By Steve BreartonUpdated Jun 18, 2013
What makes a home? If you're talking about the resources and products that are consumed by the average Canadian household in a year, then plenty: 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, almost 313,000 litres of water, 1,045 kilograms of household garbage, an estimated 560 plastic bags, plus a slew of toxins. That consumption impacts the quality of our environment and, possibly, the physical development of our children.
The research on these potential hazards is not always definitive and federal regulatory bodies, for instance, have not banned the array of natural and manufactured chemicals found in most homes. Still, parents may want to adopt a precautionary approach and find ways to reduce their children’s exposure by exploring healthier alternatives when it’s time to repaint, recarpet and replace big-ticket household items in the future.
Read on for easy ways to eliminate energy-wasting appliances and dangerous chemicals from your household, while introducing healthier habits and more natural materials.
Because their organs and immune systems are still developing, and because their small size means they absorb relatively more toxins than adults, kids are most vulnerable to chemicals in the home. A child’s bedroom should be a sanctuary, but it may be less safe than you imagine and less eco-friendly. Here’s what to watch out for:
Mattresses Many mattresses contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of flame-retardants and stain inhibitors that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and fertility problems; perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) may be present as well. Reduce exposure to these chemicals in mattresses you already own by wrapping them in high-thread-count cotton sheets. When it’s time to buy new, order your child’s mattress without PBDEs (Ikea stores sell them this way) or purchase one with cotton padding wrapped around the foam core.
Bedding Avoid wrinkle-resistant bedding, which is treated with formaldehyde (a cancer causer), and non-organic cotton, which holds onto the pesticides and herbicides showered on it during farming. Ditto mothproof blankets. Opt instead for organic cotton, hemp, linen or wool to ensure your kids sleep chemical-free.
Paints Most wall and furniture paints contain formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that reduce air quality and may be linked to cancer. EarthEasy, a BC-based sustainable living website, lists a range of non-toxic paints and paint strippers, including milk- and water-based paints (eartheasy.com).
Air conditioning Instead of investing in a window unit or central air, use a ceiling fan to cool your child’s room by about 3–6°C (5–10°F). An inexpensive 60-watt fan can be installed anywhere you currently have a ceiling light fixture and only uses about $1 of electricity per month. (Compare that to the estimated $26 to $178 per month it costs to run an A/C unit.) Tip: Reverse the fan’s direction in winter to push warm air back down to people level and better distribute heat.
Canadians use more water per person than any nationality other than Americans, and bathrooms account for about two-thirds of all water we consume at home. This is a good place to reduce your usage through a few simple chores, like fixing a leaky faucet that could be sending more than three litres of water down the drain daily.
Water usage You can slash your water use by switching to showers. A standard bath uses about 75 litres of water, while a five-minute shower with a water-saving, low-flow nozzle uses about half that amount. At the sink, a $5 faucet aerator can reduce your tap’s water output by 25 to 50 percent, while newer six-litre “low flush” toilets can save about 12 litres per flush — without sacrificing effectiveness. (Invest in a quality model, and you’ll eliminate the need for double-flushing after, er, large deposits.)
Water heater If you’re renovating your bathroom, think about installing a point-of-use tankless or on-demand water heater to take some of the load off the less efficient big-tank heater that’s likely in your basement. These heaters instantly warm water like a coffee maker — enough for one shower or handwashing at a time — and use up to three times less energy. They cost more money up front, but some models, like Bosch’s Aquastar, can pay for themselves over four to eight years, depending on usage.
Personal care products We can absorb, inhale and ingest chemicals and toxins through the shampoos, cosmetics and antiperspirants we use every day. For a list of healthier alternatives, check the online Guide to Less Toxic Products (lesstoxicguide.ca).
Shower curtain Vinyl or PVC shower curtains can leach toxins, such as phthalates, for their entire life. Phthalates have been found in human blood and breastmilk, and have been linked to birth defects and infertility. Instead, use cotton or hemp curtains with a nylon liner.
