Home. Just hearing the word conjures up feelings of warmth... a clean and tidy cocoon shielding us from the harshness of the outside world. Millions of dollars are spent each year on household cleaning products to keep our cocoons spotless. As we routinely scrub, polish, disinfect, and deodorize, we naively assume the products we pump into our homes are safe. But, how safe are they? According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "the air outside may be safer to breathe than air inside the home". In fact, up to five times safer!
Polluting the Cocoon
Many of the cleaners we use every day contain ingredients that are harmful to both our health and the environment. In fact, most experts agree that synthetic cleaning products are among the most toxic substances found in the average home, bombarding us with a bewildering number of potentially harmful chemicals. The list is overwhelming: Benzene, naphthalene, xylene, phenol, not to mention coloring agents and synthetic fragrances. Most homes today contain more chemicals than were found in an average laboratory 100 years ago!
To make matters worse, in our quest for more energy-efficient housing, we literally seal these toxins indoors. In the past, houses were ventilated by open windows and air leaks, but, as we "tighten" our homes, hazardous fumes can be trapped in poorly ventilated areas, hanging in the air for weeks. Besides polluting our living spaces, these toxins can make us sick.
For many of us, a typical Saturday morning means catching up on a week's worth of housecleaning. Armed with an arsenal of mainstream cleaning products-each with its own special "formula"-we set to the task. Separately, some of the chemicals found in these products may do little harm. But, what happens when a number of relatively "safe" chemicals are combined?
According to Theo Colborn, author of Our Stolen Future, toxicity testing currently assesses each chemical individually, but "in the real world, we encounter complex mixtures of chemicals." When used together, these complex chemicals can react with one another to increase their toxicity. The EPA warns that when several chemicals are mixed together, the combination could cause problems "at levels below thresholds presently known to cause adverse health effects." Short-term exposure to these toxic "cocktails" can aggravate symptoms of fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and skin irritation within hours of use. If you're already sick, your body's tolerance to common toxins decreases.
The cumulative effects can be even more serious. Long-term exposure has been linked to the development of cancer, respiratory disease, immune system suppression, birth defects, and even genetic changes. Recently discovered evidence of neurological effects is also alarming. "Long before concentrations of synthetic chemicals reach sufficient levels to cause obvious physical illness or abnormalities," says Colborn, "they can impair learning ability and cause dramatic, permanent changes in behavior, such as hyperactivity."
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