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We hate to break it to you, but your home is filthy. Not just dust-on-the-bookshelves, dishes-in-the-sink, dog-fur-on-everything filthy, either. We mean dirty—as in, there’s bacteria everywhere. Cold and flu viruses can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, and coliform (the bacteria family that includes salmonella and E. coli) is present in around 80 percent of households. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is released by materials commonly found in flooring and furniture, and better insulation means it’s trapped inside for longer. It’s no wonder, then, that the concentration of pollutants inside our homes has often been found to be two to five times higher than it is outside. And even if recreation-happy Coloradans spend slightly more time outdoors than most Americans, who pass 90 percent of their lives indoors, we still breathe in lots of hours’ worth of toxic chemicals and pollutants, especially this time of year.
“The various classes [of chemicals] we’re exposed to every day, from the house-cleaning products we are using to plastics to sprays…have effects on chronic respiratory outcomes, such as asthma, allergies, and lung diseases,” says Dr. Dana Dabelea, professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at the Colorado School of Public Health. “Others have effects on our endocrine systems.” The good news? Simple changes can ensure your home is a safer place for you, your kids, and even your pets. Read on for a primer on how to un-yuck your house to make this your healthiest year yet.
Work, yoga, that new Netflix series: We get it, you’re busy. But certain cleaning tasks should be nonnegotiable. We plotted out common oversights and mistakes, from ones you shouldn’t feel too guilty about to those you need to correct ASAP.
- Traipsing dirt into your house because you left your hiking boots on—particularly if you have a toddler crawling around. Pollen and pathogens are easily trapped in carpets and can cause allergies and asthma to flare up.
- Not rinsing your toothbrush holders or electric charging bases. Yeast, mold, and even staph have been found on toothbrush holders. Soak them in hot water and scrub with soap every week or so. (Also, this should be a given, but: Store them as far from the toilet as possible.)
- Neglecting to clean your humidifier. Bacteria can grow in standing water, so make sure you wash these dry-climate essentials—vinegar works well—and dry them at least once a week.
- Failing to turn on your stove hood or fan while cooking, which releases indoor pollutants.
- Washing your hands with antibacterial soap. It sounds like a good thing but can actually introduce harmful chemicals (benzalkonium chloride, chloroxylenol) into your body and your environment. Regular soap is just as effective.
- Letting your 10-year-old vacuum blow all the dust and bacteria particles it sucks up back into the air. Fix this by getting a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that fits your vacuum model—and clean it out regularly.
- Sleeping without a mattress protector, where dead skin and dust mites accumulate. (Of course, you’ll need to regularly wash your cover to avoid breathing in that detritus every night.)
- Not reading the ingredient/material lists on the cleaning products and furniture you buy; many have been linked to cancer, fertility issues, asthma, and other problems. Tips: Avoid fragrance, formaldehyde, sodium laurel sulphate, and perchloroethylene, and look for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label.
- Using pesticides to maintain a weed-free lawn. Pesticides have been found to cause cancer, hormonal changes, and even depression, and they can be brought into your home on your body or your shoes. Try an all-natural herbicide instead.
What to clean and when.
Purse/work bag (wipe down)
Sheets (in hot water)
Ceiling fans/light fixtures
Every 3 to 6 Months
Furnace filters (change)
Shower curtain liner
Carpet (professional steam clean)
Which room in your house is the germiest? You might guess the bathroom, but it’s actually—drumroll!—the kitchen, according to NSF International. The public health and safety organization found in a small 2011 study that coliforms are most prevalent there. “More than 20 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks result from food that was consumed inside the home,” says Lisa Yakas, NSF’s senior project manager of consumer products. To avoid that, you need to go beyond cleaning and actually sanitize the dirtiest areas of your kitchen. Here’s how.
Ick Factor: One of the top five germiest spots in your home, pet bowls can be breeding grounds for bacteria (E. coli, salmonella), mold, and yeast.
De-Germify It: Wash food and water bowls daily, ideally at high heat in the dishwasher. Disinfecting them once a week is also a smart move; hydrogen peroxide works great in place of bleach.
