14 Ways Toxins Are Sneaking into Your House
With all the green products, you'd think your home is mostly toxin-free. But some sneaky ingredients and contaminated products still pose a problem.
How clean is your house?
You may scrub, sweep, dust, and declutter, but toxins can still end up everywhere. They're in the air we breathe, the products we use to clean, and all types of essential household items. Even the most innocent-looking products can contain substances that harm health in insidious ways, from triggering respiratory illnesses to disrupting our hormones. Which ones are the biggest offenders? We asked the experts to weigh in.
Through your floorboards
"Radon (a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas found in soil and rocks) can seep through the cracks and minor gaps of the foundation of the home or a basement floor," says Emily Walsh, a home safety expert for mesothelioma.com. "Prolonged exposure can lead to lung cancer. Since it's a silent toxin, it's important to install a radon mitigation system if radium deposits are common in your area." Learn more about the dangers of radon here, plus how to remove it from your home.
With your new carpet
Putting new carpet down is a nice way to update your home, but the new floor covering can release gasses, warns Walsh. "The first 72 hours after installation can pose a major threat to your air quality," she explains. "Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within the fibers of the carpet are emitted into the home. These toxins include acetaldehyde, benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, and more. Signs of poisoning are symptoms of nausea, headaches, and possible irritation to your nose, throat, and eyes." Check out the most toxic spring cleaning products—and which ones you should buy instead.
Your dry cleaning
It feels good to put dry-cleaned clothing back in your closet, crisp and pressed for your next outing. But the process which made them look brand new could carry some trouble. "Perchloroethylene is a chemical used in dry cleaning," says Luz Claudio, PhD, professor of environmental medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. "Although it's not known how much of it may be released in the home when you bring dry-cleaned clothes in plastic bags, it may be best to open the bags and aerate them outdoors before bringing inside."
You may know that bleach and fragrant deep cleaners contain toxins, but there are plenty of other sources you miss simply because they're scent-free. "The flame-retardant chemicals sprayed on our mattresses and furniture have zero scent," says Dimmick, who is also the founder of the natural home cleaning line The Good Home Co. Flame retardants are used to slow the ignition process and prevent fires, so while their intention is good, their side effects are not. Your mattress is one of the things you should take outside right now.
Particularly during the winter months when the windows are closed, a mist of air freshener or the burning of a deliciously-scented candle can give a room a quick pick-me-up. Don't do it: "Many of the candles we use or the air fresheners are very harmful," says Christine Dimmick, author of Detox Your Home. "They leave VOCs in the air. We breathe them, and they can build up in the body, leading to problems like asthma."
In "natural," "clear," and "-free" products
Product names can imply their contents are safe or natural even when they're not. If you see a long list of ingredients, you're most likely getting exposed to a few chemicals you'd be better off avoiding. And remember that just because something is scent-free doesn't mean it's safe. "With laundry detergent, even the ones that are advertised as free and clear have so many ingredients," says Dimmick. Because no government agency regulates the wording on labels, manufacturers can slap on any claims they like, she says.
Polluted indoor air
"Indoor air can be up to several times more polluted than outdoor air," says Harris. She cites air fresheners, scented plug-ins, and candles as the biggest culprits, following by the release of gasses from cleaning products—even when they aren't in use. Harris recommends scenting your home by with essential oil diffusers or clean-burning candles with lead-free wicks.
"Research indicates that common household dust contains a lot of toxins," says Tonya Harris, founder of Slightly Greener. "Studies have found flame retardants, endocrine disruptors (toxins that interfere with our body's hormones), and lead in common household dust." What can you do to combat it? Harris suggests buying safer cleaning products to cut down on the toxic load in your home, and then vacuum frequently with a HEPA filter-equipped machine.
Sometimes a toxic ingredient may not appear on a product label, but it can still contaminate what's inside, says Harris. One example is of formaldehyde releasers, and they turn up in nail polish, shampoo, shaving cream, and even baby wash. Harris explains how they work: "These are chemicals that decompose slowly over time to produce and release formaldehyde (a known cancer-causer), which acts as a preservative for personal care products and cosmetics. So, although formaldehyde itself hasn't been added to the product and doesn't need to be listed on the label, you still risk exposure to it."
As part of "safe" ingredients
Aside from formaldehyde, another baddie Harris refers to as a "sneaky toxin" is dioxane. This is also found in many personal care products, even toothpaste. You have to know its aliases to keep it out of your home: One is polyethylene glycol, says Harris. "Look for PEG ingredients on the label, polyoxyethylene, and ingredients that end in -eth such as oleth, laureth, myreth, etc." You can also check the EWG's lists of safe cosmetics and cleaning products. According to the EPA, dioxane is "probably a human carcinogen," linked to liver, kidney, and respiratory toxicity.
On your shoes
There's nothing better than taking shoes off of your aching feet at the end of a long day (particularly if you've been in heels). Consider leaving them by the front door because they track in a lot of crud. "The transfer of bacteria from your shoe to the floor is between 90 to 99 percent," says Caleb Backe, a certified Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. "When you wear shoes indoors, your shoes spread all their accumulation of bacteria around your house, and they carry a startling amount of dirt, toxins, and bacteria."
In your walls
On home renovation shows, inspectors are always finding mold in the walls. There's a reason—mold growth is more common than you realize, and it can wreak serious havoc on your health. "Mold spores can trigger allergies and even autoimmune diseases," says Backe. "Mold grows in moist environments, especially large areas like damp basements." Watch for these spring cleaning mistakes that could be making you sick.
From your water tap
A recent Harvard University study found unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in the drinking water of a whopping 33 states in the United States—more than six million people are exposed. The study turned up substances such as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl (PFASs), which have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol, hormone disruption, and even obesity. The authors of the study suggested a need more for monitoring of the contaminants, however, little has been done to take the necessary corrective measures.
Through your air conditioner
The very thing that keeps us cool (and often sane) during the warmer months can contribute to poor air quality in the home. "More often than not air conditioners are just cooling down and recirculating old contaminated air," says Samantha Morrison, a Health and Wellness expert for Glacier Wellness. As a result, there is a good chance that you can be breathing in a whole barrage of contaminants, pollutants, and toxins unless the machine is properly designed, maintained and functioning. Consider an appliance like the new Dyson Pure Hot+Cool, a purifying fan and heater uniquely engineered for year-round, whole room purification.
What you can do
Considering so many household toxins are indiscernible, how can you really know what contaminants are in your home? There are some innovative products on the market to aid in detection, like Airthings Wave Plus, a battery-operated smart indoor air quality monitor with radon detection: It also has sensors for temperature, air pressure, humidity, TVOCs, and CO2. Bluetooth-enabled, it comes with an app that can alert users when air quality reaches dangerous levels.
Read labels and look for personal care products that are paraben- and phthalate-free. And remember, less is more in terms of the ingredients found in your household cleaners. Research plant-based products that will leave your home sparkling without contaminating the air.