9 Tips to a Healthier House and Yard

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Cutting down on chemicals and making your home healthy can be cheap and easy. Green cleaners, native plants and low-chemical touches can give your family a healthier home at cheap prices. Here are nine easy tips to make your home a little greener.

INDOORS

Clean naturally. Biodegradable, nontoxic cleaners are much more environmentally and kid friendly than traditional household cleaners. “If you can smell a really strong chemical smell, which people associate with a clean smell, it’s probably not good for you and you are breathing that in,” says Maria Broadbent, environmental program coordinator, Dept. of Neighborhood & Environmental Programs, City of Annapolis.

These days it’s easy to buy everything from dishwashing detergent to bathroom tile cleaner at grocery stores and discount chains. Broadbent suggests looking for citrus-based cleaners and cleaners that don’t contain phosphates. If you are a DYI-er, white vinegar and baking soda can make your house sparkle. Look for how-to books or recipes online.

Filter dust. Furnace and air-conditioning filters effectively remove dust and other allergy- and asthma-inducing particles from the home. It’s worth it to change those filters often, Broadbent says. Clogged filters not only make it difficult to pull allergens from the air, but they also force your furnace or air conditioner to work harder. “How often you change it depends on the quality of the filter you buy,” Broadbent explains. “But if you can afford to do it more often than it says, you should. Otherwise go by the recommendation on the [filter’s] box.”

Get tested. Both lead paint and radon in your home can cause serious health issues. Lead paint is known to cause brain damage to fetuses and young children, while radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Older homes – those built before 1978 – should be tested for lead paint and varnishes. And all homes should be tested for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas found in soil and rocks. Parents can pick up relatively inexpensive test kits for both radon and lead at hardware stores, says Rob Savidge, Environmental Compliance Inspector, Dept. of Neighborhood & Environmental Programs, City of Annapolis.

Avoid VOCs. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are gases that carpet, paint, and other building materials emit into the air. At the very least, these gases can cause headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation when concentrated indoors. To lessen the impact of VOCs in the home, Savidge recommends paying special attention to materials such as carpet when remodeling. “Carpet can actually emit VOCs for longer periods than paint, so that can have a larger impact on your health,” he says. Look for carpets that have a Green Label; this means the Carpet and Rug Institute has tested it for lower levels of VOCs. Or consider installing wood, cork, or tile in place of carpet. Also use no- or low-VOC paints.
The Environmental Protection Agency also recommends limiting exposure to perchloroethylene emissions from newly dry-cleaned materials as a way to limit VOC exposure.


OUTDOORS

Use chemicals sparingly. Living in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed means landscaping and lawn fertilizers and pesticides end up in the Bay where they can cause major problems. Using these chemicals also means you are exposing your family to them. To avoid that, look for organic soil enhancers at your local garden center and have a pH test done on your lawn to determine what’s really necessary. “You want to feed your soil, not your grass,” Broadbent says. Also, be sure to read the packaging thoroughly to avoid overusing any product.

Invest in a welcome mat. “Many toxins that are brought into our houses are brought in on the soles of our shoes,” Broadbent explains. That includes chemicals and bacteria from lawns and sidewalks, or chemicals left on the road by cars. Look for mats that have holes in the bottom; these allow debris to fall through the mat rather than end up back on your feet. And teach your kids to wipe their feet before they come in the house.

Control mosquitoes. Be diligent about removing standing water on your property and consider installing bat boxes to encourage bats to eat the insects. “If you don’t use good mosquito control practices, you are more likely to use more mosquito repellant, which can contain strong chemicals,” Broadbent explains. So controlling mosquitoes means you might not need to apply as much of those sprays to yourself or your kids.

Nix pressure-treated lumber. Before 2004, manufacturers of pressure-treated lumber used arsenic to prevent rot. While now banned for residential use, older wooden playsets, decks, and fencing can still pose a problem. “If a child gets a splinter from pressure-treated wood, it can be really dangerous and become infected because of the arsenic,” says Broadbent. The arsenic also can rub off on skin.
To be safe, Broadbent recommends buying playsets made from recycled plastic lumber or other composite. Teach kids to wash their hands immediately after playing outdoors. Also, never burn leftover scraps of pressure-treated lumber in the fireplace, firepit, or chiminea due to the chemicals the wood could give off.

Go native. Adding native plants to your yard has numerous benefits for the environment and your health, explains Zora Lathan, executive director, Chesapeake Ecology Center, Annapolis. Natives are resilient to insects and disease, requiring little if any pesticides. Nor do they require chemical fertilizers or supplemental watering. That translates to less chemical exposure for the family. “By using native plants, you are making your home landscape healthy for your children and pets and the environment,” Lathan says. Ask for native plants at your local gardening center or nursery, and watch for native plant sales run by local nonprofits, such as the Chesapeake Ecology Center and Adkins Arboretum.

Karen Gaspers is a writer and mother of one in Chestertown, Md.

Resources

•    The city of Annapolis offers an Environmental Stewardship Self-Certification Workbook for Households: annapolis.gov/upload/images/government/depts/environ/EnvironmentalStewardship-Households.pdf
•    The Environmental Protection Agency offers information on radon and VOCs: epa.gov/radon and epa.gov/iaq/voc.html
•    The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, on its “In Your Home” webpage, includes information about alternatives to toxic household products and making your lawn more bay friendly: cbf.org
•    The Maryland Native Plant Society lists native plant suppliers: mdflora.org

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