Making sure your home is a safe haven for your family is par for the course for most parents, from stocking healthy food in the larder, to keeping the place spick and spam. But are your hygienic habits actually causing more harm than good? Time Out Kids investigates
The latest reports on chemicals in the home from the World Health Organisation [WHO] make for fairly grim reading. While we’re used to being told off by various industry experts when it comes to domestic health and safety, especially if these ‘said experts’ have a product to sell, the very fact that the WHO has waded into the argument, should, for the majority of us, set the alarm bells ringing.
Why? Well, worryingly, an alarmingly large number of global health issues are now being blamed on everyday products used in the home, from cleaning chemicals and plastic toys, to PVC flooring, furniture preservatives and even interior paints. The main culprits, namely chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), modern flame retardants and a number of other man-made compounds, are thought to interfere with natural hormones that are key to our growth, development and overall health. They have also been linked to rising levels of asthma, allergies, breast cancer, infertility and even birth defects. As a result, more and more public spaces and homes are becoming what are classed as ‘chemical free’. But what does that actually mean, and does it require us all to make annoyingly time consuming and expensive life changes?
Lucy Bruce, mum of three and founder of Home Grown, a sustainable, eco nursery which has ditched as many chemical-carriers as possible in favour of a more natural approach, says moving from conventional methods has not been as difficult as she thought, and has opened her eyes to the number of man-made compounds and chemicals that might be hazardous in our every day environment.
She says; ‘We have been using chemical free cleaning products in the nursery since we opened in September 2011. The whole concept of Home Grown Children’s Eco Nursery is not only to have a curriculum which teaches our children about the beauty of our planet and how to love and take care of all living things but to also have a space that is as organic and eco friendly as we possibly can. Because of this it was an obvious choice to use chemical free cleaning products in the nursery.’
For Lucy, the decision to go chemical free is as much to do with making her student’s immediate environment safer, as well as being more eco minded. ‘It is not only kinder to our planet but also has many benefits for children; the main advantage being that the kids are not exposed to harmful chemicals which can cause long term health complications,’ she explains, noting that she also practices the same philosophy in her own home. ‘I had been using eco-friendly cleaning products in my home for several years but switched to being completely chemical-free after seeing how effectively it worked within the nursery.’
And it’s Lucy’s personal experience of using natural products that provides a convincing argument. ‘My daughter suffers from allergies and I noticed that her skin improved within weeks of changing to chemical free cleaning products. I also no longer had to worry about the dangers of having chemicals around my children because they are simply eradicated from the house. One of the great advantages of using chemical free cleaning products is that you are doing your bit for the environment and hopefully teaching your children about the damaging effects that using chemicals can have on our environment and ourselves.’
Toni Snyder, a marketing manager and mum to Oliver, aged three, has been practicing chemical free living since she was a child. ‘I’m that way inclined, ‘she says. ‘My mum is a hippy who lives in the mountains in California (where I grew up). My grandmother also uses no chemicals or medication, so I was raised that way.’
She believes that maintaining a more natural lifestyle is actually easier in Dubai than it is in America. ‘I came to Dubai 10 years ago and things were much simpler and everyone was more natural back then. There wasn’t a huge amount of choice in terms of processed products and a lot of things on sale were influenced by the Hindu culture, which does lean much more towards natural living.’
My over-riding reason for cutting down on chemicals in the home even more comes down to motherhood,’ says Toni. ‘From the day my son was born, I realised I had to try and be as careful as possible with him. My move to being completely chemical free has been a more recent thing. After I had a few house keepers, who left cupboards unlocked or products on the floor – or within my son’s reach, I was afraid he was going to get his hands on them. Modern cleaning products are highly dangerous – all a child has to do is get a little in their mouths and it can be fatal. I didn’t want to have that fear hanging over me.’
Toni began to use white vinegar as a disinfectant for floors, and bicarbonate of soda as an all-purpose cleaner. She says, ‘Safety is a huge thing. Now if my little boy does get his hands on the cleaning stuff, he can drink it, and it won’t do him any harm.’
She adds that economic cost and her family’s overall health contributed to her decision. ‘It’s actually much cheaper to go chemical free. A gallon of white vinegar costs Dhs5, and a gallon of floor cleaner costs at least Dhs20 – but they really do work in the same way. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant and preservative, so it kills a lot of germs, but is perfectly safe to use around children and babies. I suffer from eczema, as does my son, who also has some contact allergies. Because of this, making sure our environment doesn’t contain a lot of man-made chemicals that could make his situation worse, is more important than ever.’
Martin Fodor, a UK-based expert in chemical free homes, energy-saving, recycling and sustainability, believes we all need to take more care when it comes to keeping our homes not only clean, but furnished too. He says; ‘There are various unhealthy and dangerous chemicals still too commonly in routine use. These include hormone disrupters, carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals), and volatile organic compounds (commonly found in paints). There are also various other toxins we can do without - and also harmful things like mould spores which can cause respiratory illness, from cold damp rooms. Think of the smell of a new home or freshly decorated room; it’s a chemical cocktail you are taking in, from carpets, paints, and so on.’
And, he points, families need learn about which substances in everyday items can be harmful to health. ‘A surprising number of things contain unhealthy chemicals. We’ve all heard about artificial colourings, perhaps. Some of these contain harmful ‘azo dyes’ to get red and yellow colours into things. There a various hazards in plastics too (especially when they are heated in microwaves, or chewed), cleaners, scents, and bleaches which aren’t healthy either. Think about what’s under the sink, and in the shed or garage, too. Look out for things like chlorine, butyl/alkyls, ethylene or ethyls, phenols, benzene and formaldehyde.’
