Air pollution is made up of particles and gases. Gases include ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and a large group of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
While gases can have harmful effects, research indicates that you should be most concerned about the negative health impacts of the finer particles – those under 2.5 microns (PM2.5) in size.
PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated. Outdoor PM2.5 levels are most likely to be elevated on days with little or no wind or air mixing. These particles are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs.
Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath – it can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM2.5.
Outside, fine particles primarily come from car, truck, bus and off-road vehicle (e.g., construction equipment, snowmobile, locomotive) exhausts, other operations that involve the burning of fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal and natural sources such as forest and grass fires.
Fine particles also form from the reaction of gases or droplets in the atmosphere from sources such as power plants. These chemical reactions can occur miles from the original source of the emissions.
PM2.5 is also produced by common indoor activities such as tobacco smoke, cooking (frying, sautéing, and broiling), burning candles or oil lamps, and operating fireplaces and fuel-burning space heaters (kerosene heaters).
There are at least six major components of air pollution:
Ozone is a gas that exists at ground level as well as miles above the earth. It’s made by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of heat and sunlight. Good ozone occurs naturally about 10 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface. There, in the stratosphere, it forms a layer that protects the earth’s surface from the sun’s harmful rays. At ground level, bad ozone (smog) exists. Exhaust from vehicles, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are major sources of nitrogen oxides and VOCs. Add sunlight and hot weather to the mix, and harmful concentrations of ozone may develop. Because of the heat factor, ground-level ozone is a summertime air pollutant that can be dangerous, especially for people with respiratory illnesses.
Particulates include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets found in the air. They come from many sources, such as vehicles, factories, construction sites, unpaved roads, and burning wood. Other particulates are formed when gases from burning fuels react with water vapor and sunlight. This can result from the combustion of fuels in motor vehicles and from industrial and power plants.
In cities with lots of traffic, most of the carbon monoxide put into the air comes from vehicle exhaust. It also comes from manufacturing processes, wood burning, and forest fires. Indoor sources include cigarettes and space heaters. Carbon monoxide reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and organs, such as the heart and brain. It is especially dangerous for people who have heart problems. Carbon monoxide can be fatal to those exposed to extremely high levels. Every year carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of deaths from toxic chemicals.
When mixed with other particles in the air, nitrogen dioxide can often be seen as a reddish brown layer over many urban areas. Sources are fuels burned by vehicles, electric utilities, and industrial plants. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the nitrogen oxides, a group of highly reactive gases that contain various amounts of nitrogen and oxygen. Studies show that nitrogen dioxide may increase your risk of heart problems, such as heart failure. Nitrogen oxides mix with common organic chemicals and even ozone to create toxic chemicals that can cause biological mutations.
This gas is formed when fuels containing sulfur are burned. Examples are when coal and oil burn, when gasoline is extracted from oil, or when metals are extracted from ore. Sulfur dioxide is put into the air when fossil fuel is burned, such as by coal-fired power plants. Other sources are industries that create products from metallic ore, coal, and crude oil or those that burn coal or oil, such as petroleum refineries or metal processing facilities. Sulfur dioxide causes: health problems for people with asthma and heart conditions and acid rain, and damage to forests, crops and water.
Leaded gasoline used to be the main source of lead in the air. But because leaded fuels have been phased out, the main sources of lead emissions are metals-processing facilities, especially lead smelters. Lead may cause serious health problems, including: damage to kidneys, liver, brain, nerves, and other organs. Lead may also cause osteoporosis and reproductive problems. Excessive exposure can cause seizures, intellectual disability, behavioral disorders, memory problems, and mood changes. Low levels of lead cause brain and nerve damage in young children and fetuses, which can lead to learning problems and low IQ.
Your drinking water may come from a public water system or a well, or you may use bottled water. Public water systems are regulated governments, but water from a well may need testing to make sure it is safe to drink. You may be able to use a water filter or a water purification system to provide safe water. It is important for you to know where your drinking water comes from, if it is treated, and if it’s safe to drink. Water can be contaminated by organisms such as bacteria or fungi, by chemicals such as pesticides, and by metals such as lead or mercury.