Ick Factor: A 2008 University of Arizona study found that cutting boards hold 200 times more fecal bacteria (often from raw meat) than the average toilet seat.
De-Germify It: Wash with hot, soapy water (or scrub with the cut half of a lemon and coarse salt). Then, to sanitize plastic chopping blocks, toss them in the dishwasher. For sealed wooden cutting boards, use a food-safe spray like Denver-based CleanWell’s Botanical Disinfectant.
Ick Factor: Instead of just cleaning dishes, folks tend to use kitchen sponges to wipe down countertops, spills, and more. As a result, the porous utensils were the most contaminated items in the NSF study, with more than 75 percent containing coliform (compared to just nine percent of bathroom faucet handles).
De-Germify It: Yakas recommends zapping wet sponges in the microwave daily for two minutes. Also: Replace them often.
Ick Factor: Your sink handles a lot—dirty dishes, vegetable peels, raw meat juices—so it’s no wonder it’s a germ hot spot.
De-Germify It: Wipe it down regularly with dish soap. For a deeper clean, sprinkle baking soda over the surface and rub it in a circular motion (use a soft cloth to avoid scratches). Rinse it all off with white vinegar, then water.
Ick Factor: “Dark” and “damp” are magic words for germs. Coffee maker reservoirs satisfy both conditions and are, Yakas says, “prime locations for bacteria and mildew to grow.”
De-Germify It: Every 40 to 80 brew cycles, fill the reservoir with undiluted white vinegar. Let it sit for about 30 minutes and then run the vinegar through a regular cycle, followed by two or three more cycles of fresh water to flush everything out.
Ick Factor: Meat thawing and dripping. Vegetables over-ripening. If we’re not cleaning our fridges regularly, we might be spreading salmonella, listeria, E. coli, yeast, and mold.
De-Germify It: Remove your fruit, vegetable, and meat drawers; wash them in warm, soapy water; and let them dry before returning them to the fridge. Repeat on a monthly basis. Also, store produce separately from proteins that need to be cooked.
We asked Nicholas Giaquinto, a conservatory horticulturist at Denver Botanic Gardens, to recommend four hard-to-kill, air-purifying plants so you can breathe easier.
For The Bathroom | Rose-Painted Calathea (Calathea roseopicta)
Because it prefers low light and high humidity (it grows naturally in South American rainforests), this decorative prayer plant with eye-catching leaf patterns is well-suited to the bathroom. It filters a variety of poisonous compounds and is nontoxic to pets.
For The Bedroom | Mother-In-Law’s Tongue (Sanseveria trifasciata)
Also called snake plant, this uber-popular, sculptural houseplant is particularly good at extracting formaldehyde and benzene. It also gives off oxygen at night, making it a great sleep companion. Place it near a window where it can access indirect sunlight.
For The Kitchen | Flamingo Flower (Anthurium andraeanum)
This year-round bloomer with pink or red flowers needs bright, indirect light and likes to live next to the faucet (or get regular spritzes of water). It absorbs ammonia—often in cleaning products—airborne formaldehyde, toluene, and xylene. Beware: Cats and dogs can get sick if they ingest too much.
For The Office | ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
Known as the “plant of steel,” the (pet-toxic) ZZ plant will survive even if work deadlines keep you from watering, and it can handle lower light. It also removes a number of pollutants from the air, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene, so while working late may feel like it’s killing you, it won’t be.
Three nontoxic but effective cleaning agents you can make at home.
Glass & Mirror Cleaner
Courtesy of Denver’s Humble Suds, a maker of plant-based cleaners, this blend avoids the ammonia in conventional glass and mirror products, which can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.
1 part water
1 part vodka
1 drop of castile soap (try Dr. Bronner’s)
Pour all three ingredients into a spray bottle. Stir or shake to mix. Spray onto mirrors, windows, or glass and wipe clean.
Toilet Bowl Scrub
For a heavy-duty scrub that deodorizes while it cleans, try this concoction from Lyndsey Manderson, owner of Zero Market. You can find 1,000-plus refillable products (including essential oils) at its new location inside Edgewater Public Market.
