Dangerous chemicals are all around us—even in everyday items that we think of as safe. Some of the most common dangers—and what to do…
- Wrinkle-free fabrics. Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are added to fabrics for durability, stain resistance and wrinkle resistance. Clothing labeled "no iron," "permanent press" and "wrinkle-free" often contain PFCs. PFCs are extremely long-lasting in the body because they cannot be broken down and eliminated. They accumulate in the body's cells and have been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity, as well as cancers of the liver and bladder.
The chemicals in clothing may be absorbed through the skin or inhaled when they outgas from the fabrics. Numerous cycles through the washer may release some, but not all, of the PFC coating from the fabrics.
In addition, synthetic fibers, including polyester and nylon, may contain substances such as polyvinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and phthalates, a group of chemicals that disrupts hormones.
What to use instead: Clothes made from 100% natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, wool and cashmere and that are not labeled "wrinkle-free," "stain resistant," "static resistant," etc.
- Dry cleaning. A chemical cleaning solution, usually perchloroethylene (perc), is used to saturate clothing and remove dirt and stains. Unfortunately, plenty of the solution remains in clothing fibers after the cleaning is done.
Exposure to perc has been linked to kidney and liver damage. It causes cancer in laboratory animals. Even short-term exposure can result in dizziness, headaches and a rapid heart rate. One study that looked at air samples found elevated levels of perc for up to 48 hours after dry-cleaned fabrics were brought into the home.
California and other states have mandated that dry cleaners stop using perc by the year 2023. In the meantime, you can..
- Air it out. Remove the plastic from dry-cleaned fabrics and hang them outdoors or in a garage or other well-ventilated area for one to two days. If they still have a chemical smell, air them out for another day or two.
- Use a barrier layer. Wear a T-shirt or tank top underneath a jacket or other clothing that has been dry-cleaned.
- Find a "green" dry cleaner. Look for one that uses liquid carbon dioxide. To find a green cleaner, go to www.greencleanerscouncil.com.
- Mattresses. Most innerspring and foam mattresses are made with polyurethane, a product so flammable that it is known as "solid gasoline." To counteract that, manufacturers are required to add chemicals with flame-retardant properties. Before 2005, these included highly toxic polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Since then, to combat flammability, manufacturers have added the dangerous heavy metal antimony...and brominated fire retardants, which can disrupt hormone activity and may interfere with normal brain functions.
If you're sleeping on a mattress made prior to 2005, consider replacing it. A good choice is an organic mattress. These usually use natural latex (from rubber trees) and/or naturally flame-resistant wool.
If you do buy a synthetic mattress, remove it from the packaging and let it outgas in the garage or outdoors for several days before sleeping on it.
Also helpful: A natural latex mattress topper or an organic cotton or wool mattress protector can provide a barrier between you and the flame-retardant materials.
- Light at night. Most people don't think of light as a "toxin," but when it comes at the wrong time, it can have toxic effects. Humans evolved to be exposed to light during the day. not at night, but since the invention of electric lights, we rarely experience a completely dark night.
The risk: Even a blink of light at night signals the body's pineal gland to curtail the production of melatonin, frequently known as the "hormone of darkness." Low levels of melatonin can reduce immunity increase the oxidation that can lead to degenerative diseases such as heart disease...and impair our natural sleep-wake cycles.
- Keep your bedroom dark. Make sure that drapes and blinds fit snugly to block out all external light at night.
- Opt for red light. Use electronic devices, including night-lights, that are illuminated with red light. Melatonin appears to be more sensitive to blue lights, such as those commonly used on alarm clocks, DVD players, etc.
- Mouthwashes and antiperspirants. Antiperspirants contain aluminum compounds, which in high doses can increase the risk for cancer and neurological conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
Most mouthwashes contain the germ killers phenol, cresol and ethanol that are used in bathroom disinfectants, though in lower concentrations. These ingredients and others such as formaldehyde can be harmful when absorbed by soft tissue and/or swallowed. Instead…
- Freshen your breath by using a tongue scraper (available at drugstores) rather than a chemical-filled mouthwash...brush your teeth with baking soda.
- Avoid using antiperspirants, especially during the cooler months or on weekends when it may not matter so much if you sweat a little. Deodorant (without an antiperspirant) is an option for people concerned about odor.
- Dryer sheets, detergents and fabric softeners. If a product smells "clean," it's probably bad for your health. The National Academy of Science reports that up to 95% of the substances used to make fragrances in detergents, dryer sheets and fabric softeners are petroleum-based synthetic chemicals that can trigger asthma, damage the lungs and nervous system and cause cancer.
Luckily, your laundry is one everyday part of life in which you can easily eliminate unnecessary chemicals…
- Opt for nontoxic natural detergents. These are readily available in many supermarkets. Good brands include Seventh Generation, Method and Nellie's.
Ask yourself if you really need dryer sheets or fabric softeners. If you feel that you must use such products, you can find reusable cloth dryer sheets online. These dryer sheets are not coated with chemicals, unlike disposable dryer sheets, and they contain carbon fiber that helps eliminate static electricity in the dryer.
Or you can try one-half cup of white vinegar in place of fabric softener in the washer to reduce static cling and soften clothing.
Warning: Never combine vinegar and bleach in the same load-toxic fumes could result.