Dr Leila Masson's Blog

Three Easy Steps Towards a Cleaner Home Environment

Three Easy Steps Towards a Cleaner Home Environment

Research on the health risks from exposure to environmental toxins is increasingly common. However, a cleaner home environment may be just as important as the air pollution in the community around us.

Making a Difference with Air Pollution

The harmful toxins from air pollution outside the home have alarmed some parents who are asking:

  • How could one person clean up smog and pollution from a local coal-burning power plant?
  • How could we fight the spraying of pesticides in nearby fields?

The solutions to these situations are, of course, not feasible quickly and by individuals. This fact is upsetting to those who understand how much these toxins can affect our children’s health.

Most Air Pollution Is Inside the Home

The truth is that children are more likely to be affected by the air they breathe in their own home rather than outside air. Most of the pesticide exposure comes from the food they eat and insect sprays used around the house, rather than what is sprayed in the neighbourhood.

Of course, we need to fight for a cleaner environment, better air, fewer emissions from cars and overall lower use of pesticides. While we plan how to get friends and community involved in that noble and vital cause, we can start to protect our children (and ourselves) by taking steps to provide a cleaner home environment with a few simple steps.

Create a Healthy Home

That environment includes the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, the creams and soaps we put on our skin and of course the food we eat.
So where should you start?

Three Steps to a Cleaner Home Environment
Here are 3 simple steps you can take today:

  1. Clean up the air inside your home by opening your windows and ventilating the house well

This will reduce the fumes from paint, glues, furniture (for example formaldehyde in pressed wood), mold and dust mites and lead to a cleaner home. If there are any smokers in your home, suggest a Quit Smoking program (they often provide free nicotine patches), or give them a voucher for a hypnotherapy session. Also, Allen Carr’s book has helped millions of people to stop smoking.

This is vitally important if you have a child with asthma, as he or she is 85% more likely to end up in a hospital if there is a smoker in the home. A recent study analyzed data from 25 trials that included 430,000 children. It found that asthmatic children who breathed air with cigarette smoke had triple the risk of poor lung function compared to other children with asthma. This study by Wang et al. was published in the Annals of Asthma, Allergies, and Immunology in October 2015 (1).

  1. Stop using insect sprays and pesticides for a cleaner home and garden

Just this year glyphosate or ‘Round-Up’ has been classified by the IARC as a probable carcinogen for humans, because it has been linked to an increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans and many kinds of malignant tumors in animal studies (2).

Researchers from Harvard University did a meta-analysis of 16 studies and found that children who have been exposed to indoor pesticides or herbicides have an increased risk of developing leukemia and lymphoma (3).

In another study, the children with the highest concentration of pesticides in their urine were the ones who had hyperactive behavior and poor attention (ADHD) (4).

There are many non-toxic natural ways to keep insects controlled:

– cover all food or put it in the fridge
– install fly screens in front of windows
– use electric devices that emit high-pitched sounds humans cannot hear, but that annoy insects and hopefully stop them from hanging out in our homes

There are many reasons why children are more at risk from pesticides compared to adults:

– they breathe, drink and eat a lot more for their size
– the body’s protective mechanisms, such as the blood-brain barrier (which is supposed to keep toxins out of the brain)
are not mature and
– their detoxification organs, like the liver and kidney, do not yet work at full speed

Pesticides come mostly from food

Most of the pesticides found in children come from what they eat. That is why it is an excellent idea to try and eat as much organic food as possible. In fact, you can reduce the amount of pesticide in your child’s body within a few days of giving them an organic diet (5).

The Environmental Working Group has a list of the dirty dozen – the vegetables and fruit that have the highest content of pesticides and should ideally always be sourced organically. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese, and meats have a higher concentration of pesticides, as these accumulate in animals; so reduce the intake of animal products or choose organic.

  1. Choose what you put on you and your children’s skin carefully

It gets absorbed into the body and can affect the skin’s health as well as hormones and even the immune system.

In particular shy away from anything that contains SLS (which makes soap foam), that can disrupt the skin barrier. Also phthalates, a group of chemicals that are used to make plastic soft and which are found in all kinds of body care products, from lotions to baby shampoo. They are often hidden on the label as “perfumes or fragrance.”

It is not easy to avoid phthalates, but possible if you follow a few easy suggestions. First of all your young child does not need many body care products. I would restrict it to clean water, a small amount of natural, organic soap for the really dirty parts, an organic lotion for dry skin or a nappy rash.

Avoid bubble bath; shampoo is unnecessary for young children; older ones only need to wash their hair when it is dirty – and that may just be every 1-2 weeks. EWG has lists of safe moisturizers, baby lotions, baby shampoos and other products. Go for brands that are organic and chemical-free, such as the EcoStore or Divine by Therese Kerr.

Avoid sterilizing your home environment

Another mistake we tend to make is to want to sterilize our environment. A cleaner home is one thing; however, it can be too sterile!
Humans can only live with and because of their microbiome – all the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in and on us.
We carry 100 trillion bacteria in our guts, on our skin, in the lining of our mouths, lungs, etc. – this is 10 times more than we have cells in our bodies.

In a way, we have evolved as containers for the microbes on earth! They have been around for billions of years, much longer than us humans. We have found out that it is not a great idea to kill all those bugs by disinfecting our houses, our hands, and our bodies, as that increases the risk of allergies and asthma (and a long list of other health problems) (6).

Avoid Triclosan for a safer, cleaner home environment

Triclosan is an especially nasty disinfectant, and I recommend avoiding any product that contains it, as it can irritate the skin, eyes and also act as a hormone disruptor (interfering for example with thyroid hormone).

Beware Nail Polish Peril

Here is a tip for the fashion conscious: be careful with nail polish. It contains some of the highest amounts of toxins of all cosmetic products, in particular, the toxic trio of cancer-causing formaldehyde, neurotoxic toluene (a solvent that can affect the brain and nervous system) and DBP (dibutyl phthalate), which can cause reproductive problems, such as premature birth and small babies. It is much safer to choose one without these.

References:

  1. Wang, Z., May, S. M., Charoenlap, S., Pyle, R., Ott, N. L., Mohammed, K., & Joshi, A. Y. (2015). Effects of secondhand smoke exposure on asthma morbidity and health care utilization in children: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2015.08.005
  2. Guyton, K. Z., Loomis, D., Grosse, Y., El Ghissassi, F., Benbrahim-Tallaa, L., Guha, N., … Straif, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. The Lancet. Oncology, 16(5), 490–491. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(15)70134-8
  3. Chen, M., Chang, C.-H., Tao, L., & Lu, C. (2015). Residential Exposure to Pesticide During Childhood and Childhood Cancers: A Meta-Analysis. PEDIATRICS, peds.2015–0006–. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-0006
  4. Bouchard, M. F., Bellinger, D. C., Wright, R. O., & Weisskopf, M. G. (2010). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics, 125(6), e1270–7. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-3058
  5. Lu, C., Toepel, K., Irish, R., Fenske, R. A., Barr, D. B., & Bravo, R. (2006). Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(2), 260–3. Retrieved from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1367841&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract
  6. Arrieta, M.-C., Stiemsma, L. T., Dimitriu, P. A., Thorson, L., Russell, S., Yurist-Doutsch, S., … Brett Finlay, B. (2015). Early infancy microbial and metabolic alterations affect risk of childhood asthma. Science Translational Medicine, 7(307), 307ra152–307ra152. doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aab2271

Dr Leila Masson

Sydney based paediatrician specialised in nutritional and environmental medicine. Author of the handy 'Children's Health A to Z' guide for parents. Dr Masson lectures internationally on children's health.

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