It's scary to think about cancer, but even scarier to think that we might unknowingly be doing things that put our families at risk.
I'll never forget the day I was cleaning my mom's bathroom, and her caregiver arrived. She smelled the bleach spray I was using all the way from the front door and asked me what I was doing, then gently admonished me that the harsh chemicals weren't good for my mom's lungs, already weak from a lifetime of cigarette smoking. I felt terrible, of course, but also bewildered. After all, I'd been trying to do something nice. Using my experience as a starting point, I thought I'd round up the latest thinking on household chemicals and the risk of cancer and other serious illness. Here are my top five tips.
1. Spring clean the cleaning products. The number one rule of thumb, doctors and environmental safety experts say, is read the ingredient list carefully on anything you're going to be spraying in the air or wiping on touchable surfaces. Air fresheners are among the biggest culprits; many contain either Isopar, which is deodorized kerosene, or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic and toxic to the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Among cleansers, oxygen bleach cleansers are particularly dangerous; you also want to watch out for products containing chlorine bleach and ammonia. Both of these aren't good to breathe. The worst practice, experts say? Spraying chlorine bleach in the shower or bathroom where the steam makes you more likely to breathe it. There are lots of good "green" cleaning products on the market now, so when you shop, replace your old standbys with these. Your lungs and cells will thank you.
2. Practice plastic safety. The popular e-mail saying that freezing a plastic water bottle releases dioxin is a hoax; if you like frozen water bottles, no problem. However, experts say, the truth about microwaving plastic wrap or microwaving food in plastic containers isn't so clear. Some plastics contain Di-ethylhexyladipate (DEHA), which is added to make plastic more pliable. Experts still consider DEHA a possible carcinogen. Heating plastic does make it more likely that any chemicals contained in it will be released into food. So use only containers specifically labeled microwave-safe; glass is safest of all, of course.
3. Test for radon and remove it. An odorless, radioactive gas that's produced by the natural decay of uranium, radon is more common than you might think. After smoking, it's the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The only way to find out if there's radon in your home is to test for it. Call the National Safety Council's National Radon Hotline (800)767-7236, and they'll send you a low-cost test kit; test kits also available at hardware stores.
4. Clean out the kitchen cupboards. The scientific community has argued back and forth over whether non-stick pans (aka Teflon) pose a cancer risk. Non-stick Teflon coating is made from perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical known to cause cancer, but most studies show that not enough PFOA gets into the human body from pans to pose a risk. Still, the EPA has called on manufacturers to phase out PFOA, and some experts say heating the pans on high heat or using them once they're scratched is not a good idea. The takeaway: Don't use non-stick pans to cook foods over 300 degrees, and toss them when the coating gets scratched.
5. Weed out dangerous pesticides and weed killers. Several common pesticides have been linked with health conditions, including cancer and Parkinson's. For example, chemicals used in household pesticides like Raid and flea bombs were detected at high levels in the urine of children with leukemia; another study linked herbicides with a higher incidence of childhood brain cancer. Methyl bromide, a crop fumigant, has been linked with prostate cancer, while atrazine, used on corn and other crops, particularly in the Midwest, has been linked to cancer and birth defects. One recent study found people diagnosed with Parkinson's are more than two times more likely to report pesticide exposure than people not diagnosed with the disease. Try to grow your garden as organically as possible, and pull weeds by hand. If you have a pest problem in the house, do your best to control it without airborne sprays. If you have to spray or bomb, send everyone away and air the house out for a day before coming back in.