By Dr. Mercola
More than 80,000 man-made chemicals are put into American household products, food, and food packaging each year, a majority of which are not tested for safety beforehand.
The typical American home contains an average of 3 to 10 gallons of toxic materials in the form of household cleaning products alone.1
In Europe, more than 1,300 chemicals are banned from use in lotions, soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics, and other personal care products. In the U.S., a mere 11 have been banned.2
Add to this toxic flame retardants, found in countless items from furniture to baby products and electronics, and it's easy to see why some experts warn that many are likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals.
Many of these chemicals end up in household dust, and young children in particular may ingest about 50 milligrams of household dust a day, making house dust an important source of toxic exposure3 that can play a role in the development of both obesity4 and other serious health problems.
Toxic Exposure Has Gone 'Too Far,' Experts Warn
When asked whether we need to reduce the use of chemicals in our homes, Professor Stephen Holgate, an asthma expert at the University of Southampton and lead author of a new indoor air report5 by The Royal College of Physicians replied:6
"Yes, we should. It has gone too far. There are 15,000 chemicals circulating in an average human. Many are in tiny quantities, but we need to find out more about how these mixtures interact when they get inside the human body — especially the fetus, which is very sensitive."
While it's virtually impossible to avoid toxic chemicals entirely, you can significantly reduce your exposure by being vigilant about what you bring into your home and use on a daily basis. More often than not, there are safe, effective, and less expensive alternatives to the toxic products you use.
In this article, I'll review seven areas of concern in the average home, where toxic chemicals or other hazards may be adversely impacting your health — including your weight.7
1. Processed Foods
Besides being loaded with empty calories courtesy of their high sugar content, processed foods are also a primary source of synthetic food additives, preservatives, colors, and flavor enhancers; many of which have never been properly tested for long-term safety.
Moreover, a recent assessment8 done by the Danish National Food Institute warns that even small amounts of chemicals can amplify each other's adverse effects when combined, yet whatever risk assessment is done on these chemicals is typically done on individual chemicals in isolation.
Most notably, the researchers found that even non-carcinogenic chemicals may act synergistically and cause cancer when combined!
This is a significant concern, considering the fact that more than 10,000 additives are allowed in food and food packaging. The latter often contain bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and phthalates, for example, which can migrate into your food.
Propyl paraben, used as a food preservative, is just one in a long list of hazardous food additives permitted in the U.S. It's an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in about 50 brand name foods, including tortillas, muffins, cakes, and food dyes.9
Meanwhile, the European Union removed propyl paraben from its list of safe food additives in 2006 due to its potential health hazards, which includes estrogenic activity (making it relevant when it comes to estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer).
It's also been shown to impair fertility in women, and reduce sperm counts and testosterone levels in men.10 The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has launched a social media campaign and petition aimed at getting the chemical out of the US food supply.
To avoid these kinds of chemicals, ditch processed and pre-packaged foods — including baked goods, condiments, and sweetened beverages — and eat REAL food, ideally organic and locally grown, to maximize freshness and avoid harmful pesticides as well.
2. Indoor Air Pollutants
According to the EPA, indoor air contains 2 to 5 times more contaminants than outdoor air, and on occasion, as much as 100 times more. The list of indoor air pollutants is long.11 A shocking 2009 study12 identified a whopping 586 chemicals in the air of 52 ordinary homes near the Arizona-Mexico border.
This included the pesticides diazinon, chlorpyrifos and DDT; high levels of phthalates; and 120 chemicals they couldn't even identify.
Just about anything in your home can contribute to poor air quality, including chemicals in paints, flooring, and furnishings, as well as household cleaning products and air fresheners.
As a general rule, if a product is scented, it carries a health risk (unless the scent comes from a pure essential oil). According to the Royal College of Physicians air quality report,13 airing out your home for at least a few minutes every day can go a long way toward improving air quality.
One caveat would be if you live in an area of high pollution, such as next to a main road. In those cases, you may need to consider using an air purifier inside your home. Houseplants are also beneficial. The spider plant, for example, has been shown to reduce levels of formaldehyde in the air.14
NASA tests have shown that houseplants can remove up to 87 percent of air toxins in 24 hours. They recommend using 15 to 18 "good-sized" houseplants in 6- to 8-inch diameter containers for an 1,800 square-foot house.
Non-Toxic DIY Cleaning Recipes
While the sources of indoor air pollution are numerous, household cleaning products rank high on that list, including laundry detergents and dryer sheets, which can release as many as 600 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). You're also likely to absorb toxins from these products via your skin during the act of cleaning, not to mention the fumes you inhale in the process.
