How Healthy Is Your House? The Modern Home is No Haven, It’s a Host for Hundreds of Toxic Chemicals

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 50 percent of all our illnesses can be traced to indoor pollution, which is 10 times more toxic than its outdoor counterpart.

Believe it or not, the average home today contains more chemicals than were found in a typical chemistry lab at the turn of the century. Worse, only one out of five of the four million household chemicals created since 1915 have been tested on humans for their health effects.

Debra Lynn Dadd, author of the book Nontoxic and Natural and now a consultant who specializes in domestic detoxification, says that every room in the house is full of “products made from materials and substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and changes in genetic structure.” She warns that our exposure can “weaken the immune system and leave the body vulnerable to many kinds of diseases and infections.” In the laundry room, she says, there’s an average of six; in the kitchen, 30-plus.

Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, largely blames misleading household labels: “People are unaware of the hazards of household chemicals because products don’t contain enough information about their ingredients,” he says. “If a product isn’t intended specifically as a pesticide it doesn’t have to list pesticides as ingredients. Paint, for instance, has unlisted mildew- and fungi-killer pesticides. Deodorizers contain anti-microbial material.”

Pesticides are, of course, the second-largest cause of household poisonings, after cleaning products. Nine out of 10 households use them and 80 percent of our exposure occurs in the normally friendly environment of bed, bath and hearth. According to researchers Nina Anderson and Albert Benoist, “The only thing to do with a heavily fumigated house is move from it.”

The Lead Weight

Pesticides you have to purposely bring home. Lead is another story. This highly toxic heavy metal, which accumulates in the system, currently contaminates 20 percent of all U.S. households. Sources include water faucet and pipe soldering, paint (pre-1978), lead soldered cans, some pottery and ceramics, and lead-based crystal. Even without lead as a component, paint is still hazardous. According to a recent Johns Hopkins University study, the typical container of oil or latex-based paint contains over 300 toxic chemicals.

More chemicals can be found in our closets. Synthetic fabrics are often manufactured from and even coated with thermoplastic petrochemicals which are easily absorbed through the skin and continue to emit minute but toxic fumes. Another hidden chemical is naturally occuring radon, which affects one in 15 homes at elevated levels. Radon is cited by the National Institutes of Health as the second leading cause of cancer in the U.S.

Don’t Despair

So, what’s a concerned householder to do? Take a few low-tech steps backward, for starters. People who live in the most pristine low-tech environments are the world’s healthiest and longest-lived. While we can’t all live isolated lives, we can emulate some time-tested—and safe—practices. Delete any suspect cleaning products from the premises. Everything from flea powder to silver polish can be cloned from benign, even health-boosting ingredients on your kitchen shelf. Debra Lynn Dadd’s Nontoxic and Natural contains a wealth of formulas and recipes for making these products at home.

Increase ventilation in every room to reduce the risks from radon, pesticides, gas and second-hand smoke. Exposed asbestos should be sealed with duct tape and removed by a pro.

Scrape off peeling paint on walls, woodwork and outdoor surfaces that may contain toxic lead residue, and keep floors and sills damp-mopped to remove lead-bearing dust and dirt. Wash childrens’ hands frequently.

Do a lead detection test twice a year using an inexpensive lead stick and a home water test kit. If results are suspect, call the EPA for referral to a licensed inspector.

Look into natural nontoxic alternatives to pest control products like Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Call the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network at 1-800-858-PEST for more information.

Add a do-it-yourself radon test kit to your home arsenal and call the government’s radon hotline (1-800-SOS-RADON) for more information and free literature.

Finally, prevent mold and mildew-induced illnesses by cleaning air conditioner, humidifier and furnace vents yearly (avoiding commercial cleaners which may contain formaldehyde and pesticides) and install a mold-detection air cleaner unit.

Some of these measures may sound extreme or difficult, but living in the modern chemically-intensive age leaves us with few alternatives to protect our health.