When it comes to our health, we hear a lot about what we eat and how to move, but there’s one big area (no pun intended) that tends to get ignored— our homes and air pollution. People spend 80 to 90 percent of their time inside, and indoor environments can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor environments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. At our panel on April 10, 2018, WellBe heard from experts in the field on how indoor air pollution affects chronic disease risk— and how to protect ourselves (hint: start with the small things).
Watch panelists Dr. Taz Bhatia, integrative and functional medicine physician; Sacha Dunn, founder and CEO of natural cleaning products company Common Good; Nneka Leiba, the Environmental Working Group’s director of Healthy Living Science; and Christopher Satch, head of plant science and education at plant company The Sill as they spoke to the audience at ABC Carpet & Home’s Deepak Chopra Homebase:
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Environmental toxins are an emerging risk.
In Dr. Taz’s practice, she’s seeing blood and lab test results come back with toxins as the root of many health issues. When it comes to research, though, it gets murky between what studies are showing versus what she sees in clinical practice. “There are some things we know for sure, and there are some things we are super suspicious of,” she said.
It’s established that asthma, allergies, chronic lung disease, and a lot of autoimmune diseases are connected to air pollution and mold and mildew are connected to chronic fatigue. “We are highly suspicious that the exploding rate of cancer that we see today is connected to indoor pollution as well,” Dr. Taz said.
In her practice, she sees a toxicity component to mental health (anxiety, depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia) and neurocognitive disorders (dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), as well.
Indoor air pollution isn’t the sole source of the toxicity, however. The cumulative effect of everything you’re exposed to— including indoor pollution, outdoor pollution, your gut health —adds up. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed! Skip down to point 6 for good news.
Air fresheners are terrible for your health.
Spraying air freshener releases fine particles that include synthetic fragrances that can hold up to 200 different chemicals, many of which can have hormone-disrupting ingredients, phthalates, and potential carcinogens. “[It’s] probably the worst of all the household cleaning products that you could bring in your home,” Dunn said.
Besides synthetic fragrances, other big no-nos for household cleaning products are those with chlorine or ammonia. Going as simple as soap and water is a great way to clean, Dunn said.
Other products to avoid are plastic shower curtains and dryer balls. That “new plastic” smell is the material releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals known to have harmful effects including asthma, eye and nose irritation, and cancer. With dryer balls, while they help fluff your clothes and reduce energy use, heating up the plastic releases VOCs. Dunn suggests using felt dryer balls instead.
Plants will help detox your home!
Besides purchasing cleaning products with minimal ingredients, one effective way to lower the chemicals in your home is by adding in plants. “Plants have been selected over time by nature. If you weren’t able to survive the volcanoes’ explosion or the fallout from the explosion, then you didn’t pass on those genes and the ones that did survive contain the air cleaning genes,” Satch said.
Plant types each have different ways of improving air quality, including some that ingest VOCs, absorb them, and then rip them apart at a chemical level, detoxifying them so they aren’t harmful.
Any plant will help, but if you want to put your home on a 24/7 cleaning cycle, a snake plant is a good addition because it absorbs the bad stuff at night— most plants work during the day. Add a Calathea or fern to the mix to cover cleaning during the day.
Opening your windows will also help clear the air in your home, especially when you’re using cleaning products.
Keeping tabs on environmental changes and your health can help get to the root cause.
If you’re noticing your health has changed, start thinking about your home and work environments for potential indoor pollutants, Dr. Taz said. She’s heard patient stories of people who work in a “sick building” where someone in one cubicle had cancer, someone in another had rheumatoid arthritis, and someone in another had Crohn’s disease. When it comes to your home, keep in mind whether the building is new or old— each has its issues. Older homes may struggle with mold, asbestos, poor ventilation, or fluorescent light bulbs. A lot of newer homes are made with prefabricated wood and paints that release VOCs. Dr. Taz suggests her patients walk through their homes and look at the construction, materials, paint, furniture, and plastic.
Toxic mold can lead to inflammatory disease and chronic fatigue. If you’re feeling like something’s off with your health, buy a mold plate online to easily assess if you’ve got mold colonies.
Another resource is Dr. Taz’s Toxic Load Quiz. Grab a pen and paper, total up what your toxicity score is, and read her tips for reducing the toxic load.
Voting with your dollars works.
The vast majority of products used in homes are not fully tested for safety— we become the guinea pigs and they only get tested if people end up sick, Leiba said. “There needs to be a sea shift of public policy so it’s more protective of public health than it is of industry,” she said.
The panelists agreed that they’re seeing change happen with individual companies because of public pressure and fear of losing customers.
“The government is twiddling its thumbs, but companies are stepping forward and doing it because consumers are demanding it,” Leiba said.
That means, be demanding! Support companies that are taking care of your health and the environment and say no to those using harmful chemicals.
Control what you can and don’t freak out!
OK, this all sounds pretty daunting, right? Take it one step at a time! “I think the overwhelming part for everybody, and I see it on everyone’s face when I’m talking to them, is ‘Well, I can’t eat this food, I can’t drink this water, I can’t live here, so what am I supposed to do exactly?’ I think you control what you can, you pick a few categories and that’s the best you can do,” Dr. Taz said.
From a health standpoint, Dr. Taz suggests prioritizing gut health because the gut is the number one organ of detoxification. (May we suggest adding bone broth, kimchi, and sauerkraut to your diet?) Dunn suggests avoiding plastic wherever we can. “The kids are being taught to reduce, reuse, recycle, but the emphasis is always on recycle and we need to shift the focus to: Let me think, ‘Do I really need this and is there an alternative to the plastic version?’”
One of the easiest things you can do is dust. “A lot of the chemicals that come into our home fall out of the air and end up in our dust. We bring in chemicals,” Leiba said. Her home gets really dusty, quickly, and she noticed that her allergies were much worse inside. After she started vacuuming more frequently, her symptoms improved a lot.
Leiba also suggested getting a water filter. The EWG found more than 250 chemicals in drinking water— we created our water filter guide based on their report — and most of those can be reduced by a simple water filter.
Then, when it comes time for a bigger purchase, like furniture, look for options that don’t have flame retardants, as those have been linked to endocrine disruption and cancer.
The Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Guide Home Guide looks at everything from flooring to cleaning products, so definitely use it as a resource to help find alternatives and simple solutions (including vacuuming more often).
“Any change that you make is one step towards [getting rid of] some of these exposures. You have to take it in your own stride and you also have figure out what is your thing,” Leiba said. “If you need that hair dye or that certain cleaning product, that’s your ride-or-die, go for it. There are so many other things that you can do. It takes one step at a time.”