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Video: Most toxic rooms in your home

TODAY
updated 5/16/2008 11:54:55 AM ET 2008-05-16T15:54:55

From your lush lawn to your home office, HEALTH magazine uncovers some of the most toxic places in your home and ways to detox them. If you feel overwhelmed, start small and do what you can to reduce exposure without compromising your whole standard of life.

Your lush lawn
Before you stretch out on (or let your kids run barefoot through) that green grass, consider that it may be blanketed with toxic pesticides. “The commonly used insecticides are all chemical cousins of the wartime gas sarin, which was used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack,” says Philip J. Landrigan, MD, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

“And the commonly used herbicides are chemical first cousins of Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam.” So, that “healthy” lawn has the potential to increase your family’s risks of cancer or neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. That’s partly because lawn-care pesticides “aren’t selective killers,” explains Jennifer Sass, PhD, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C. — many can have an impact on your health.

There is good news, though: More and more towns are enacting neighbor-notification laws, requiring residents to issue warnings before spraying so people can shut their windows or even clear out with their kids and pets (the health danger lasts for days for the commonly used insecticides and weeks for the herbicides). If your town doesn’t have this law, ask neighbors to let you know when they’re spraying — and what they’re using.

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On your own turf, do only integrated pest management (IPM), a gentler, environmentally sensitive way of preventing, monitoring, and controlling pests. Safer ecofriendly and organic lawn sprays and other nonchemical options — from aphid-eating ladybugs to heat (electrocution) for termites — are surprisingly effective. Caveat: You may not have the most manicured lawn on the block, but to keep your family safe you have to learn to live with a few dandelions.

Your child's toy box
The main threat here is lead-coated toys. In the past two fiscal years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued 21 recalls of lead-tainted toys, including learning toys and train sets, most of which were made in China (this number doesn’t include lead-related children’s-jewelry recalls).

If you have little ones, consider lead the number-one danger in your home, Landrigan says. In very high doses, lead can cause convulsions and brain damage in young children. But if children are exposed to it in even small amounts, they can have a loss of IQ, a shortening of attention span, and behavioral problems. They’re also more likely to have dyslexia and to drop out of school.

Checking every toy in the house for lead may not help because not all home tests are accurate. Instead, make smart buys. Research toys at www.healthytoys.org before you go shopping. Other ways to protect your kids: Have them wash their hands after playing and before eating, and get them tested for lead.

Your closet
Mothballs are really dangerous chemicals, the vapors are carcinogenic and are also irritating to the nervous system. In fact, if your child swallows one, it can be fatal. Inhaling mothball vapors overnight doesn’t mean you will get cancer tomorrow, but it increases your long-term risk. So use safer moth-repelling alternatives like dried-lavender and cedar products.

And your work clothes swathed in dry-cleaning bags? They harbor perchloroethylene, the most common dry-cleaning chemical, which causes cancer in lab animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Heavy exposure to this substance can cause dizziness and confusion, even in adults, so it’s best to minimize your use of dry cleaning. Machine-wash whatever you can on the delicate cycle (not everything labeled “dry-clean only” needs it). Another option: Find a professional cleaner who uses less-toxic solutions, like CO2, or does wet cleaning (a combo of water, biodegradable soap, and steam in special machines).

If you have an item conventionally dry-cleaned, remove it from plastic and air it outside for several hours before hanging it in the closet. This will give the chemicals time to evaporate, reducing the health risk.

Your cat's litter box
Anyone who has changed a litter box is familiar with that cough-inducing dust cloud. It likely contains low levels of crystalline silica, a carcinogen so check the bag or box before you pour it into Fluffy’s litter box. If the warning says to go to the ER if you swallow, it’s safe to assume it’s really toxic. Replace with greener versions made from corn, wheat, alfalfa, cedar, and even pine—all of which work well. You can find natural litters at major pet stores. To give the natural variety an odor-eating boost, mix in a little baking soda. And be sure to keep boxes in ventilated spots such as a screened-in porch.

Your home office
What’s in your home office or cube? Eye and lung irritants from copy-machine toners and fax-machine ink cartridges, in addition to gases from permanent markers, vapors from pesticides, and formaldehyde fumes from particleboard furniture. In the short term, these products—particularly in tightly sealed office buildings — can cause sick-building syndrome, a real illness that’s characterized by symptoms like headache and fatigue. Sick-building syndrome is the result of inadequate ventilation, so if there are no windows in your office, ask a manager to have air exchanges and filters turned on before the workday begins. Your request might fall on deaf ears, but it could also spur change. Why bother? Some of the compounds found in offices are neurotoxic, which means they can cause tingling or numbness and permanent damage to the nervous system over the long term.

At your office, avoid printers and copiers in your immediate work space and take 10-minute walks outside during the day to get fresh air. At home, keep printers and fax machines out of the bedroom, crack windows, and add chemical-removing plants. (See below.)

Plants that help
These three easy-to-find houseplants act as natural air purifiers:

Areca Palm removes xylene (from permanent markers and rubber cement).

Boston fern removes formaldehyde (from fiberboard furniture, glues and adhesives, and permanent-press fabrics).

English ivy removes benzene (from oven cleaners, detergents, furniture polish, and spot removers).

For more information and helpful tips, visit www.health.com

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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