Sand or silica dust
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny pieces of sand or silica dust. Silica is a common mineral found in sand and rock. Breathing in silica may be a risk in certain jobs, such as construction, mining, rock drilling, sandblasting, and masonry. Silicosis may also be a risk for people who work with glass or ceramics. Silicosis can cause breathing problems and damage to the lungs. Symptoms may appear many years after exposure to silica. But they can occur much sooner when there is a high level of exposure. Silicosis can’t be cured, but medicines can help manage the symptoms and treat problems such as infections.
Maintaining a healthy home is key to living a healthy life, and the only way to accomplish this is by thoroughly vetting the products you’re considering introducing to your home.
When you clean house, make it smell fresh, or discourage insects from entering it, you are more than likely using products that contain chemical toxins.
To minimize your exposure to toxins and their effects, check the labels on products for these harmful chemicals:
- Petroleum jelly
- Sodium hydroxide
- DBP (Dibutyl phthalate)
- DEA (Diethanolamine)
- PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene)
- SLS/SLES (Sodium laureth sulphate)
- Formaldehyde (DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea)
- BHA/BHT (Butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene)
- Coal tar dye (P-phenylenediamine)
Using natural alternatives to chemical-based products can significantly reduce your exposure to harmful toxins and minimize the damage they cause.
BE AWARE OF….
One of the most important items in your bedroom is the mattress. Foam mattresses have become very popular over the last decade but may hold toxic flame retardants. When these chemicals are released, they can be inhaled and negatively impact your body’s ability to heal and detoxify. Look for a non-toxic mattress made with organic stuffing and without flame retardants.
Additionally, try not to put mattresses on a pressed wood or plywood bed frame. These two types of wood are notorious for releasing formaldehyde and other chemicals when it’s still new
These microscopic creatures are potent allergens. A member of the spider family, mites feast on human skin flakes and leave their excrement in your mattresses, pillows, sheets, furniture, and drapes. Regularly cleaning these areas can reduce your exposure to these organisms and alleviate the respiratory issues they cause.
When taking inventory of the sources of toxins don’t forget about TVs, clocks, radios, and other electronic devices. Devices that have a screen emitting blue light which slows the production of melatonin, the hormone necessary for healthy sleep cycles. This is one reason why using your cell phone before bed affects sleep quality.
Electronic devices also emit a small amount of electromagnetic radiation. If they are cracked, or their insides are otherwise exposed, toxic metals such as beryllium, lead, mercury, arsenic, and barium can leak. The best strategy for a toxic-free sleep environment is to keep electronic devices out of your bedroom altogether.
Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are a group of extremely toxic materials that don’t break down in the environment. The most toxic of these is a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used to produce carpeting and upholstery. These chemicals make their way into household dust, which means you are inhaling them every day. If it’s in your budget, natural hardwood or stone flooring is easier to clean and doesn’t contain harsh chemicals or carry harmful bacteria. Hardwood and stone floors are an effective way to reduce exposure to PFCs and other contaminants that accumulate in carpet dust.
If carpeting is necessary, use a well-sealed vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. This kind of filter reduces the amount of dust and bacteria that blows out into the air while cleaning. Steam cleaning can be an effective solution for killing bacteria but really should be handled by a qualified, experienced professional who can produce the benefits of steam cleaning without the common, unintended consequence of mold and mildew growth.
Cleaning floors one to two times a week with organic cleaning products is essential.
Rugs in the bathroom are also a significant repository of toxins and are difficult to clean. A hemp rug, which is more resilient to mold and mildew, is a perfect solution to keep you from slipping after getting out of the tub or shower.
Keep in mind that the efficacy of removing surface contaminants can only go so far when the floor itself contains toxic chemicals, as is the case with vinyl flooring. Significant amounts of phthalate plasticizers, synthetic chemicals that have been linked to many health issues, are present in this flooring. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) is the most toxic of plastics because it emits dioxins. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that these are some of the most toxic, carcinogenic chemicals known.
The number of toxins found in the bathroom is astonishing. The area under the sink, cosmetics, the toilet, toothbrushes, and the floor can all be home to harmful, biological pollutants. These toxins are living organisms or the by-products of living organisms. Biological pollutants are small, travel through the air, and can be easily inhaled.
Whenever you flush with the toilet lid open, fecal matter becomes airborne and lands all over. Close the lid before flushing.
