As the descendant of a long line of fastidiously tidy Germans, I grew up believing that a clean home didn't just appear to be clean; it had to smell clean, too. Our domestic aroma was a chemical-soaked mix of bleach, Renuzit, and my mother's Merit 100s. Once on my own, my version of cleanliness smelled of blackcurrant candles and traces of Comet. (No cigarettes, though.)
But in my 30s, I developed a sensitivity to certain smells. Natural ones, like cooking garlic or fresh flowers, were fine. But perfumes? Cleaning products? Laundry detergent? Headache city. Out of desperation, I stopped wearing perfume more than once or twice a month, and I switched to unscented detergent. I replaced my typical cleaning supplies with fragrance-free versions, and I stopped burning scented candles.
- Sophia Gushee, non-toxic living expert and founder of Ruan Living
My headaches decreased, which prompted me to wonder what else in my home might be causing problems. What I found was not encouraging. A Chicago Tribune series alerted me to toxic flame retardants in furniture, a pulmonologist recommended burning candles only outdoors due to particulate matter, and that nonstick pan I'd been using to cook eggs? Probably carcinogenic. In fact, indoor air pollution is typically higher than outdoor pollution due to gas stoves, chemical off-gassing of carpets and paints, cleaning supplies, and other totally normal, everyday things in our homes.
Since living outdoors was not an option, I set out to make my home as healthy as possible.
Since living outdoors is not an option, I set out to make my home as healthy as possible. For guidance, I turned to Sophia Ruan Gushée, an expert in nontoxic living and the author of The Home Detox Workbook. Like me, she was once surprised to discover that the vast majority of chemicals in our homes are not evaluated for toxicity.
Unlike me, she has dedicated her career to helping people find safer alternatives. "Detoxing your home is not about being perfect," she told me. "It's about taking steps toward minimizing your exposure to substances that can potentially affect your health." After a few years of actively trying to make nontoxic choices for my home, I was keen to have her remotely "audit" my work. Honestly, I thought I'd get a home-detox gold star. But as it turns out, there was room for improvement. Plenty of room.
The actual house
I live in Los Angeles, whose air is notoriously polluted. Still, some locations have safer air quality than others. "How close is the nearest highway?" Ruan Gushée asked me. The 10 freeway is about 1.5 miles away, a distance I had measured after learning about higher asthma rates among people who live within a mile of a freeway. So, location-wise, not too bad for city living.
Another concern, given the fact that our house was built in 1957, was lead—among the most toxic heavy metals, and one that can cause developmental delays in children. Lead-based paints were banned in 1978, but it's common in older homes, where it can show up on walls, in bathtubs, and in dust. We've tested our home and haven't had problems, and we also have our family's lead levels checked yearly out of caution.
But when I offhandedly mentioned our garden plans, Ruan Gushée asked another question: Had we tested the soil for heavy metals? We had not. "Especially if you're going to grow vegetables, you should test the soil to find out what's in it first," she advised. "Plants can absorb heavy metals, which can be hazardous if you're growing fruits or vegetables." Growing in containers filled with new soil was a safer bet, so I pulled the strawberries growing next to the house.
Our pink-tiled kitchen doesn't look all that much different than it must have back in 1957, thanks to its original gas stove and oven. Both were refurbished before we bought our house, but I definitely smell a hint of gas when we cook—something that gave Ruan Gushée pause. She pointed out that gas stoves emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and formaldehyde. (Also, in May, a report came out linking gas stoves with an increased risk of asthma.) Not something I want to be inhaling regularly.
Since we aren't able to replace our appliances at the moment, Ruan Gushée suggested doing what we can to minimize the gas we breathe. "Cook with the fan running and the windows open," she said. She also recommended running an air purifier, which would have the added benefit of clearing out cooking smells. On that note, she advised buying HEPA air filters for our HVAC system to keep air cleaner as it circulates throughout the house.
Then it was on to everyday chemicals in the kitchen. In an attempt to be environmentally conscious, I had already replaced plastic food containers with glass ones, and plastic wrap with beeswax wrap. Ruan Gushée was on board with this idea, pointing out that chemicals from plastic can leach into food—a phenomenon that some researchers believe is connected to endocrine disruption.
But surprisingly, despite avoiding harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonia, my "safer" cleaning products were not as healthy as I'd imagined. When she ran my unscented "green" dish soap through the Environmental Working Group's database, its ingredients rated a D due to potential DNA damage (among other issues). My Bar Keepers Friend scrubbing powder that had replaced the Comet of yesteryear? Not so friendly, from a chemical standpoint. By the time Ruan Gushée and I went through my cleaning supplies—including my usual fragrance-free laundry detergent, which also earned low marks—I realized that I'd fallen prey to clever marketing.
For both the kitchen and the bathroom, Ruan Gushée recommended simpler, safer replacements for my usual cleaning supplies: vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap. (Regarding concerns about COVID-19, she suggests disinfecting with hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol.) "The other good thing about making these changes," she noted, "is that you'll have a simpler and cheaper cleaning setup." She is not wrong.
The domestic details
One thing I hadn't considered too much was the role of technology in my overall well-being. Scientists aren't yet sure whether cell phone radiation is linked to cancer, but Ruan Gushée is concerned enough about it—as well as other electromagnetic fields (EMFs)—that she favors cautionary measures.
To that end, she recommended charging my phone in a room other than the bedroom, which I'd already been doing as a symbolic, no-interruptions-at-night gesture. But she also recommended turning our wifi off at night with a kill switch to minimize exposure to its low-level radiation. That's been added to my (never-ending) to-do list, but in the meantime, I replaced our usual Sonos-streamed sleeping white noise with the plug-in white noise machine from my son's infancy. One less smart-home gadget doing its thing while we sleep.
On the sleep note: When I mentioned that my toddler would soon be moving from his crib to a twin mattress, Ruan Gushée recommended choosing one made without flame-retardant chemicals and VOC-heavy foam. So I bought a Greenguard Gold Certified mattress from Brentwood Home, which does cost a little more than other mattresses—but that works out to pennies per night over its lifetime. I also bought Oeko-Tex certified sheets to minimize any hazardous chemical residue, just so I could, uh, sleep better at night.
As for the rest of the little things that make a house feel like home? For fragrance, I don't do scented candles—the smoke and fumes are too much for my delicate sniffer. But Ruan Gushée is a fan of essential oils, so I splurged on a Vitruvi diffuser, which scents the air without triggering a migraine or aggravating my asthma. (It had been years since I've had any sort of home fragrance, so this feels wildly luxurious.)
And in a detox twist I wasn't anticipating, Ruan Gushée closed our session by recommending more houseplants. "There is some evidence that they can help with indoor air quality," she said, "but I also think that plants just make people happy, and feeling good at home is the goal." Two pothos and one ficus later, I've realized that she's right—and given the fact that I leave the house only once a week these days, having a healthier home has made me feel very good indeed.
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