I still have that couch and that mattress, along with other household items I can't replace yet, but there were some affordable steps I took to begin the process of reducing potentially harmful chemicals in my life. And for me the key word is process. Sure, if you have the money, you can do a complete makeover. But there are a lot of people who can't do that right now, and what I've learned is that when you stress out about the money you don't have, that in itself is a deterrent to make any changes at all. I started by making easy changes within my reach and budget, and then progressed from there. We can't avoid chemicals entirely, but we can reduce our overall exposure by focusing on things we use frequently. Here's some easy and affordable things you can do to begin the process of feeling better about your home and body:
1. Replace vinyl shower curtains with those made of natural fibers. This was one of the first things I did. Vinyl shower curtains contain phthalates which have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, as well as cancer. These phthalates readily evaporate into the air and hot steamy conditions promote the release of these plasticizers.
2. Reduce use of plastic, which can leach hormone-like chemicals; this includes plastics marked BPA-free (more on that here). Stop buying bottled water -- they're bad for the environment, expensive, and bad for your health. If you can afford to do so, swap out plastic for glassware. If you're on a budget, start by replacing the items you use regularly like a few drinking glasses and food storage. If you can't afford new purchases, don't put hot or acidic food in plastic, and never microwave them.
3. Reduce intake of canned foods because, like plastic, they contain potentially toxic chemicals. If possible, buy food like beans in bulk from a health food store, and stock up when they go on sale. If you need to buy canned goods, try to avoid the really acidic food like tomatoes.
4. Break up with fragrance. They're protected under trade secret law so you don't know what kind of toxic stew you're getting. Start by getting rid of things you can probably live without: scented body washes, air fresheners, dryer sheets, aftershaves, perfumes.
5. Stop using antibacterial products. They contain harsh chemicals like triclosan, which has been linked to liver toxicity and ends up in water sources. Washing hands with plain soap is just as effective and cheaper. We use the same bulk liquid soap for everything from showering to hand washing clothes to washing hands.
6. Don't buy toothpaste with artificial sweeteners, colorings, and sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates. I don't understand why toothpaste ever needs to look, smell, or taste like bubble gum.
7. Don't buy vitamins with synthetic and industrialized chemicals, colorings, additives, synthesized fillers, and binders.
8. Don't use products with nonstick treatments such as Teflon. Instead, choose cast iron or stainless steel. If you can't afford to replace this, at least discard those that show signs of deterioration.
9. Open your windows daily, especially while you cook and after you shower. Indoor air quality can be worse than outdoors, so let your home "breathe." Open your curtains and let in the sunlight, a natural antibacterial agent. While you're at it, bring in some air purifying plants. I have a snake plant that only cost $4, is extremely low maintenance, tolerant of irregular watering and less lighting, and has the potential to absorb airborne chemicals. They're also stylish looking plants that put me in a good mood.
10. Leave your shoes at the door so that you're not spreading outdoor pollutants and additional toxic dust throughout the house. This is the easiest thing you can do, and costs you nothing. I grew up in Hawaii where this is simply the local custom. More from Dr. Frank Lipman on this here.
Here's some helpful resources for information about chemicals, including much more details on ways to reduce toxic exposure: