By Leah Zerbe, Rodale.com
Use these tips to make the heart of your home a healthy haven.
Prepare for a fire. Mount an A-B-C, dry-chemical fire extinguisher at eye level near the exit of your kitchen. Review the usage instructions frequently, so you'll know how to use it should the need arise. You can dump baking soda on very small kitchen fires, as long as the stuff is clearly labeled--you don't want to use flour by mistake, since it's flammable. And remember to never pour water on grease fires; it's likely to splatter the grease and spread the flames. Keep a smoke detector nearby, too--but not a carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide detectors are affected by excessive humidity, and by close proximity to gas stoves, so they should be located way from kitchens (and bathrooms).
Vent a gas stove. Some cooks claim nothing beats making a meal on a natural gas stovetop. That may be true, but cooking with natural gas can also release high levels of nitrogen dioxide into your home--some studies have shown the kitchen is the place where humans are most often exposed to this type of pollution. If you're in the market for a gas stove, look for a model equipped with pilotless ignition--no need to have a pilot light constantly burning.
It's also important that your stove have an exhaust fan that ventilates to the outside. If the tip of the flame is yellow instead of blue, your stove needs adjusting by your gas company. And if you haven't already done so, ask the company that installed your stove to check the kitchen air supply, to make sure pollutants aren't being drawn back into your house. If you don't hire a certified technician to install your fan, at least consult with one to make sure your air supply is OK.
Clean greenly. We all like to keep our kitchens sparkling, and the good news is, the safest homemade cleaning products also tend to be the cheapest! Forego harsh cleaners that claim to be antimicrobial/antibacterial or disinfectant. They often contain chemicals that can irritate your lungs, eyes, and skin, and some have been found to contain carcinogens.
Instead, mix 1 part white vinegar and 9 parts water as a general cleaning solution that will wipe out nearly all germs. For a glass cleaner, mix 1 part white vinegar with 1 part water, and spray. And for cleanup after preparing meat, use hot, soapy water first (we prefer unscented castile soap), and then follow with the vinegar solution. For washing dishes, avoid detergents whose labels read like chemistry books and look for plant-based cleaners with no artificial fragrances.
Remodel with real wood. Cabinets and other kitchen furniture made out of pressed wood often are glued together with products that contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. If you're remodeling, avoid products that contain particleboard, and ask for plywood that doesn't contain formaldehyde.
The chemicals are released into the air over time, making buying older kitchen chairs from a flea market or antique shop a good bargain for your health as well as your wallet.
Phase out plastic containers. More and more studies are connecting certain plastics to health problems, with No. 3 (PVC) and No. 7 plastics that contain bisphenol A (BPA) raising the most warning flags. BPA is also found in many plastic takeout containers and canned food liners.
No. 6 plastics (polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam) also leach chemicals into food and drink. While Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics are considered safer options, we suggest storing your food in glass containers, and choosing a stainless steel reusable water bottle for bringing beverages on the go.
Clean your hands, clean your food. Foodborne illness outbreaks remind us that our food supply may not be as safe as we think it is. A 20-second plain-water rinse will get rid of some bacteria, but for better protection make your own natural cleaning concoction: Mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, and 1 cup cold tap water in a spray bottle, shake well, and apply to your produce. Rinse with tap water before cooking or serving.
Also remember to wash your hands before handling or preparing food; plain soap and water work as well at killing germs as soaps labeled "antibacterial."
Consider your pots and pans. Teflon and other nonstick pots and pans contain PFOA, perfluorinated chemicals that some studies have linked to fertility problems and thyroid disease. If you already have this type of cookware, cook things on low heat, avoid scratching it, and when it's time to buy replacements, look for unseasoned cast iron, stainless steel, or glass products.
Check your water. Municipally treated water, in general, is very safe; in fact, many bottled waters that seem extra pure are just municipal tap water. For extra protection, or if you don't like the taste from the tap, look for NFS-certified home water filters. If your water comes from a well, make sure you have your water tested at least annually to make sure it's free of harmful bacteria, viruses, and chemicals. If necessary, choose a water filtration system based on the test results.
Brew a safer cup of coffee. Bleached coffee filters contain small amounts of the toxin dioxin. Pick unbleached filters or, better yet, go filter-free by using a French press to prepare coffee. If you want to go the extra mile, choose organic, shade-grown coffee...that means the coffee was grown without leveling a rainforest or using harmful chemicals. Smithsonian's Bird-Friendly certification is considered the gold standard.
Opt for clean food. Food serves as the centerpiece of our kitchen, the thing that brings us all together. To keep the safest choices on hand, choose organic whenever you can. Pesticides commonly used in conventional agriculture contain about 180 hormone- disrupting chemicals that studies have linked to diabetes, Parkinson's disease, developmental problems, and even cancer. Buying organic also means you're not putting genetically modified food on the table. Genes from other organisms are commonly inserted into soy, corn, and canola crops in this country, and since they have been around less than 20 years, we don't fully know how these genetically modified foods impact the environment or us. Buy food that's in season and shop at farmer's markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs to get good deals.
Stop bugs safely. Chemical insecticides have been linked to childhood brain tumor development, lupus, ADHD, autism, and low IQs. To reduce the need for these harmful chemicals, keep things bug-free by cleaning up after preparing a meal, and put things like cereals, candy, and pet food in glass or metal sealable storage containers.
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