7 ways to cancer-proof your home
You wouldn't feed your family a food that you knew caused cancer. But what if you're spraying a cancer-causing chemical every time you clean your sink? In the past few years, consumer health groups have studied many household products and warned that they contain carcinogens, or ingredients known to cause cancer. Here are the prime products to send packing, along with safer replacements to substitute.
If it's hard for you to avoid these products, don't panic. In most cases, the likelihood that using them will tip you from no cancer to cancer is actually pretty small. Still, little risks can add up, and who wouldn't want to eliminate potential hazards from the home if it's not too onerous to do so?
1. Beauty Products
Your makeup bag and medicine cabinet may be hazardous to your health, containing chemicals that are known carcinogens. Philip Landrigan, dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, advises avoiding the "dirty dozen" toxic chemicals in skin care listed in National Geographic's Green Guide, including antibacterials; formaldehyde; hydroquinone; mercury and lead; parabens; phenylenediamine; coal tar; diethanolamine; 1,4-Dioxane; nanoparticles; and petroleum distillates.
According to Landrigan, chemicals belonging to a class called phthalates are among the biggest culprits in beauty products because they mimic the action of our natural hormones. Phthalates such as dibutyl phthalate (DBP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP) are used in beauty products as "plasticizers," to harden nail polish, help hair spray adhere to the hair, and fix scent in perfumes. Phthalates are also found in the flexible plastic bottles in which shampoo, lotion, and other beauty products are stored, and they can leach into the contents.
Another of the worst offenders is lipstick, which may contain lead, known to cause numerous health problems, including cancer. In response to a public health effort by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the FDA recently conducted two separate investigations testing lipsticks for lead, and the results were pretty scary. Lead was detected in every single one of the lipsticks tested, and not in small amounts. The first FDA test revealed lead levels up to 3.06 ppm (parts per million), and the second test found lead levels up to 7.19 ppm.
Lastly, be aware that beauty labels are not always honest. In one recent study, keratin-based hair straighteners labeled "formaldehyde-free" were found to contain formaldehyde. While the levels found were fairly low, stylists are at risk because of repeated exposure.
Safer substitute: The generic term "fragrance" can cover a lot of chemical additives; choose fragrance-free products or fragrances made from botanical ingredients. Natural skin care and beauty companies sell natural and organic skin care lines that list their ingredients transparently and are free of phthalates, heavy metals such as lead, and other toxic chemicals.
2. Cleaning Products
Most cleaning products are based on artificial chemicals, and some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health issues. But uh-oh, experts say chemicals in our indoor air may have concentrations of up to 100 times higher than outdoor air.
Air fresheners are among the worst offenders; many contain either Isopar, which is deodorized kerosene, or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic and toxic to the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Be particularly careful when using anything you spray in the air or wipe on touchable surfaces. Among cleansers, oxygen bleach cleansers are particularly dangerous; you also want to watch out for products containing chlorine bleach or ammonia. Neither of these are good to breathe. The worst practice, experts say? Spraying chlorine bleach in the shower or bathroom, where the steam makes you more likely to breathe it in.
Safer substitute: There are lots of good "green" cleaning products on the market that use natural ingredients to scrub, disinfect, and shine. Look for products containing citrus oils and enzymes. Or make your own using baking soda, lemon juice, and vinegar added to water.
3. VOC Paint
According to the EPA, paints, varnishes, waxes, and some cleaning supplies contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to cause cancer. According to the EPA, "VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands; examples include paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, and building materials and furnishings. . . ." They release organic compounds into the air while you're using them, and to some degree afterward, at least while drying. Probably the worst of these chemicals is methylene chloride, which is a documented carcinogen in animals, and benzene, which is documented for cancer in humans. Methylene chloride is in most paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. Another danger of this chemical is that it is converted to carbon monoxide in the body and can therefore cause the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Benzene is in stored paint supplies and fuels.
Safer substitute: Paints labeled "low-VOC" are safer than regular paints. But one brand of paint, Mythic, contains no toxins, carcinogens, or VOCs; it's so safe that it meets LEED green building standards. If you wish to use paints and other products containing VOCs, work outdoors or in the garage when possible (such as when refinishing a piece of furniture). Adequate ventilation is key, so when painting indoors, open all the windows and doors and turn on fans. (Tip: Paint in the spring and summer, when it's warm and you can air out the house.)
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