Let's get the bad news out of the way first: Toxins surround us. Far more chemicals are in our midst—85,000-plus by the Environmental Protection Agency’s count—than federal regulations to control them or studies to understand them. And these substances get into our bodies. Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tests a sampling of the population’s breast milk, blood, and urine, and finds 200 to 300 synthetic chemicals in each person, says Parents advisor Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College.
While scientists have thoroughly studied individual toxins, they know far less about how they combine—a concept known as “exposome.” Jennifer Lowry, M.D., a toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, in Kansas City, Missouri, has her own word for this ubiquitous mix: “I call it sludge,” she says. “When you’re sitting in your living room, you’re not just inhaling flame retardants from your couch, or the dust from old lead paint, or the chemicals you tracked in on your shoes. You’re exposed to a combination of all of these.”
The good news: While you can’t prevent chemical exposure entirely, these easy tactics can lessen your fam’s toxin load. “Parents are the CEOs of their home,” says Dr. Landrigan. “You have the power to protect your kids.”
If your neighborhood has good air quality, open windows to dilute indoor pollution, says Dr. Lowry. If possible, put big new purchases like mattresses or furniture made with glues, composites, paints, or stains in your garage or on your porch for a week to allow chemicals to disperse before you bring them inside.
Look for brands that don’t use parabens, phthalates, oxybenzone, and triclosan. These chemicals have been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals, says pediatrician Lauren Zajac, M.D., assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. Products labeled “fragrance free” typically meet this criteria, but plenty with fun scents do too. Scan scented brands for “phthalate-free” and “paraben-free” claims instead of relying on the ingredients list companies aren’t required to disclose what they use to create a fragrance. Another option: Make your own cleaning solution with equal amounts of vinegar and water, plus a little lemon.
If you discover that your family has already been using brands that contain these chemicals, switching them out will help almost immediately. Teens who replaced their typical personal-care products with chemical-free alternatives experienced as much as a 45 percent drop in their body’s level of these toxins in just three days in a recent study at UC Berkeley.
You wouldn’t dream of spraying weed killer in your family room. But did you know you can track in pesticide residue on the soles of your shoes up to a week after the lawn was sprayed? “Taking off your shoes at the front door can make a documentable difference in the number and concentration of contaminants in the house,” says Jerome A. Paulson, M.D., emeritus professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, D.C. He suggests adding a sticky mat (available at home-improvement stores) outside the door to help take contamination off the family pet too.
“Heating weakens the material, allowing harmful chemicals to leach out,” says Alison Bernstein, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “In our house, we don’t regularly put any kind of plastic in the microwave or dishwasher.” As for parts of bottles or breast pump equipment that require sterilization, wash with hot, soapy water rather than microwaving.
Buy paints with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). After you paint, set up a window fan that blows in and out; and, when possible, sand and paint furniture outdoors. Adds Dr. Zajac: “I wouldn’t involve pregnant women or children in the process.”
“Household dust may contain lots of chemicals,” Dr. Zajac says. “So use a wet mop or a wet dust rag on a regular basis.” She swears by damp microfiber cloths for dusting; for homes with carpets, she suggests using a vacuum with a HEPA filter to pick up smaller particles.
Soap and water don’t just remove nasty germs. Washing your child’s hands, especially before eating, is important to rinse off traces of chemicals she could have picked up from household dust or playing outside, Dr. Zajac says.
Protecting your child from the sun’s UV radiation is a top priority, and it requires using sunscreen, even though it contains chemicals. You can minimize the amount your kids (and you!) need by wearing UV-protective clothing, including a long-sleeved swim shirt. “I also have my daughter wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect her face and scalp,” Dr. Zajac says. She recommends avoiding spray-on sunscreen because children can breathe in the airborne particles.
It’s tough to tell what a child’s playthings are made of, so if toys are chewed, scratched, or chipped, it’s time to toss them, Dr. Lowry says. “I used to periodically rinse or wipe my daughter’s toys when she was an infant because they accumulated dust that she then put in her mouth,” Dr. Zajac adds.