With the holidays fast approaching, many of us are starting to plan parties, dinners, and get-togethers with friends and family. We have been searching for new recipes and decorating ideas, and considering all of the things we need to entertain. It can be fun!
However, as we’re buying a wide range of things in preparation for the holidays, it’s important to pause and make sure that the things we’re buying are safe and healthy—not only for us, but for all those we share the holidays with.
Many of the items we bring into our homes, especially during the holidays, can expose us to chemicals that can contribute to poor health, including immediate things like asthma, allergies, headaches, migraines, as well as more chronic issues like weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and increased cancer risk.
While we certainly can’t keep every single potentially harmful toxin out of our lives, there are plenty of small changes we can make that can have a big impact! Coming from someone who had developed extreme chemical sensitivities, here are some easy-to-implement ideas.
4 Tips for Creating a Healthier Home for the Holidays
1. Go Fragrance Free
Entertaining usually means a harried rush to get your house presentable for friends and family. This often includes scented candle, plugins, diffusers, fabric sprays, and incense. While on the surface, these products can add a pleasant smell to your home, the artificial scents are loaded with hormone-altering chemicals and contributing to indoor air pollution.
We all know that outdoor is often polluted, especially in big cities. Did you know that indoor air can be much worse? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air can be 2-5 times worse than outdoor air, even in industrial areas and heavily polluted cities.
Where’s this pollution coming from, you ask? It’s coming from volatile organic compounds or VOC’s being emitted from paints, furniture, and carpeting, as well as all those scented products we buy in an attempt to make our home smell like apple spice, pine needles, or sugar cookies.
Most of these synthetically scented products contain phthalates, which are chemicals that serve as a fixative for both color and scent in products ranging from scented candles and plugs-ins, to laundry detergent, dish soap, and personal care products. But just because your plug-in isn’t being applied to your skin, doesn’t mean those nasty chemicals aren’t entering your body. In fact, inhalation is the fastest way for a compound to enter the body outside of injection. Did you know your olfactory mucosa is in direct contact with the brain and spinal fluid? This means that all those lovely-but-dangerous fragrances are entering your body. And this is bad because phthalate exposures are linked to a long list of health issues, including hormone disruption, insulin resistance, weight gain, and fertility issues.
There are many reasons to avoid synthetic fragrances, but especially during the holidays when they tend to show up everywhere.
So what is the best air freshener? Opening your windows and letting in some fresh air, even just for a few minutes a day, and yes, even if it’s cold out, is the first step in getting any pre-existing odors out of your home.
If that’s just not going to cut it, fire up the stove and simmer a small pot of water with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and citrus rind and your home will smell amazing in minutes. Mix it up with apple slices, pine needles, and other holiday scents to create your own stove-top potpourri.
2. No Plastic For Leftovers
A natural byproduct of big holiday meals is leftovers. After a few hours of eating together, people start winding down and get ready to leave. You quickly look at all the leftover food and determine there is now way you can eat it all yourself, so you offer your guests the leftovers. Then you raid your pantry for all the plastic Tupperware containers you can find, and starting packing up food to go.
When our lovingly cooked holiday meals have direct contact with those plastic containers, we risk exposing ourselves and our loved ones to hormone-altering chemicals. Certain chemicals that are used in the production of plastics, such as bisphenol-a and phthalates, are not molecularly bound to the plastic, which results in those chemicals shedding. Studies have shown that most plastics release chemicals that exhibit estrogenic activity. This means that chemicals that behave like estrogen are released from plastic food containers into our foods, beverages and, ultimately, into our bodies, where they can disrupt our hormones.
Hundreds of epidemiological studies have been published that link BPA, even at the low doses we’re seeing in people, to a long list of health issues that affect nearly every body system, including diabetes, insulin resistance, childhood asthma, breast cancer, infertility, and many others. And, unfortunately, the numerous BPA-free plastics on the market are no better, as manufacturers have simply swapped BPA for similar harmful chemicals.
So, instead of sending your loved ones home with plastic containers that release hormone altering compounds, consider glass instead. Stock up on quart sized Mason Jars, which you can find for less than $10 for a case of 12 at places like Target or Amazon. You may also consider silicone containers, such as those made by Stasher. If you know you’ll be sending people home with leftovers in advance, ask them to bring a few containers of their own. It’s a simple request that can help keep everyone safe.
3. Take Off Your Shoes
Did you know that we track far more that dirt into our homes on the soles of our shoes? A University of Arizona study found an average of 421,000 different types of bacteria on the soles of shoes, including e coli, and coliforms (fecal matter) on 96% of samples. We also track in pesticides, heavy metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from car exhaust. All of these chemicals enter our homes every time we step inside.
If you have carpeting in your home, these become vessels in which all these contaminants can hide out. Kids and pets, who spend more time on the carpets, tend to have higher levels of these kinds of chemicals in their bodies. While the “no-shoes” rule is easier to implement within your family, it can become harder when you’re entertaining. It can be awkward to invite your dinner guests to remove their shoes, but there are a few things that help: have a designated shoe area at the entrance, offer house slippers in a variety of sizes, and don’t apologize or make a big deal about it.
4. Check for RoHS Compliance on Holiday Lights
Holiday lights are one of the easiest ways to make your home feel festive and cozy during the holidays. Who doesn’t love stringing lights around a tree, over the mantel, or down a staircase banister?
Most of the plastics in cords and lights are made of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, which is typically hard and rigid. In order to make those plastics soft and flexible, lead and other heavy metals are often added, along with flame retardants and phthalates. Yep, the same phthalates that are in your scented candles.
These heavy metals and chemicals aren’t tightly bound to the materials they’re in, so when we touch items that contain them, they can transfer to our skin, and from there enter our bodies and our bloodstreams.
In the European Union, chemicals are regulated more tightly than in the US. In 2003, they issued a directive called the Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS for short. RoHS restricts the use of substances in electronic equipment, specifically lead, mercury, cadmium, certain phthalates, and certain types of flame retardants. Checking for RoHS-compliance on electrical cord labels can help you ensure that you’re holiday lights, or any of the electronic gifts you may give don’t have any of those harmful substances.
The Bottom Line
Everyone wants their holiday season to be safe and healthy, and a few small adjustments can make all the difference. While we cannot avoid all chemicals in life, we can certainly take small steps to reduce our exposures to the worst offenders.