While there are safer products on the market, including my Greener Cleaner Laundry Pouches, it's easy to be tricked, as many chemicals are not required to be listed on the label. Fortunately, it's both easy and inexpensive to make your own cleaning solutions.
Greatist.com has a list of recipes15 that is well worth printing out or bookmarking for future reference, as it covers virtually every cleaning situation you can think of. Here are a few of my favorite tips from that list. For the rest, please refer to the original article.
Bathroom: Deodorizing toilet scrub: Pour ½ cup of baking soda and about 10 drops of tea tree essential oil into the toilet bowl, followed by ¼ cup of vinegar. Scrub with toilet brush.
Kitchen: All-purpose countertop cleaner: Mix equal parts vinegar and water. Spray on and wipe off.
Laundry: Homemade laundry detergent: My Healthy Green Family16 offers a borax-free laundry detergent recipe using just five non-toxic ingredients: glycerine soap, washing soda, baking soda, citric acid, and coarse salt.
Multi-purpose: Non-toxic tile floor cleaner: For tile floors, mix one part white vinegar with two parts warm water in a bucket.
Scrub as usual, using either a mop or rag. No need to rinse.
Beware that vinegar is not recommended for either varnished wood or other wood flooring.
Bathroom: Tub and shower scrub: Combat mildew by spraying straight white vinegar onto the area.
Let sit for 30 minutes. Scrub with sponge if needed, and rinse with warm water.
For more heavy-duty grime, mix baking soda with a small amount of liquid castile soap. Scrub and rinse.
Soap scum can also be cleaned using a small dollop of coconut oil on a damp cloth.
Spray the area with white vinegar and wipe dry with a lint-free cloth.
Kitchen: Cutting board sanitizer (wood or plastic): Cut a fresh lemon in half and rub it across the surface in question.
Let the juice sit for 10 minutes, then rinse.
You can also use coconut oil to clean, sanitize, and condition your wooden cutting board.
Use whenever the wood starts to look dry.
Laundry: Homemade fabric softener: Add 20 to 30 drops of essential oil to a one-gallon jug of white vinegar.
Add 1/3 cup to each load of laundry. (Shake before use.)
Multi-purpose: All-purpose mirror and window cleaner: Mix one part white vinegar with four parts water.
Add lemon juice for a citrusy smell. Lemon juice will also provide extra grease-cutting power.
Spray onto the mirror or window, and scrub off with sponge or rag.
Bathroom: Antibacterial disinfectant: Bathrooms are breeding grounds for germs of all kinds, but antibacterial products such as those containing triclosan can do more harm than good.
For a homemade antibacterial solution, mix 2 cups of water with 3 tablespoons of castile soap and 20 to 30 drops of tea tree oil.
Spray onto the surface (such as toilet seat and sink), then wipe off.
Kitchen: Homemade dishwasher detergent: Mix equal parts of liquid castile soap and water. You can add lemon if you like.
Use about 2 teaspoons of lemon juice to mixture of 1 cup water and 1 cup soap. Store in a glass jar.
Pour the mixture into the detergent compartment in your dishwasher, and add plain white vinegar to the rinse compartment.
Laundry: Non-toxic fabric freshener/dryer sheets: Stuff a sachet bag with dried herbs of your choice and use in lieu of commercial fabric fresheners sheets.
Another option is to dab a few drops of essential oil on a lint-free rag.
Both are, of course, reusable.
Simply add new herbs, or a few more drops of essential oil when you feel it's losing its scent.
Multi-purpose: Conditioning furniture polish: Combine ¼ cup vinegar with ¾ cup olive oil.
Distribute onto the furniture using a soft, lint-free cloth, and wipe off.
For wood furniture, mix ¼ cup lemon juice with ½ cup olive oil, then follow the same procedure as above.
Alternatively, you can just use straight coconut oil in the same manner.
In all situations, test your mixture on a small area first.
3. Flame Retardants
Couch cushions, carpeting, mattresses, children's items and electronics are common sources of toxic flame retardant chemicals, many of which have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays,18 reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions,19 and cancer.
There's also research to suggest pets are adversely impacted. For example, hyperthyroidism in cats has been linked to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) exposure.22 These chemicals are also poisoning both pets and wildlife, according to recent tests.
The most comprehensive recommendation is to opt for organic or "green" alternatives no matter what product is under consideration — be it a piece of furniture, clothing, kids toys, cleaning product, or personal care item. This is by far the easiest route, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations, such as fire safety regulations.