½ cup baking soda
10 drops tea tree oil
¼ cup vinegar
Pour the baking soda and essential oil into the toilet; then add the vinegar and scrub as the mixture fizzes.
You’ll find this recipe inside EcoMountain Modern Living’s Park Meadows store, which hosts a mix-your-own cleaning product station and sells bulk goods, including orange, lemon-lime, grapefruit, eucalyptus, and peppermint terpenes (aka cleaning oils). Use it on hard surfaces such as counters and tubs.
14 oz. distilled water
2 oz. cleaning oil
Mix in a glass spray bottle; spritz (let it sit for a minute on stubborn areas); and wipe dry.
Upgrade your surroundings and your health with these four local products.
1. Trade Your: Grody work or gym bag
For: ThePureBag’s Bennett Bag
Because: The silver-ion technology in this tote’s fabric and lining actively works to destroy the germs—Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), mold, mildew, athlete’s foot fungus—you pick up in coffeeshops, yoga studios, and airplanes. The sleek carryalls are designed by a mother and daughter, the latter of whom lives in Denver.
Find It: thepurebag.com; $158
2. Trade Your: Toxic weed killer
For: Sunday’s Smart Lawn Plan
Because: This year-old Boulder startup delivers natural, customized lawn products directly to consumers (typically, three shipments per year), which makes maintaining a healthy—and good-looking—yard a cinch.
Find It: getsunday.com; from $129
3. Trade Your: Germ-infested dog bed
For: Holden & Hay’s Hit the Hay dog bed
Because: Not only are this Boulder company’s pooch pads made in the United States and filled with recycled shredded denim and cotton synthetics, but both the cover and the insert are machine-washable.
Find It: holdenandhay.com; $149
4. Trade Your: Standard HVAC vent covers
For: Ventcenters’ Lesich Vents
Because: With a basket, a filter, and a cover, these vents provide medical-grade filtration, removing particles down to 0.3 microns (pollen is seven microns) from the air circulating in your home. The Aurora company also designed them to catch the crud that falls into your vents so you can easily remove it when you change the filters every three months.
Find It: ventcenters.com; $35 per vent (the average home has 21, but for optimal results, you only need to replace 12 of them), $5 per filter replacement
In June 2018, researchers from nine universities converged on one 1,200-square-foot manufactured home in Austin, Texas. They cooked and cleaned—not for their health, but for yours, as part of the HOMEChem (House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry) experiment, which aims to find out how everyday activities affect the quality of the air your family breathes. In particular, they looked at oxidants; volatile organic compounds, or VOCs; and particulate matter, all of which may have negative impacts on human systems. They’re still analyzing the data, but in the meantime, we caught up with Marina Vance, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder who participated in the study, to chat about what she’s learned—and what it means for you.
5280 Health: What are the biggest takeaways from HOMEChem so far?
Marina Vance: We saw that cooking emitted a large number of particles and that these particles were very small—capable of penetrating the human respiratory system. However, due to air exchange and interactions with surfaces, these peak concentrations of particles were short-lived and didn’t linger for a very long time after cooking activities were finished.
Still—anything we can do?
There is a body of evidence that things like cooking and cleaning emit indoor pollutants, so we recommend ventilating your home when performing those activities. This can be as simple as opening windows; however, outdoor air pollution levels need to be taken into consideration too. I recommend checking the website airnow.gov to check outdoor conditions. Another option is the use of portable air cleaners, especially those that contain an activated carbon filter (to remove VOCs) and a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter to remove particles.
What about furniture, flooring, etc.?
Building materials and furniture can off-gas low-volatility compounds for long periods of time, even decades. Many of these compounds are still under investigation by researchers, but we know that some, like phthalates [used in large quantities in vinyl flooring], are endocrine disrupters. For people in homes with large amounts of vinyl, I recommend dusting with a wet mop to minimize exposure to household dust [where phthalates tend to accumulate], especially to children and pets.