Martin agrees with Toni that making your home more natural really doesn’t have to be more expensive, and that most household cleaning tasks can be carried out just as effectively using a non-industrial cleaning agent. ‘I don’t agree that doing things in an eco-way has to be more expensive,’ he says. ‘My experience is that most things can be done well without powerful, synthetic chemicals. For example; washing up usually works very well with more natural products - especially if you avoid burning food and wipe off heavy grease with a tissue first (it could go into a food waste collection or compost bin after).
‘And remember, it won’t cost more if you use simple, traditional ingredients. In any case, many homes nowadays are far too over-cleaned and therefore saturated with chemical air fresheners and synthetic smells. I prefer to air a room, not plug in a chemical air ‘freshener’ that may have artificial musks (a liver toxin) in it. Simple, traditional remedies are really not very dear compared to new, heavily marketed and marked up premium brands. Clothes whiteners (optical brighteners) are less important if you can dry clothes on a washing line in the sun, for instance.’
Lucy agrees, and says she found the transition far easier than she’s first imagined. ‘Making the change to a chemical free home environment could not be easier. It’s simply a matter of making the decision and moving forward. I think any change is good to begin with, depending on your household needs. I started in the kitchen and then general cleaning. Soon it applied to just about everything we do to keep our home clean and tidy.’
Go eau naturel
Eliminating chemicals is a good place to start, but other changes in your home can make it healthier too.
House plants reduce toxins in your home by actually cleaning the air and absorbing chemicals. Top cleaners are; English Ivy, Boston Ferns, Peace Lily and Philodendron. If you’re aiming to clean the air, have two house plants to every 100 square feet of living space.
Non Toxic Paints are a safe choice when it comes to painting your home. These products are available throughout various building centres and eco friendly run companies. Go for brands that are marked as ‘VOC free’ – or the next best thing, ‘low VOC’. Paints that have low odor properties are also good – especially if you are thinking about decorating a baby’s nursery. And even if it does seem more expensive, using a standard brand paint can actually increase the air toxicity levels of a room by up to 100 times. So, it’s worth paying a little more.
Candles especially scented ones, are full of artificial fragrances made from potentially unfriendly chemicals. When you burn the candle, these are released into your room and you breathe them in. The most natural candles are made from beeswax. They are expensive, but they smell divine and are very safe.
Natural fabrics are popular for good reason. Organic bamboos and cottons which have been treated with natural dyes are safer for baby’s tender skin – and they are usually much softer too. Merino wool, though costly, is a good investment for babies too because it helps regulate body temperature in both warm and cold climates.
Cooking pots Think about avoiding non-stick cookware. Even though it’s easier to clean, the latest research suggests it releases chemicals that can interfere with natural hormones. Opt for ceramics, iron or stainless steel cooking vessels.
Commercial washing powders all contain synthetic perfumes that can trigger skin allergies. Swap to using Ecoballs, which are literally just compressed soap. The refills cost Dhs56 each and are available at LakeLand and Organic Foods and Café. One Ecoball will do 50 washes in your machine – so it’s cheaper too.
Natures best cleaners
Check out these eco-friendly, chemical-free cleaning recipes that are both sprog-safe and hygiene-effective too.
Vinegar all-purpose cleaner
Use this solution as you would any other store-bought antibacterial cleaner. It’s safe and saves you cash too.
• 1 cup white vinegar
• 1 cup water
• Five drops of liquid soap
Add mixture to a spray bottle and use for cleaning kitchen and bathroom surfaces such as appliances, mirrors, stainless steel sinks, laminate counter tops and tiles. You can add a tablespoon of coarse salt directly on your sponge to act as an abrasive when using this formula on kitchen and bathroom sink fixtures. Vinegar can be irritating to the skin, so please use gloves.
• Vinegar is great for cleaning copper. Liberally sprinkle salt on the copper surface and make a paste with white vinegar. This method works like magic with lemon juice as well!
• Soaking your shower head with vinegar and water is a great way to remove mineral deposits. Spray the shower head and then cover with a small plastic bag. Let it sit for a few hours or overnight.
• Add a small amount of vinegar to your sink dishwater when washing greasy pots and pans, and it will help cut the grease.
• Clean out mineral deposits in your coffee pot by pouring in 1 cup of white vinegar and 1 cup of water. Follow up with a full carafe of plain water.
• Pour a cup of vinegar into the bottom of your dishwasher when you are ready to run it through a full cycle. The vinegar will deodorize, sanitize and make the dishes and glasses sparkle.
• Spray vinegar full strength on tile and grout. Let sit for a few minutes, then use a scrub brush to brighten grout. Vinegar will help reduce mildew in the bathroom.
Baking soda all-purpose cleaner
1/4 cup baking soda
1 quart water
Dissolve baking soda in water, and pour into a spray bottle. This mixture can be used as a general cleaner for all surfaces. Keep some dry baking soda handy in a jar with a shaker cap for jobs that need a bit more abrasive action.
You can use this mixture to clean virtually anywhere in your home, including all kitchen and bathroom counter surfaces, inside the refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher. Always rinse well.
Baking soda uses
• Use some of your baking soda cleaning solution in a microwave safe cup and microwave on medium for one minute to banish food odors.
• Sprinkle dry baking soda on your carpet to freshen, let sit for a few minutes, and then vacuum.
• Sprinkle dry baking soda in your tennis shoes to neutralize the odor. You can also fill the bottom of an old sock with baking soda, knot the top and place in shoes to keep them fresh.
• Baking soda is a natural drain cleaner... Eliminating drain cleaners from your home is a giant step toward a greener home, as they are among the most dangerous household chemicals available. Measure 1/2 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup vinegar. Pour the baking soda into the drain first, followed by the vinegar. It will bubble furiously. Follow with two quarts of hot water. Please do not use this method if you have recently used commercial drain cleaners.