A friend of mine, who I regard as more health conscience than most, recently posted on her facebook page that she had read an article about toxic things people use in their homes on a daily or regular basis and that some of the topics surprised her – which surprised me! I guess I often assume people just know and have decided one of several things: 1) it isn’t important enough to change 2) it is to expensive to change 3) it is too hard to change. So here are just two things you could replace or eliminate in your home that do not fit into any of those three categories. They are important, they are cheap and they are easy to change. Start the new year with these small changes and you’ll start with a healthier home environment.
Vinyl Shower Curtains:
You know that “new” smell when you first open the package and then hang the curtain – that’s over 100 chemicals being released – off-gassing. Most of the time the amount of off-gassing exceeds the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality and some of these chemicals are even classified as hazardous air pollutants by the EPA. Most of the chemicals you should be worried about include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates and organotins. These are groups of chemicals known to have serious and adverse effects on human health. They have been linked to diseases and conditions of the respiratory system, liver, kidney, central nervous system, and even some cancers. They are found in our environment as well, making their way back into our food supply. This is because, most of these chemicals get washed or flushed down the drain, or are dispersed through the air, eventually settling into water run-off and into water treatment plants that are not designed to remove all these man-made chemicals. While the smell or at least its intensity seems to fade, some chemicals can persistently off-gas for many years. This is especially true when exposed to increased temperatures, such as with a hot shower or steam. Some of the phthalates found in these curtains area actually banned from being used in children’s toys in states like California, Washington and countries that are part of the European Union. Does that make you wonder then how they can be safe for use in a home product that children are very likely to come in contact with, perhaps even on a daily basis? Fortunately, this is an easy and inexpensive item to replace with a product that is also easier to use. Use a cloth liner. Liners may be made from materials such as hemp, linen, cotton, or birch; effective at keeping water in the shower, can be easily washed and re-used. A cloth liner doesn’t smell, doesn’t stick to your body or the walls, and is much easier to clean.
I’m sure these were a favorite of the holiday season. They are, however, generally not healthy to be burning in your home. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a 37+ page study in 2001 entitled: “Candles And Incense As Potential Sources Of Indoor Air Pollution: Market Analysis And Literature Review”. It raises some concerns that I’ll summarize. Despite the obvious potential fire hazards that you should take precaution against – that is not what is most threatening. It’s the chemicals that they off-gas. Just a few of those chemicals include dioxins, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, toluene, benzene and acrolein. These are linked to serious diseases of the immune system, central nervous system, endocrine system, and respiratory system. In other words, inhalation of these chemicals impact every part of how your body works.
Most candles are made from paraffin wax, which is predominately a petroleum by-product. After crude oil had been refined into gasoline, the left over sludge is further processed into paraffin. This process requires the use of solvents that also remain in the finished product.
In addition, while most manufacturers in the United States have voluntarily discontinued the use of lead in their wicks, it is not required. Some continue to use lead. As the wicks burn, the lead becomes airborne and is inhaled. This report from the EPA states that exposure to lead from burning candles can be enough to cause health concerns and repeated exposure, of course, increases the risk of accumulating lead toxicity. It is well documented that even low levels of lead in the body can cause or contribute to a long list of ill health effects such as neurobehavioral issues, hypertension, kidney disease, sleep disturbance, cancer and more.
While domestic manufacturers may be trying to reduce exposure, over 1/3 of the candles sold in the United States are manufactured in China, where the same standards of quality in manufacturing are not mandated. So if you are purchasing the cheapest candles possible, chances are you have a very heavily toxic laden product.
Then there is the issue of fragrance. There is absolutely no natural way to mimic the ever growing list of scents available in candles. These are made possible by synthetic fragrances. This topic in itself is worthy a whole article. In my opinion, and I am but an echo of some of the best Environmental Medicine Physicians and researchers available – these chemicals should be banned. They are ubiquitous. It is nearly impossible to avoid synthetic fragrance. You find these chemicals in everything from the bags used to pick up dog poop to laundry soaps (even the “natural ones made with essential oils” – labeling laws allow consumers to be easily mislead), cosmetics and home décor products. I cringed when we took the girls to a winter festival where decorating pine cones as Christmas trees was a project they wanted to do – because the smell of the cinnamon scented cones was overwhelming. They are wreaking havoc on our health and our environment.
Exposure to these chemicals and lead can be especially troubling for anyone with respiratory conditions such as asthma, those with allergies, children and the elderly. But in truth they are dangerous to everyone who comes in contact with them and to our planet.
There are alternatives: you can choose candles made from soy or beeswax. Make sure the wick is cotton (you will have to trim it more often) and that if it is a scented candle that only pure essential oils have been used. These candles are going to be more expensive. So my suggestion is simply to quit burning candles on a regular basis all together. Better yet, invest in a one time purchase of an essential oil diffuser and use high grade pure essential oils in it to scent your home. Quality essential oils cost more up front, but a little goes a long way, lasting you quite a while. In addition to an inviting aroma, you’ll reap some of the health benefits of breathing in these therapeutic oils.
Reading through the article after I wrote it was depressing. I don’t want this article to leave you feeling hopeless but empowered. When you are aware you are free to make informed decisions – hopefully these decisions that may seem small – like switching out your shower curtain and getting rid of candles – they are just the first steps to learning more and taking action toward creating a healthier home. Happy New Year Southeast Alaska!
Dr. Summer Beattie, ND is a graduate of Bastyzr University. She has over 8 years experience as a Naturopathic Doctor specializing in women’s health with an emphasis on environmental medicine. Having served two terms on the board of directors for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians, she has also worked in the medical aesthetics field since 2008. You can reach her at email@example.com or