study found that 10 to 20 years of cleaning at home or for work is as bad for the lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for the same amount of time.5 Exposure to cleaning products has also been linked to asthma, heart problems, breast cancer and more.6

Safer, natural cleaning products are now available from companies with strict ingredient policies. Try Attitude, ECOS, Miessence, Bio D and Tincture, or check out E-cloth for a range of microfiber cleaning cloths designed to be used with just water (all available online or from health food stores). Alternatively, you can make your own solutions using ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and essential oils.

Go for natural home furnishings  

New furniture, rugs, bedding, throws, curtains and cushions can transform your home, and there are always great bargains to be had in the January sales. But try to choose natural materials free of chemical treatments whenever possible. Fabrics with added flame-retardants, stain-proofing, moth-proofing and anything labeled “permanent press” or “wrinkle-resistant” will inevitably bring a long list of potentially harmful chemicals into your home. 

In fact, consumer product chemicals such as phthalates, phenols, flame retardants and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) have been widely detected in the general population and are associated with an array of health effects such as reproductive and hormonal toxicity.7

Check with companies directly to see if they add any chemical treatments to

their products, but some good fabric options to look out for include untreated wool, which is naturally fire-resistant—choose organic wool if possible to avoid pesticides—and organic cotton and hemp. Jute, sisal, seagrass and coir work well for rugs, while wool, kapok, millet and buckwheat are great natural fillings for cushions and pillows. 

Some brands to check out include Woolroom (www.thewoolroom.com) for naturally fire-resistant wool mattresses, bedding, cushions, blankets and throws; EcoSofa (www.ecosofa.co.uk) or The Futon Shop (www.thefutonshop.com) for natural fiber-filled sofas with no added chemical treatments; DMI (www.dmifloors.com) or Alternative Flooring (www.alternativeflooring.com) for natural fiber rugs and carpets; and Tekla (www.teklafabrics.com) or Bedfolk (www.bedfolk.com) for bedding certified by Oeko-Tex to be free of harmful chemicals.

Forgo artificial fragrances

You may think filling your home with fragrance in the form of candles and air fresheners is a sure-fire way to freshen up your space. But what you’re actually doing, if you use the standard synthetic products, is polluting your indoor air with harmful chemicals. 

Air fresheners, for example, may contain benzene (a carcinogen and possible reproductive toxin), toluene (a skin irritant and liver/kidney toxin), terpenes (irritants and sensitizers) and phthalates (known hormone disruptors), and regular use of these products has been linked to earaches, diarrhea and vomiting in infants, as well as headaches and depression in their mothers.8

Instead, eliminate odors at the source if you can, rather than masking bad smells with chemicals, and keep your home well ventilated. Houseplants like peace lilies, English ivy and spider plants are another good option for natural odor control, or try a bowl of white vinegar on your windowsill. You could also invest in an air purifier, which can help remove household odors as well as dust, pollen, pet dander and VOCs. 

If you do want to use home fragrance products, go for natural, nontoxic ones made with pure essential oils from brands like AromaWorks (www.aroma-works.com) and Neom (www.neomorganics.com).

And don’t forget that fragrances can be lurking in all sorts of household products, from cleaning and laundry products to cosmetics and toiletries. Again, choose natural options (www.lovelula.com, www.naturisimo.com, www.biggreensmile.com, www.vitacost.com and www.thrivemarket.com are good places to look) or go for fragrance-free alternatives. 

 
 

1 

US Environmental Protection Agency, “Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality.” epa.gov

2 

Eur Respir Rev, 2015; 24(135): 92–101; J Allergy Clin Immunol, 2014; 134: 993–9; discussion 1000; Occup Environ Med, 2008; 65: 708–14

3 

Environ Res, 2007; 105: 414–29

4 

Environ Sci Technol, 2021; 55: 11814–23; Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2013; 11: 507–26; Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2009; 364(1526): 2097–113

5 

Am J Respir Crit Care Med, 2018; 197: 1157–63

6 

Am J Respir Crit Care Med, 2007; 176: 735–41; Environ Health Perspect, 2012; 120: 958–64; Environ Health, 2010; 9: 40

7

J Epidemiol Community Health, 2017; 71: 937–40

8

Arch Environ Health, 2003; 58: 633–41

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