Your mattress and bedding, for example, may be soaked in toxic flame retardants, but you will not find the chemicals listed on any of the labels. Wool and silk are two excellent alternatives, as they're both naturally flame retardant. If you have trouble finding them locally, I have wool and silk comforters, pillows, mattresses, and mattress pads available in my online store.
4. Personal Care Products
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The average American woman uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing an average of 168 different chemicals. Items such as tampons, pads, and liners are also chockfull of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, chlorine disinfection byproducts, plus genetically engineered cotton and pesticides. Men, who tend to use fewer products, are still exposed to about 85 chemicals from their daily regimen.
"Some creams, shampoos, after-shaves and toothpastes made by groups such as L'Oreal and Procter & Gamble, may contain potentially harmful substances ... French consumer protection group UFC-Que Choisir ... published a list of 185 products it said contained substances that were legal, but could cause allergies, irritations or endocrinal disorders ...
The study pointed, for example, to eight brands of baby wipes including L'Oreal's Bebe Cadum and Mixa, Beiersdorf's Nivea and Procter & Gamble's (P&G) Pampers that contain phenoxyethanol, which it said could be toxic for the blood and liver."
To avoid potentially toxic ingredients, look for products bearing the USDA 100 percent Organic seal, and be sure to read the list of ingredients. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database24 can help you find personal care products that are free of questionable chemicals.
I've also created a personal line of skin care products with well-recognizable ingredients, such as organic coconut oil, orange oil, or rosemary extract, as well as a line of feminine hygiene products using 100 percent organic cotton.
Coconut Oil Can Replace a Slew of Personal Care Products
When it comes to personal care products, your safest, not to mention least expensive, bet is to simplify your beauty routine and make your own products using wholesome all-natural ingredients. For example, plain organic coconut oil can replace a long list of costly and potentially toxic products, including the following.25,26 If you want something scented, simply add a drop or two of your favorite high-quality essential oil.
Hair treatments: Coconut oil is well known for its hair benefits.27 Most women seem to prefer using it as a pre-shampoo conditioner. Simply massage the coconut oil onto dry hair and leave on for about an hour or longer. You could even leave it on overnight. Just wear a shower cap or use a towel to protect your pillow. Then, wash and style as usual.
Makeup remover: Swipe on with a moist cotton ball. Wipe off with clean cotton ball or wet washcloth.
Facial cleanser: Massage a dollop of coconut oil onto face and neck. Wash off with wet washcloth and pat dry.
Body scrub: Mix equal parts coconut oil with organic cane sugar in a glass jar. Use the scrub on dry skin prior to your shower or bath.
Facial scrub: Instead of sugar, mix coconut oil with baking soda, or oatmeal with a dash of cinnamon, for a gentle facial scrub.
Shaving lotion: Apply a thin layer of coconut oil on area to be shaved, and shave as usual. The lauric acid in the coconut oil will also serve as an antiseptic for cuts that result from shaving.
Face and body moisturizer: You can use it either by itself, or add your favorite essential oil. (Make sure you're using a high-quality essential oil that is safe for topical application.) The featured article28 also suggests whipping the coconut oil with an electric mixer to produce a fluffy moisturizer that stays soft and spreadable even in cooler temperatures.
Eye cream: Apply a thin layer of coconut oil around your eyes to soften wrinkles and counteract thinning, sagging skin.
Cuticle cream: Simply rub a small amount of coconut oil around your cuticles to soften dry areas.
Deodorant: Applying a small amount of coconut oil directly onto your armpits can help keep odors at bay, courtesy of the oil's antibacterial properties. If you prefer, you can add a small amount of baking soda, or make a homemade deodorant using coconut oil, baking soda and arrow root powder. For directions, see the second video above. DeliciousObsessions.com also lists additional deodorant recipes using coconut oil as the base.29
Bath soak: Adding coconut oil to your bath can help moisturize dry itchy skin. (Make sure to scrub your tub afterward to prevent slipping!). Make sure the water is warmer than 76 degrees Fahrenheit though; otherwise the oil will turn to a solid.
Soap: Coconut oil is one of the base ingredients in many homemade soap recipes, such as this one by NourishingJoy.com.30
Lip balm: You can either apply a small amount of coconut oil, as is, or make your own lip balm using coconut oil as one of the base ingredients. You can find all sorts of recipes online, but here's one by The Liberated Kitchen.31
Toothpaste: Mixed with baking soda, coconut oil can replace your regular toothpaste. The baking soda will gently cleanse while the coconut oil's antibacterial action may help keep harmful bacteria in check. For recipes using essential oils to spruce up your toothpaste, see DeliciousObsessions.com.32
Insect repellent: Mixing coconut oil with high-quality essential oils may help keep biting insects at bay when applied to exposed skin. Effective choices include: peppermint, lemon balm, rosemary, tea tree oil, neem, citronella (Java Citronella), geraniol, catnip oil (according to one study,33 catnip oil is 10 times more effective than DEET), and/or clear vanilla extract
5. Inappropriate Lighting Conditions
Besides chemical exposures, your home and living conditions can also make or break your health in other ways. For example, to optimize sleep, you'll want to optimize lighting conditions so that you get plenty of natural sunlight during the day and minimal artificial lighting at night.
