These are found in a huge range of products, including air fresheners, shampoos, soaps, face creams, detergents, and surface sprays. Most synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals – benzene derivatives, aldehydes and phthalates – which are linked to cancer, birth defects, nervous system disorders, and allergies; they also emit hazardous air pollutants, including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
“Many products are heavily perfumed, and the amount matters,” explains Becky Thompson, chemist and co-founder of Simply Clean. “Exposure to synthetic fragrances in high doses and over a long period can cause sensitivities and irritation to skin and lungs, triggering rashes, coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. They also exacerbate existing lung conditions, such as asthma.”
The detox solution: Educate yourself about different types of fragrances. Use products that are fragrance-free or fragranced with wholly natural fragrances, such as essential oils. “Even some eco brands supplement the natural fragrance with a synthetic one,” says Thompson.
Chlorine bleach and acidic cleaners
Forget sitting, cleaning is the new smoking, with a study showing that regular use of conventional cleaning sprays is comparable with smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, in terms of impact on lung health. Chlorine bleach, also typically known as bleach or household bleach, is found in some disinfectants and almost all mould removal sprays. Acidic cleaners, including vinegar, are found in most bathroom cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, some glass and window cleaners, drain cleaners, lime, calcium and rust removal products, and some brick and concrete cleaners. While these are not the greenest of cleaners on the best of days – with the exception of vinegar –mixing chlorine bleach and acidic cleaners together is dangerous.
“Chlorine is a very reactive alkaline chemical, and when it is mixed with an acid cleaner it produces chlorine gas, which is poisonous,” adds Thompson. “These products are often used together in small spaces like the bathroom or toilet, and the resulting fumes can cause shortness of breath, headaches and coughing. Bleach alone gives off fumes that are irritating to many people, making them unwell.”
The detox solution: Thompson recommends replacing bleach with hydrogen peroxide-based acidic cleaners for killing germs and mould. “Hydrogen peroxide is safe, doesn’t produce dangerous fumes, and breaks down to oxygen and water,” she explains. “They can also be used for cleaning, and work on scale and rust, too.”
Almost everyone is exposed to electromagnetic pollution from sources in and around their home, including Wi-Fi, mobile and cordless phones, baby monitors, computers and tablet devices, power lines, phone towers and meter boxes. Lyn McLean, Director of EMR Australia and author of ‘Wireless-Wise Families’, says possible effects on our health from this exposure include changes to cell proliferation, genes and hormones, oxidative stress, and possibly cancer and brain tumours. “Children are more vulnerable than adults, and we don’t know the effects of long-term exposure to this type of pollution yet,” she warns. “Electromagnetic fields have now been classified as possible carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.”
The detox solution: McLean says it’s important to find and measure what electromagnetic fields are present in the home, and rectify them with targeted solutions. “You can measure these fields with a home test kit from EMR Australia. It’s important not to assume where your exposure is from, but to measure and find the sources first. Lots of solutions are possible, such as shielding paints, window fabrics and bed canopies, but it might also be as simple as turning all your devices off when they’re not in use. If we stop polluting our homes, we effectively stop polluting the planet.”
Poly and per-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in common household products, including some non-stick cookware, food packaging, fabrics and furniture, and some stain protection products. PFAS are under increasing scrutiny as a health hazard. They can travel long distances through soil and water, infiltrate groundwater, don’t break down in the environment, and accumulate in animals and humans. Animal studies indicate PFAS affect the immune system, liver, reproduction capacity and promote some cancers. It’s not clear if these results translate to humans, but there is a possible link between PFAS exposure and increased blood cholesterol.
The detox solution: Source cookware that is PFAS-free such as stainless steel or non-stick brands known to be safe (e.g. Scanpan, Mercola or GreenLife). Beware of fast food or packaged food containers that contain PFAS. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell if they do. Take the food out of the packaging sooner rather than later, or ask for it to be served in plain paper packaging or wrapping.
Indoor air pollution
This is actually ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health. Steve Brown, senior scientist at CSIRO Building Construction and Engineering, says we could be constantly breathing in a cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by building materials, paint, carpets, furnishings and consumer products, as well as gaseous and particulate pollutants from indoor sources.
“The type and concentration of these pollutants varies according to the age of the building, the materials used in its construction, and the type of equipment working there,” says Brown. “Two common pollutants are formaldehyde, emitted by certain particleboards and plywoods, and nitrogen dioxide emitted from unflued heaters. Another is dust mite allergen, that accumulates in carpets, furniture and bedding. These pollutants commonly occur at much higher levels indoors than outside, so people are far more heavily exposed for much more of their time. Symptoms of indoor air pollution include sore throats and eye irritation, nausea, headaches and a feeling of general discomfort. Illnesses attributed to the high levels of polluted air range from asthma to lung cancer.
The detox solution: Identify sources of air pollution and attend to them through cleaning, better product selection and design, and ventilation. Place green leafy indoor plants throughout your house. Research shows volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are ‘eaten’ by bacteria living in the soil near the roots of plants, while the leaves absorb chemicals through their pores. However, 80 percent of the detox work is done by the bacteria, so the bigger the pot, the better. How many plants do you need? A rule-of-thumb is about 1 medium-sized plant per 2.2 square metres.