Published as “Living Well” in the September 2022 edition of Lehigh Valley Style magazine.
Many of us view health from the lens of what we eat and how much we exercise. The physical environment of our home is a key component that is often overlooked and can have a profound impact on our health. Read on to examine the ways to make your home a healthier, greener place for yourself, your family and the environment.
Despite quality sleep being paramount to our health and well-being, and the fact that we spend a third of our lives being in intimate contact with our bed, few of us think about the harmful off-gasses we are breathing each and every night from chemicals in our mattresses, pillows and sheets. These include chemicals like formaldehyde, CFCs, herbicides and petrochemicals, to name a few.
Leora and Dennis Hornick, owners of The Organic Mattress Store in Hellertown, became acutely aware of this after moving into a beautiful brand-new condominium in the Florida Keys nearly 20 years ago. Even though they were living an organic lifestyle, they didn’t think about building materials, paint, carpeting, furniture and bedding being a source of toxic exposure.
A beautiful ocean view didn’t prevent Leora from slowly getting sicker and sicker. It was not long afterwards that it dawned on them that the materials, finishes and bedding in the condominium were what were making her ill.
They returned to the Lehigh Valley with only a few “safe” furniture pieces that were hardwood. “We felt like college kids starting over,” Leora says. They carefully furnished their home—this time with nontoxic organic materials, including their bed and bedding. The switch to an organic natural rubber mattress was love at first sleep. Knowing others could benefit as well, they opened The Organic Mattress Store soon after.
Some believe that an organic mattress is only meant for those with chemical sensitivities or allergies, but Leora says they are great for everyone and have been preferred in Europe and Asia for decades. “They are extremely comfortable,” she says. “And Dunlop rubber, the gold standard in natural rubber, is built to last at least 10–15 years.” Conventional and memory foams laden with chemical products break down faster, need to be replaced more frequently and end up in landfills. Plus, natural rubber stays neutral to body temperature, which improves sleep quality and health, unlike synthetics that trap body heat and, in the process, result in poorer sleep quality while increasing the off-gassing of chemicals in the bed and bedding.
If you aren’t in a position yet to purchase an organic mattress, Leora encourages switching to organic cotton sheets and natural wool pillows to start. “Cotton is actually one of the most highly sprayed crops in the world, heavily laden with herbicides and pesticides,” she says. Your head and face are in direct contact, breathing in the off-gasses from the pillow contents as well as the pillowcase. Replacing synthetic and feathered pillows with wool pillows eliminates dust mites, mold and mildew. What’s more, wool pillows naturally wick away moisture, which helps to keep your head cool and is a key component to better sleep.
Begin with your cookware and make the switch from nonstick to quality stainless steel or cast-iron pans. Nonstick pans contain the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is carcinogenic and toxic. Deemed safe, this only applies when cooking at lower temperatures before the coating releases harmful gasses. In addition, the manufacturing of the cookware has devastating consequences to the environment with unregulated dumping and contamination to water supplies. Most nonstick pans have a short shelf life of one to five years, so a switch to stainless steel or cast iron can save on the wallet and reduce waste in the landfill. Beware of misleading labels like “PFOA-free,” as the cookware will still contain the chemical PTFE or derivatives that are just as harmful. Ceramic-coated pans can be an option, but do your due diligence on the manufacturer, as the ceramic can contain lead and other heavy metals.
Another switch to make in your kitchen is reducing your plastic usage and exposure. This includes things like utensils, plates, water bottles, drinking glasses, single-use items and, especially, food storage containers. Removing foods in contact with plastic packaging helps reduce leaching of chemicals into the food. An easy economic and environmentally-friendly practice is to repurpose empty glass jars (from sauce, jelly, etc.) and utilize them for everything from drinking glasses to storing leftovers. Plastic bags and wrap can be replaced with silicone bags or beeswax wraps. While it is challenging to go plastic-free, reducing usage, especially of single-use items, and shifting purchases to sustainable food packaging like glass makes a difference.
Cleaning up your cleaning supplies can reduce your exposure to a host of toxic chemicals while saving money. Some of the best cleaning solutions can be made with simple nontoxic ingredients like vinegar, water and baking soda. If you aren’t a DIY person, or if you wish to shop for a variety of household and personal care products in a more sustainable, ecological way, FD Market in Easton and Emmaus is the Lehigh Valley’s first zero-waste refillable shop.
Water filtration for your kitchen as well as for your bath is a critical piece in making a home healthier. You may be surprised at the level of pollutants in treated municipal water. The Environmental Working Group has a database (ewg.org/tapwater) from water utilities’ testing where you can check the quality of the tap water by zip code.
It may come as a surprise that the air quality in most homes is much worse than the air quality outside. The EPA reports that indoor pollutant levels can be two to five times greater than outdoors, with some as high as 100 times worse. Better insulation in homes offers improved energy efficiency; however, it also acts as a tight seal and does not allow enough fresh air to circulate and reduce concentrations of pollutants. Some of these pollutants include volatile organic compounds (VOC) from pressed wood furniture and building material, paint, synthetic carpeting, cleaning chemicals and pesticides used in the home or tracked in on shoes, and dust mites and mold. The higher concentration of pollutants can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, along with the fact that many of the pollutants are carcinogenic.
Adding air purifiers in the home is an important step in improving indoor air quality. Increasing fresh air circulation in your home can also be done by simply opening windows, including a small crack in the winter to aid in reducing pollutant levels.
Cleaning up the air in the home also means reducing fragrance products like air fresheners, scented candles and cleaning products with the word “fragrance.” These products contain phthalates, which are known to disrupt hormones in the body. Look for products that use essential oils for fragrance, and use a diffuser with quality essential oils to provide a beautiful smell in the home as well as gain the health benefits from the oils themselves.
Renovating, Redecorating & Remodeling
As you make changes to your home, consider sources of toxic load you may be bringing into the home. Some ways to reduce the burden include utilizing low- or no-VOC paints and stains, eliminating laminate wood and particle board furniture, which contain formaldehyde, and replacing synthetic carpets with natural dyed wools or organic cottons. If doing larger renovations, check with your contractor to learn what materials are going into your home and their willingness to utilize low-VOC products and materials.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed in making shifts in greening your home, but just remember it is a process. Small, consistent changes can have an impact on improving the health of your home as well as the environment. It is in the daily choices we make that we can all make a difference.