Many allow too much light in their bedroom at night, which can make sleep more elusive, as light exposure prevents the release of melatonin — a hormone that helps regulate your waking and sleeping cycles. And once your sleep cycle is disrupted, most other health problems tend to be aggravated. As reported by Time Magazine:34
"According to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, research participants who slept in the darkest rooms were 21 percent less likely to be obese than those sleeping in the lightest rooms. That connection is tied to the main sleep hormone ... melatonin.
Too little melatonin means that we don't properly get into sleep mode, which you can also think of as slimming mode. Lose the night light and look into getting some blackout curtains for a darkness-induced boost to your weight loss goals."
Poor sleep is also associated with overeating, due to the effect it has on the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, and the situation can be further aggravated by lack of bright light exposure first thing in the morning. Research35 shows that dim lighting in the early morning following a night of sleep deprivation results in reduced leptin levels and increased ghrelin. Those who got blue light exposure after a night of poor sleep had higher leptin levels.
So once you get up, be sure to open the blinds and greet the morning sun. If it's still dark outside, such as in wintertime, use full spectrum light bulbs. Other research shows that spending at least 30 to 60 minutes in bright natural sunlight around noon will help "anchor" your circadian rhythm, thereby making it easier to fall asleep at night.
Once the sun sets, avoid bright artificial lighting and blue light-emitting items like TV's, cell phones, computers and tablets, all of which inhibit melatonin production and impede sleep. As noted by Time Magazine:
"A study in the Pediatric Obesity journal found that kids who bask in the nighttime glow of a TV or computer tend to have poorer lifestyle habits and are less likely to get enough rest. Researchers found that students with access to one electronic device were 1.47 times as likely to be overweight as kids with no devices in the bedroom. That increased to 2.57 times for kids with three devices — so leave your iPad in the living room."
6. Inappropriate Temperature
Many also keep their homes too warm at night, especially their bedrooms. Time Magazine cites a study in the journal Diabetes, which "suggests that simply blasting the air conditioner or turning down the heat in winter may help us attack belly fat while we sleep." This has to do with your so-called brown fat, which helps keep your body warm by burning stored fat. Brown fat also plays a role in regulating blood sugar.
According to the article:
"Participants spent a few weeks sleeping in bedrooms with varying temperatures: A neutral 75 degrees, a cool 66 degrees, and a balmy 81 degrees. After four weeks of sleeping at 66 degrees, the subjects had almost doubled their volumes of brown fat. (And yes, that means they were able to lose belly fat.)"
Moreover, keeping the temperature in your bedroom below 70 degrees Fahrenheit will help optimize your sleep. Research shows the optimal temperature for sleep is actually as low as 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will interfere with your sleep.36
7. Excessive EMF Exposure
Lasts but not least on my list of domestic factors that can aid or hamper your healthy lifestyle efforts is exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) and dirty electricity. Your body is a complex communication device where cells, tissues, and organs "talk" to each other to perform basic functions. At each of these levels, the communication includes finely tuned bio-electrical transmitters and receivers, which are tuned like tuning into a radio station.
What happens when you expose a radio antenna to a significant amount of external noise? You get static from the noise — and that is what is happening to your body in today's "electrosmog" environment. It's not only cell phones that pose a problem; all form of dirty electricity has the potential to harm human health.
In his book, "Dirty Electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization," epidemiologist Dr. Sam Milham points out that the major diseases plaguing modern man — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. — may be triggered by dirty electricity.37
EMF can also disrupt sleep, and if you do nothing else, I urge you to at least empty your bedroom of any and all electronic devices, especially cell phones and portable phone bases. Keep only battery-driven devices like alarm clocks by your bed. For more guidelines on how to reduce your EMF exposure at home, please see my previous article, "EMF Controversy Exposed."
As you can see, there are many easily overlooked health hazards in your home, and addressing the most common ones, reviewed in this article, can help "sanitize" your home from a wide variety of health harming influences — from toxic chemicals in food and various household items, to the influences of light, temperature and electromagnetic emissions that can undermine all other efforts to improve your health.