You might be surprised to learn that toothbrush cups can hold some of the worst germs in your house. They should be disinfected often, or replaced with an open-air holder. Thoroughly wash your toothbrush after every use and put it away dry, not wet. Replace it every two to three months.
Research shows that bathroom sinks, notably the drain, facilitate the growth of a fungus called Fusarium which is a common source of infections in humans.
Many people have water filters for their tap water, but they don’t consider a filter for their bath or shower. Tap water is typically treated with chlorine to counteract pathogens and harmful organisms. This chemical actually makes the water toxic. Research has shown that when chlorine mixes with organic compounds in water, by-products called trihalomethanes (THMs) are produced. THMs are harmful because they produce free radicals in the body which can trigger cell damage.
Water can also contain a carcinogen called chloroform, which is easily absorbed through the skin or inhaled if heated. Buy a shower head with a filter or install a whole-house water purification system to reduce or eliminate your exposure.
Shower curtains, floors, and walls can also contain biological pollutants like fungus, mold, mildew, and other types of unhealthy organisms regardless of how much soap, water, and shampoo wash over them. Ironically, the shower is one of the most germ-friendly places in your home and should be cleaned regularly.
Food-related bacteria is one of the most common contaminants in kitchens, especially on counters. When grocery bags, mail, keys, purses, and various household products meet the counter, they can become vehicles to carry and deposit bacteria to other places in your home.
Since bacteria can spread anywhere, including from one surface to another, keep your hands clean and wash kitchen surfaces before and after meal preparation to keep foreign contaminants at bay. It’s also a good idea to wash hands after handling raw meat, especially before touching another food. If the bacteria get into food, it can cause food-borne illnesses.
Food-related bacteria are also found on many kitchen utensils and gadgets. Cutting boards are especially prone to bacteria due to the cuts made in the wood or plastic. A natural cutting board made of bamboo is resistant to these cuts. Having one board for meat and another for fruits and vegetables is another thoughtful strategy for avoiding cross-contamination, which is one of the leading reasons for food-borne illnesses.
Lastly, another source of toxicity in your kitchen may be your microwave. Radiation emitted from these ovens can be harmful if leaked due to a bent handle or malfunctioning door.
Chemical-based bug repellents and pest control products contain very harmful elements and are some of the most toxic substances available that can cause very serious harms. It’s best to totally replace it with organic, plant-based substitutes.
Some of these natural repellents can either be applied to certain areas of the yard, or crushed and rubbed on the skin to ward off flies, mosquitoes, and fleas. The best plants for repelling insects include:
- Lemon balm
To ensure a toxic-free yard that’s a healthy place for children and pets, accentuate your landscaping with organic mulch that is free of pesticides and other chemicals. Be aware that some plants and herbs may be poisonous if ingested, so make sure to do your research and put them where little hands or paws can’t reach them.
Natural Ways to Rid Your Home of Toxins
Non-toxic, organic cleansers are inexpensive and can be made at home using the following ingredients:
Purified water: Free of chemicals and contaminants
Vinegar: Contains natural acid and antibacterial elements to eliminate and disinfect
Baking soda: Lifts stains, brightens, and deodorizes
Peppermint: Has antibacterial and insect repellent qualities
Lemon juice: Kills mildew, mold, and eliminates odors
Essential oils: Provide natural, non-toxic fragrances
Castile soap: Naturally olive oil-based
Natural Air Purifiers
Certain types of plants can reduce toxic chemicals such as trichloroethylene, benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and xylene. Putting these plants strategically throughout your house and yard is a natural, effective way to maintain a healthier home environment.
- Aloe vera
- Mother-in-law’s tongue
- Purple waffle plant
- Golden pothos
- Rubber plant
- Areca palm
- Peace lily
- Money plant
- English ivy
- Red-edged dracaena
- Spider plant
Environmental toxins can cause serious health effects when exposure is allowed to accumulate, but it is important to remember that the poison is in the dose. Problems usually result from prolonged or excessive exposure; the occasional use of a plastic cup probably won’t hurt you.
While it is impossible to completely eliminate exposure (and it might drive you crazy to try), a few simple steps as mentioned above will go a long way towards protecting you and your family.
When your home environment is free of toxins, it makes it easier to clean the environment inside your body.