Towels The conventional growing of cotton requires huge amounts of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides — estimated by some to total 10 percent of all pesticides and insecticides used worldwide. Switching to chemical-free organic cotton can help safeguard farm workers, and reduce ground and surface water contamination.
For more information on chemicals in your home, go to toxicnation.ca.
Some things you just can’t improve. Take water: The best thing you can do for the earth is quench your thirst with the municipally-tested-to-be-safe stuff that comes out of your tap. When you buy a bottle of water — and Statistics Canada reports that almost three in 10 Canadian households drink mostly bottled water at home — there are no guarantees that it’s better. But the production and transportation of bottled water uses millions of barrels of oil and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, and the packaging is adding to landfill. When it comes to our food and drink, less is usually more.
Food storage The reusable plastic containers in your fridge may contain more than last night’s leftovers. Choose glass over plastic when possible, taking special care to avoid PVC and polycarbonate bottles and containers — the stuff labelled 3 and 7 on the underside — as they contain either phthalate additives or bisphenol, which have been associated with reproductive problems and birth defects.
Cookware Pass up pots and pans with Teflon and other non-stick coatings. Health Canada warns they are a health risk if “heated to temperatures greater than 350°C (650°F).” Your household electric range can get that hot in just a few minutes, causing the coatings to break down and release toxic chemicals. Stick with uncoated cast iron or stainless steel.
Even when we switch off stereos, televisions and DVD players, they still draw energy. It’s called phantom power, and it accounts for five to 10 percent of all electricity used in the average Canadian home. Cut back by plugging music players and computer printers into a power bar that you turn off when not using those items (you may want to avoid ones that need to be reprogrammed after they’ve been unplugged).
Lighting The compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL, is the standard bearer for painless, eco-friendly change. These bulbs use 75 percent less power than the conventional incandescent type and last eight times longer. Over the 9,000-hour life of the three CFLs you might use to light your living room, you’ll save more than $100. Because they contain a very small amount of mercury (about 1/100th or less than the amount you’d find in an old-fashioned home thermometer), it’s important to dispose of used CFLs properly. They can be recycled, mercury and all, but if your municipality doesn’t have a CFL recycling program, you can drop them off at any Home Depot store in Canada.
Television If you’re thinking of buying a new TV, ask yourself whether you really need an upgrade. Your old-school tube television requires less juice to watch The Sopranos than a similar-sized high-definition model. An even bigger energy crime is supersizing your viewing with 40 inches or more of screen when you upgrade: A recent study found that large high-definition televisions use about 450 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. That’s more than it takes to run a high-efficiency refrigerator.
Flooring and carpet Synthetic carpets are made from petroleum-based fibres, which may contain a host of dangerous chemicals that kids can absorb when they are crawling or playing. When replacing old broadloom and rugs, choose natural materials such as wool, sisal or cotton. Solid wood or bamboo are the best flooring options, as wood laminate may contain sawdust bound together with potentially toxin-releasing formaldehyde glue.
Air fresheners Skip chemical air fresheners; they often just mask one smell with another. Try potpourri or natural scented candles — or just open a screen door or window. For eco-friendly recipes, including a trick with vanilla, go to msu.edu and search “homemade cleaners.”
Lowering the temperature in your home by a single degree in winter can slash three percent off your heating bill. And replacing furnace filters every two months or so can improve efficiency by up to 50 percent.
• Buy locally produced food and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Toronto-based FoodShare, a not-for-profit with a mandate to improve access to sustainable, affordable, healthy food, calculated in 2005 that buying a lamb chop flown in from New Zealand rather than one raised here generated more than 1,000 times the carbon dioxide during transit.
• Want to eat more organic food, but don’t know where to start? Log on to drgreene.com and search “organic prescription” for a short list of strategic food choices that provide the biggest impact on your health and the environment.