How to detox your home: five household hazards and the healthy alternatives

From air fresheners to nail polish and the paint on your walls, find out some of the hidden household hazards that could be doing your body harm and how to avoid them

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 5:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 5:26pm

The vehicle fumes choking Hong Kong’s streets are enough to make anyone want to stay indoors. But don’t imagine the air at home is clean: you may unknowingly be facing an onslaught of dangerous, yet mostly avoidable, toxic chemicals.

Many of us bleach, spray and scrub our homes with unnecessarily strong products that could be doing more harm than good. Poor indoor air quality can have a range of negative health effects, from headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath, to more serious conditions, such as cancer, obesity and infertility.

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The shocking results of a two-year study published last week revealed indoor pollution levels can be worse than outdoors thanks to the build-up of microscopic smog particles. The Morgan Stanley-funded investigation by Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange and the City University of Hong Kong found that, without adequate ventilation, PM2.5 and other particles small enough to lodge in your lungs accumulated in closed spaces and were found inside people’s homes at levels just as high as or higher than outdoors.

But it’s not just these fine particles causing the bad air in your home: there are plenty of other chemicals we could do without. So, before you close all the windows and turn on the air con, consider this list of common household nasties, and whether you can do anything about getting rid of them.

1) Bromine

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are widely used as flame retardants in materials such as the foam inside furniture, textiles, and the rigid plastic used to make consumer electronics.

Effects: In the long run, bromine is corrosive to human tissue and builds up in the body after years of exposure. It can damage vital organs and gastrointestinal functioning. The US Environmental Protection Agency warns that bromine flame retardants are “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment”. Some types of bromine chemicals can cause cancer, thyroid problems and developmental disorders.

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Solutions: Look for PBDE-free products and remember that even flame retardant objects can catch fire – the chemicals only slow the process. Select items made of naturally less flammable materials, like leather, wool and cotton. If eliminating flame retardants isn’t an option in your household, clean up regularly with a HEPA filter vacuum, as PBDE can accumulate in dust. Mitigate the risk of fire damage in the home with a fire extinguisher and blanket in the kitchen, and a smoke alarm. Don’t leave incense or candles burning unattended, and never smoke in bed.

2) Formaldehyde

A volatile organic compound (VOC) that is virtually impossible to avoid entirely, it’s found in a lot of manufactured wood products and building materials and is added to paints, plastic products, mattresses, glues, air fresheners, non-iron fabrics and some cosmetics. Cigarette smoke, fuel-burning appliances, and vehicle exhausts are also sources of VOCs.

Effects: Some people don’t react to formaldehyde, but others will experience headaches, dizziness, eye irritation and rashes. It is a confirmed human carcinogen, meaning it has been linked to at least one type of cancer. A 2009 study by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that homes in Hong Kong had higher levels of formaldehyde than those in other East Asian cities, underlined the link with lung diseases and cancer, and concluded that “it is critical to minimise indoor air pollution caused by formaldehyde and VOCs”.

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Solutions: There will always be trace amounts of formaldehyde present. A natural background level isn’t harmful, but living in urban areas and in homes with lots of man-made formaldehyde can create toxic levels.

To reduce the levels, lower the humidity and temperature inside your home, as a moist, warm environment causes formaldehyde to be released into the air. Swap synthetic fragrances for natural ones, do not smoke, ventilate your kitchen when cooking, choose non-toxic nail polishes and removers, avoid any fabric or garment marked “non-iron” or “wrinkle-free”, and opt for solid wood furniture instead of composite materials.

Air purifiers can also help filter VOCs but, if you can’t afford one, make sure your home is well ventilated.

3) Triclosan

Antibacterial and antifungal chemical found in about 75 per cent of antibacterial soaps and toothpaste.

Effects: It sounds logical to avoid bacteria wherever possible, but these products may actually be doing more harm than good. There’s no evidence that triclosan can stop viral illnesses like flu spreading, either, since viruses are not killed by antibiotics.

Not only can antibacterial soaps promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but they also act as endocrine disruptors, which can lead to infertility, obesity, early puberty and cancer in humans. Children with prolonged exposure to triclosan also have a higher chance of developing allergies, as discovered in a 2013 Norwegian study on 623 children over three years.

Solution: Studies have proven that standard soap with warm water and a bit of scrubbing will kill just as many germs. Opt for a non-antibiotic hand sanitiser, which use alcohol instead of triclosan. Washing your hands for at least 30 seconds with warm water will always be more effective than rubbing with gel.

4) Phthalates

Group of chemicals used to make plastics flexible. Found in plastic toys, shower curtains and plastic wraps, as well as products with synthetic fragrances, including perfumes, air fresheners, shampoos, body sprays, nail polish and removers, and soap.

Effects: Like triclosan, phthalates are widely known to be endocrine disruptors. They are thought to mimic hormones and interrupt their production. A 2009 Taiwanese study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal tracked 122 pairs of mothers and children from pregnancy until the children were eight years old. The scientists found they could pass the chemicals from mother to fetus, sometimes resulting in abnormal development and birth defects – especially in boys.

Solutions: Phthalate use is so widespread that they’re impossible to avoid altogether. On cosmetic labels, the word “fragrance” is used to cover a whole group of synthetic scents that use phthalates. However, you can restrict your exposure. Instead of masking smells with artificial fragrances, keep your house clean. If you want your home to smell of flowers, opt for a vase of the real thing. For longer lasting scents, use a bowl of organic, naturally scented potpourri. But beware of essential oils: some contain terpenes, which react with ozone in the air to produce formaldehyde.

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5) Bisphenol A and S (BPA/BPS)

Synthetic oestrogen hormone found in reusable plastic bottles and containers, food can linings, pizza boxes and shop receipts.

Effects: BPA is another endocrine disruptor and was linked to oestrogen-related cancers, such as those of the breast and prostate, by Tufts University researchers in 2010. Now the British charity Breast Cancer UK is campaigning for an outright BPA ban in food packaging. Some manufacturers have replaced BPA with BPS, but evidence published by the Endocrine Society in April, in online journal Science Daily, found BPS behaves in the same way as BPA.

Solutions: Guidance from cancer information charity breastcancer.org advises buying canned food and containers that say “BPA free”, or opting for fresh, unpackaged produce. Avoid storing or microwaving food in plastic containers – go for ceramic, glass or metal instead.

Avoid touching receipts where possible, refuse them on small purchases, and do not throw them into paper recycling bins. Though not always, plastics with triangles numbered 3 (vinyl or PVC) and 7 are most likely to contain BPA/S.