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Here are four potentially unexpected places where toxins may accumulate inside your home.
1. The Tap Water.
Duh. We talk about this one all the time. Are you scared of your tap water? Does it smell bad, have a strange color, or taste funky? Have toxins been detected?
Information is power. My best advice when it comes to your drinking water is to get clear about what you’re dealing with.
Step one is to get a copy of your Consumer Confidence Report, also called a Water Quality Report, from your water utility. This annual water report is provided to customers by July 1 each year and will give you details about contaminants that have been detected in your water system. It should come in the mail with your water bill. If you pay your bill online, you should be able to go directly to the water utility’s website and get a copy or request a downloadable PDF.
Each report should list your water source—whether it’s a lake, river, or public well. It will also list the contaminants found in your source water and tell you what levels have been detected. Contaminants found to have a higher level than what the EPA recommends should be listed. Be sure to take note of any violations—meaning the contaminant has been detected at a higher level than the EPA laws allow.
If violations are listed, the report should also include how those contaminants may affect your health and how the water utility is working to address the problem. If not, I recommend researching each chemical, learning more about how it may or may not be regulated, getting clear about potential health risks, and calling your water operator to discuss your concerns.
If your water comes from a private or community well rather than a municipality, then it’s up to you to maintain the safety of your water. The EPA does help with information on how to maintain your well here. If you can’t find what you need, try contacting your local health or environmental department and request a list of the state-certified (licensed) laboratories in your area that test water. Get to know your watershed and be aware of the industrial and agricultural businesses located nearby that might pose risks to the quality of your well water.
You can also use the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Plug in your zip code and the report will show which contaminants have been found in your city’s water system that exceed federal or state regulations. A new updated Tap Water Database is coming so stay tuned as I will share more details next week.
Finally, as you are working to figure out if your water is safe, remember the precautionary principle—in the absence of scientific information or consensus, the best possible action is to avoid exposure until more data can be collected. Don’t let your body be the guinea pig. Bottled water or water filters can be effective ways to avoid toxins while you are working on an issue.
2. Your Stove.
Do you cook with a gas stove? Millions of people throughout the world rely on gas appliances for heating and cooking. But burning gas in buildings can be a threat to your health, as these appliances are sources of indoor air pollution. Gas stoves, particularly when unvented, can be a primary source of indoor air pollution, according to a 2020 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable research.
Pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and particulate pollution, released by gas stoves can have negative health effects, often exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma. Yet, indoor air pollution remains largely unregulated.
But there are measures you can take to stay safe. Use your stove’s ventilation hood each time you cook and leave it on for about 20 minutes afterward to help capture and filter out pollutants from the stove. You can also open a window to help improve air quality inside your living space. The fresh air can help dilute the concentration of contaminants. Air purifiers can also help, especially in small spaces.
Did you know that most people spend about 90 percent of our time indoors?
The U.S. EPA warns that “studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor levels.” So don’t forget in general to get outside as often as you can. It’s good for your health.
3. The Dust.
Listen, I’m the last person who wants to come over and give your counters a white glove check. I know how hard it can be to manage work, kids, and figuring out what’s for dinner. But you should know that dust can be home for unwanted chemicals.
In fact, an NRDC study called dust “a parking lot for chemicals in the home.” Their report found that phthalates, fragrance, flame retardants, and phenols make up 90 percent or more of dust samples. Check out their list of the top 10 chemicals found in dust here.
Many of these toxins in the home are associated with cancer, endocrine and hormone disruption, and reproductive toxicity. To reduce your exposure, be sure to dust and vacuum your home often and make sure you and the kids wash your hands before dinner. And be aware of the items you bring into your home. Do your best to use toxic-free products whenever possible with everything from your shampoo to your carpet to your paint.
4. Your Couch.
Speaking of toxic-free items, your couch can be something to consider.
A 2021 study found that when people replace their old couch with a new one that has no added flame retardants, levels of the harmful chemicals in household dust drop significantly. Replacing the foam inside the couch cushions is also just as effective.
The findings confirm that choosing healthier furniture without flame retardants can make a big difference in people’s—especially children’s—everyday exposures to these toxic chemicals.
“We’ve long suspected that couches are a major source of toxic chemicals in dust. Now, for the first time, we have evidence demonstrating the positive impacts of replacing old furniture containing flame retardants,” said lead author Kathryn Rodgers, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in a statement.
Flame retardants can migrate out of furniture into air and dust, and end up in people’s bodies. Exposure to the chemicals has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, lower IQ, and other harmful health effects.
“Replacing old furniture can be costly and may not be an option for everyone,” Rodgers said. “The good news is our study shows that replacing your couch’s foam can be just as effective.”
You can replace the foam in your couch by contacting a local foam supplier and asking for new foam that does not contain added flame retardants.
For more tips on keeping harmful chemicals out of the home, check out Silent Spring’s Detox Me app. It’s free!
Did I miss a scary spot in the home? Let me know in the comments below!