Detox your home

It's easy to get overwhelmed when it comes to reducing toxins in your home. Between harsh cleaning products, pesticides, and fertilizers — even furniture and toys! — it seems like there's always another story about something in your house that can harm you. Before you pull up stakes and start searching for a sterile bubble to live in, realize that taking small steps to cleaning up the most prevalent toxins can make a big impact.

“It's not about changing your entire house right now,” says Anca Novacovici, founder of Eco-Coach, a Washington, D.C.-based company that runs home eco-audits. “You only need to change what you can fit into your daily routine and what makes sense financially. I encourage people to pick two things to change now, and then in a month reevaluate and see if you can change more.” Here are the top toxins that may be lingering in your house, water, and yard, and some easy fixes to get you started.

When it comes to outdoor pollution, there's not a whole lot you can do to make a drastic change — but when we're talking about indoor environment, you have some control. “Indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air,” says Tom Kelly, director of the indoor-environments division at the Environmental Protection Agency. “What happens is that the air gets trapped inside and doesn't circulate like it does outside; second, the products you bring into the home can create a soup of pollutants.” (For a thorough booklet on indoor air quality, log on to epa.gov.)

You need to replace indoor air [with fresher outdoor air] once every three hours, suggests Kelly. The easiest way to do that is to open windows and doors. Even if you're not opening the windows, your main heating and cooling systems may help freshen things up if they operate with fans circulating air from outside. To improve indoor air quality, Kelly also recommends using a High Efficiency Particulate Arresting (HEPA) air filter, either a free-standing unit or one installed into your central air system

Use your nose

“Americans each use an average of 25 gallons of hazardous chemical products per year, most of which are in household cleaning products,” says Jennifer Sass, PhD, senior health and environmental scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The chemicals in cleaning products can lead to headaches, skin rashes, eye irritation, coughing, and wheezing, among other health issues. The easiest way to detect a toxic product? Use your sense of smell.

“If your cleanser has a strong odor, it may be releasing toxins,” says Kelly. And you can't rely on labels; cleaning products aren't required to list ingredients, says Denise Robinette, president of the Florida-based HealthyLiving Foundation. “Plus, with labels like ‘nontoxic’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ you don't really know what you're getting,” she cautions. “Look for more specific labels, like ‘fragrance-free.’” Fragrance is there to mask the chemical smell, so products without fragrance are less likely to be toxic, she explains. “If you want a fragrance, use an essential oil instead.”

Test for radon

“There are 20,000 deaths every year from lung cancer due to radon,” says Kelly. A gas produced by naturally occurring uranium in soil and water, radon can get into your house by leaking through areas of lower pressure (such as cracks in your house's foundation). “Radon is highly radioactive and, as it degrades, its toxic decay product attaches itself to dust. When you breathe, it gets into your lungs, where it can potentially maim cells — starting the process of cancer,” says Kelly.

Because radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, it's hard to detect, so Kelly recommends getting an inexpensive home testing kit (available at Home Depot, or through the National Safety Council at nsc.org). If your house tests high, you'll need to hire a company certified to reduce radon levels by sealing foundation cracks and placing a collection area in the subsoil or, in some cases, installing a ventilation system. To find your state radon office, go to epa.gov/iaq/whereyoulive.html.