As a parent, the holidays are a strange mix of pleasure and anxiety. There’s the wonderful opportunity to thank my children’s teachers for the amazing work they do. Then again, we have to make and deliver 12 teacher gifts! There’s the cherished time we have with our extended family. Then again, it’s a lot of family time, if you know what I mean! There’s all the fun new presents. Then again, there’s the risk that my kids will grow up to be permanently stunted by the relentless consumerism of our nation!
Time to breathe.
Which makes me think…that air I’m breathing is an important part of this holiday season. We spend approximately 90% of our time indoors. And while we often focus on sources of outdoor air pollution, there are many concrete things we can do to make sure the air we breathe inside our homes is as healthy as possible, especially around the holidays. What follows are some holiday tips for helping keep your indoor air safe.
1. For kids: Go shopping for a kid’s gift and it’s almost guaranteed that your options will be made out of plastic. Toys, backpacks, school supplies, raincoats, shoes, modeling clay, games – you name it, and it’s made of plastic. But is it made of the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic? If so, walk on by, for the sake of your family’s lungs. In addition to its highly damaging production process that pollutes surrounding communities and harms the health of factory workers, PVC can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates into your air. (Phthalates have been banned from PVC toys, but not from other PVC products.) VOCs aggravate asthma and cause headaches, among other health problems, and phthalates may disrupt the endocrine system. How to avoid PVC? Just say no to a product if the word “vinyl” is in its name, or if you see the number “3” or the letters“PVC” or “V” inside the universal recycling symbol, often found on the bottom of the product. Look instead for plastics labeled PVC-free, or for natural products such as solid wood, cotton, and wool.
2. For babies (and their parents): Avoid baby products with a label claiming that the item meets California Technical Bulletin 117 for flame resistance. Products with that label are likely to contain toxic chemical flame retardants. These chemicals are poured into products containing highly flammable polyurethane foam – but some scientists assert that the chemical additives provide few if any fire safety benefits. Meanwhile, nursing pillows, baby carriers, high chairs, nap mats, changing pads, and mattress toppers are among the baby products that have been found to contain toxic flame retardant chemicals. The chemicals migrate into the air and dust of our homes, and some have been linked to increased cancer risk.
3. For teens and tweens: Avoid perfumes and scented body products. Cosmetic companies do not have to broadcast what chemicals they use in their fragrances, because they are considered proprietary business information. Some independent research has revealed that big-brand fragrances including Britney Spears, Calvin Klein, and Abercrombie and Fitch contain hazardous chemicals such as phthalates and neurotoxins that may compromise the indoor air your family breathes. Check out this database of personal care products, ranked on factors including cancer, allergies, and reproductive toxicity, before you buy.
4. For technophiles: Electronic devices sometimes get a bad rap for increasing screen time and couch potato-ness. But they also can compromise your indoor air quality, because many of these largely plastic items are laden with flame retardant chemicals and PVCs. If you are purchasing an electronic device, consider buying from a company that uses relatively less BFRs and PVCs in its products. Greenpeace’s Green Electronics Guide is a good resource.
5. For foodies. Many a shiny kitchen pot, pan, or gadget includes a smooth, non-stick surface. This surface is achieved through the use of chemical coatings such as Teflon, known as PFCs, or perfluoronated chemicals. (This same family of chemicals provides stain resistance and water repellence in fabric treatments.) When they get overheated – such as when heating up on the stovetop—they can emit toxic fumes and cause flu-like symptoms. They have also been linked to an increased risk of cancer. If you are shopping to please your favorite cook, avoid non-stick kitchenware. Instead opt for stainless steel, cast iron, enameled steel, or oven-safe glass.
6. For fashionistas: For some women, a pressed shirt and a perfect manicure are the building blocks of every outfit. But both these symbols of a put-together look may contain carcinogenic formaldehyde, which can off-gas and irritate the nose and lungs. Avoid giving nail polish or the gift of a salon manicure – unless you are sure the polish or the salon use formaldehyde-free polish. And avoid wrinkle-free clothing, as the fabric treatment that keeps the wrinkles out may also contain formaldehyde.
7. For the home: Formaldehyde (see above) can also be found in pressed wood, laminate, and particleboard products, where it can off-gas into your home’s indoor air. If you are planning to give the gift of furniture, look for solid wood. Same goes for wood toys and baby furniture.
8. A season of warmth: Take it easy on the fireplace. Wood burning creates harmful soot pollution right inside your home, and worsens local ambient air quality outside your home. The fine particles in soot can harm us at every life stage, from pregnancy through old age, by reducing birth weight, increasing infant mortality, and triggering heart attacks and stroke. Make sure you burn cleanly (ducts are clean, wood is dry, etc.) and/or decide to burn less.
9. A season of light: Whether they light your Hanukkah menorah or your New Year’s Eve dinner table, this season sparkles with candlelight. But that sparkle may come along with some decidedly ugly emissions: Toluene and benzene are among the carcinogenic air pollutants that can be emitted from petroleum-based candles, such as paraffin wax. Make sure your candles brighten your home without fouling your air by choosing non-petroleum based waxes.
10. A season of good smells: Too often, “holiday” smells are created in a factory from petroleum byproducts and sprayed on with a can. Artificial fragrances can send volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your indoor air, which worsen asthma and cause headaches, among other health effects. This season, make your house smell delicious with natural, beautiful projects such as an orange pomander or by using essential oil sprays.
What are your tips for breathing easy this holiday season?
by Molly Rauch