I’ve always been pretty eco. I’m vegetarian, recycle as much as possible, buy lots secondhand and rarely fly. But realising the scale of chemical pollution and uncovering toxic free solutions really transformed my thinking. I soon realised there’s much more we can all be doing at home and beyond to positively impact our own health and that of the planet. The trouble is, toxic chemicals are usually invisible, and pollution is, by its very nature, diffuse. We live in a toxic cocktail so we’re never exposed to just one pollutant at any one time and, often, the consequences may only become apparent years, if not decades, after exposure.
Of course, we need more stringent global regulations that ensure that all chemical ingredients and formulations in everything from household cleaning and personal care products to furniture and fashion, are both safe and healthy.
Until then, here’s my room-by-room guide to reducing your own chemical footprint.
Toxic Free Kitchen
Clean consciously: So many everyday cleaning products contain disinfectants such as chlorine bleach, a potent and toxic chemical that releases chloroform, a gas vapour that is believed to cause liver, kidney and thyroid cancer. A 30-year study released in 2017 suggests that using bleaching agents just once a week could increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by as much as 32 per cent.
But, we don’t need our homes to be sterile. In most situations, a simple homemade spray mix of 100ml white vinegar, 100ml water and a teaspoon of lemon juice is sufficient to clean surfaces and won’t be a hazard when washed down the plughole either. Nancy Birtwhistle’s book, Clean & Green is packed full of brilliantly easy recipes.
If you do buy supermarket cleaning products be aware that just because a label uses earthy tones and images of leaves it doesn’t mean a product is good for the environment. Transparency is crucial so look for brands displaying reputable certifications such as Fairtrade, Cradle2Cradle or B Corp. Download an eco-conscious shopping app, such as Yuka or Detox Me, so you can quickly decipher labels and make better choices.
Once home, use smaller squirts of products wherever possible. That will simultaneously reduce your toxic load by cutting down on the number of different chemicals you use. Streamlining your cleaning routine will save you cupboard space, money and hassle, too.
Eat organically:Whenever possible, opt for organic produce that’s been grown without the heavy use of pesticides, those agricultural chemicals sprayed onto crops to kill bugs, pests and weeds that are quite literally toxic by design. An organic diet can rapidly reduce the amount of glyphosate – the main active ingredient in commercial weedkillers – in the body by 70 per cent after six days.
Go fragrance-free: Many perfumed products contain a mix of chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can include cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting substances. Streamline your bathroom cabinet by opting for personal care products without synthetic smells. Avoid the air freshener trap too – they are a concentrated source of indoor air contaminant containing VOC’s and phthalates (used as fixatives for fragrances) that can disrupt our hormone system. Fewer than 10 per cent of air freshener ingredients are usually disclosed to consumers on labels. Instead, open the bathroom window and try using a few drops of essential oil.
Have a greener period: Menstrual products are used in one of the most absorbent and highly sensitive areas of our bodies. Up to 90 per cent of menstrual pads and six per cent of tampons are plastic and contain an alarming number of toxics including fragrances and pesticide residues from conventional cotton-farming practices. Many are contaminated with PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl) or ‘forever chemicals’ that have been linked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a range of health risks including decreased fertility and increased risk of certain cancers.
For a less toxic period, switch to 100 per cent certified organic cotton disposables, avoid products with synthetic fragrances, added lubricants and odour neutralising technology. Consider using a reusable menstrual cup made of medical-grade silicone.
Bust the dust: We ingest house dust without realising it, and every ounce contains a mixture of chemicals including fragrances from household cleaners and air fresheners, pesticides from pets and gardens, and flame retardants from textiles and electronics. Dust regularly with a simple damp cloth and remember to wipe down surfaces of electrical items such as the TV and WiFi router.
Power down: Electrical waste or e-waste is the fastest growing domestic waste stream in the world – an estimated 50 million tonnes of tech is thrown away globally every year, yet every old phone, gadget and cable is full of useful resources, including precious metals. As shoppers, we can help reduce the demand to mine more materials by repairing, reusing and recycling items.
Fairphone is made using ethically mined precious metals, it’s a modular mobile phone which is easy to fix using a screwdriver, so it literally won’t cost the Earth.
Clear your closet: From the poisonous chromium metal salts that are added to speed up the tanning process for leather goods to the everlasting ‘forever chemicals’ used to make textiles waterproof, there are unwanted surprises in every wardrobe. While these added extras don’t make your clothing dangerous to wear, their production often results in chemicals leaching into the waterways during fabric production and poses a serious health hazard to factory workers and local residents. Forever chemicals won’t ever biodegrade – they persist in the soil, water, air and inside our bodies.
Fast fashion is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Overall, the fashion industry is responsible for as much as 10 per cent of global emissions, according to the United Nations, more than aviation and shipping combined. So find joy in shopping for secondhand clothes, proudly wear outfits on repeat and get creative with sewing repairs to make garments last. Support ethical brands that have repair schemes, and if they don’t, request it because the more eco-conscious consumers voice their concerns, the greater scope there is for big change.
Breathe easy: While asleep, body heat increases the amount of chemicals that can be released from conventional mattresses including flame retardants such as benzene and formaldehyde. If your mattress is releasing harmful chemicals, you’re literally breathing in toxins for hours every night
Most mattresses tend to be made from polyurethane foam, polyester, adhesives and then treated with flame retardants and stain-resistant or antibacterial chemicals. Instead of buying a new one, invest in a decent topper made from 100 per cent natural materials, such as wool or latex, opt for bedding made from unbleached natural materials such as organic cotton, hemp or Tencel and if possible, leave the window ajar to ensure ventilation throughout the night.
Anna Turns is a UK-based environmental journalist and author of Go Toxic Free: Easy and Sustainable Ways to Reduce Chemical Pollution (Michael O’Mara)