4.23.2010

how to limit your exposure to toxins

Happy day after Earth Day! I'm going to pretend to do my little part by talking about something that's really important to me. Recently, NBC News did a great piece on hormone disruptors and toxins found in everyday products. It reminded me of why I started to live "greener" in the first place.

Some people say exposure to low levels of these toxins are safe, but we are exposed to "low levels" daily, and they are present in almost everything we use. From makeup to shampoo and soap, to food packaging and plastic toys and furniture, toxins are everywhere. When I began reading about toxins shortly after River was born, it was disheartening and overwhelming. I learned that not only is what I put in my body important, but that what we put on our bodies and touch and breathe on a daily basis matters and greatly effects our health and the health of our growing, developing children. I learned that because of these toxins:

Indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air.
The amount of formaldehyde in products often exceed what is considered "safe."
90% of Americans have hormone disrupters in their bodies.
Over 200 different foreign chemicals are found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. 

Common sense tells a few things: everything is a chemical. That's not the problem. What is a problem is foreign chemicals that aren't supposed to be in our bodies in the first place building up and ultimately causing health issues. Take aluminum for example. It's naturally present in our soil and therefore, our food, and we use it in every day life. While our bodies are designed to pass aluminum with little absorption, the problem lies in the fact that it can build up and mimic lead exposure. This is just one example of how overexposure to a certain chemical can affect our health. It's impossible to avoid chemicals, but there are more ways to limit your exposure to toxins than just eating clean food.

Use cloth or biodegradable, unbleached diapers.
In this case, cloth diapers are a heck of a lot cheaper (not to mention really adorable). All plastic is highly processed and contains harmful chemicals that seep into our bodies. If this wasn't true, there would not be traces of BPA in our blood. Whenever I shop, I try to avoid plastic and remember that it is not biodegradable and will take hundreds of years to break down, and can be so deadly to animals who think pieces of plastic look like food -- using paper and glass is not only healthier for us, but for our precious planet and its other inhabitants.

Avoid soaps, lotions, shampoos with parabens.
Or go all the way and buy only natural or organic personal care products. Start small and take baby steps: parabens are a place to start. A good rule of thumb when buying food can be applicable when buying personal care products as well: if it has more than 5, 6 ingredients, don't use it. You can go to the Cosmetic Database to see if your cosmetics and personal care items are considered safe!

Find a great, honest, organic make up company.
But be careful about labels that say "organic" or "natural." There are currently no regulations for what cosmetic companies can put on their label. You'll often find certain products marketed as having "organic such and such," only to see on the ingredients list that it is one of the last ingredients listed, and is surrounded by carcinogenic ingredients like parfum and parabens. You can find safe cosmetics by using the Cosmetic Database. I use Everyday Minerals and could talk all day about how much I love them! They are truly organic, vegan products, and each product only has about three to five ingredients. The best part -- they work, and they are affordable. (And they are local to Austinites!)

Buy used furniture.
The chemicals in furniture can sometimes take years to outgas. Even "real hard wood" furniture isn't always 100% hard wood. A few years ago, we purchased a new coffee table from Ikea, and that thing stunk up our living room for months! Ah, the smell of fresh formaldehyde... which is another chemical found in nature, but harmful at the levels to which we are exposed. You can avoid this by buying used furniture. Beautiful things for great prices are to be found on Craigslist or at your local thrift shop for cheap. I rarely find exactly what I'm looking for right away, but there is thrill in the hunt! After a few trips, I leave happy. (However, be careful about buying really old furniture made before the mid-70s, which could contain lead-based paint.)

Fill your home with plants!
Certain plants help clean the air of pollutants and keep the air inside your home pure. Right after we purchased the coffee table, I bought some plants because I was sure I was killing my child, or at the least, ruining his neurological system. My favorite purifying houseplant is the Hawaiian umbrella tree (or dwarf schefflera). They don't need a lot of light and are very hardy, they grow thick and can be easily transplanted by snipping off a branch and sticking it in a pot of soil, and are found everywhere I have looked -- possibly even your local grocery store. Neither of my thumbs are green and I helped those babies grow for almost two years, until they found new homes when we moved! We started off with one and ended up with three. Check out BHG's lengthy list for the names of other easy houseplants.

Make your own cleaners & detergents.
I started becoming aware of the effect the cleaner and detergent aisle in grocery stores had on me when I was pregnant with River. During pregnancy, I was hyper-aware of fake scents and strong chemicals. The cleaning aisles burned my eyes and my nose, and made me nauseous. I was so sensitive to the ingredients that I couldn't stand artificial scents, and could tell immediately when something was made from Bath & Body Works or Febreze. When I read that these symptoms (water eyes, coughing, scratchy throat, trouble breathing) were your body's natural signals to tell you, "This isn't right! Get away, fast!" it made complete sense, and I took steps toward making my own cleaning products.

This is something that is totally doable by anyone. It isn't difficult at all and will actually save you money! Homemade cleaning products are cheaper than conventional cleaners and definitely cheaper than natural, store-bought cleaners. And don't fall for cleaners that are "plant derived" unless you know what those ingredients are. (Technically, you could say some plastics are "plant derived" because they come from corn.) Green Up Your Clean-Up is an easy-to-read book with tons of ideas for cleaning your home naturally.

Thought I've switched over to using natural cleaners 95% of the time, I am still a firm believer that there is a place for chlorine bleach. It is the only thing that will kill very nasty bugs like rotovirus or bacteria that could kill small children, like e. coli and salmonella.

Avoid antibacterial soaps. 
Antibacterial soap is something I try to always avoid! First of all, not all bacteria is bad. Good bacteria can help fight disease, while other bacteria helps boost our immune system. And as with all bacteria-killing agents, there is the risk that it will leave the more resistant bacteria, which ends up creating even stronger strains of the bacteria over time. Anti-bacteria soap can't kill MRSA, which is the one bacteria you absolutely want to avoid. Resist the urge to kill bacteria. Don't make the bad stuff stronger! Lastly, the ingredient in many antibacterial soaps is triclosan, which is actually a dangerous pesticide that is a toxic, carcinogenic hormone disruptor.

Choose safe plastics, or don't use plastic at all if you can help it.
Some plastics, like PVC (vinyl) and BPA are highly toxic, and these toxins leach out into the air or into food at high heat. Most plastic contains a number at the bottom; these tell what type of plastic the item is made out of. I made it a point to memorize the safe numbers & hazardous numbers! If we can, we avoid plastic, mainly because it has a pretty big hand in destroying our planet. Using glass food storage, reusable grocery & produce bags is the way to go.

Buy second-hand.
I already mentioned that off-gasing happens when you buy new furniture, but I try to limit my consumerism by purchasing used when I can. It is kinder to the planet and to my wallet!

When in doubt, don't use it.
I'm a pretty low-maintenance mama, which makes it easier for me to avoid items that contain toxins. We don't use stuff like dryer sheets, teeth whitening strips, chemical cleaners, air fresheners, hair spray, bug spray etc. But in order to avoid toxins, you have to get into the mind frame that everything is going to contain chemicals, and by simply choosing not to use it, or to use a natural alternative, you are limiting your exposure to these toxins.

Other changes we made that may not be realistic to everyone is using fluoride-free toothpaste and getting rid of our microwave. The microwave thing happened when I was feeling really gung ho about living a greener lifestyle, but I'm glad I did and I don't regret it at all! Mostly it just took up counter space and used energy.

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