You’ve made your home a haven free of toxic chemicals — you use plant-based cleaners and non-toxic beauty products, filter your water and eat organic as much as possible. But what about when you’re away from the house? How do you protect yourself from toxins in the office, at school or while you travel?
Non-toxic living away from home can be tricky, as you don’t have a lot of control over these spaces. In all likelihood, these places are being cleaned with chemicals you’d rather avoid and have other sources of toxic compounds, like building materials and furniture.
What to do? While you can’t eliminate these sources of toxins completely, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure.
Primary sources of chemicals at the office include cleaners and furnishings, leading to poor indoor air quality. You’re probably stuck with the furnishings until the next big office renovation, but you can do something about the cleaners and air quality in general right away.
Speak to the head of janitorial services about switching to safer cleaners, which are also healthier for the workers who handle them. Arrive armed with some research about the health effects of common chemicals, and point out that healthier workers are more productive and are less of a drain on healthcare dollars. Anyone sensitive to chemicals will appreciate the relief from productivity-sapping headaches and fatigue!
To further improve indoor air quality:
- Open windows when possible to allow in fresh air.
- Bring in air-purifying houseplants that remove many common toxins from the air.
- Ask for a fragrance-free policy. Chemical fragrances, like those found in perfumes, can cause headaches as well as long-term health effects like cancer and endocrine disruption.
Try to spend time outside on your lunch break. In addition to the fresh air, sunshine will give you a dose of health-boosting vitamin D, and contact with nature can help improve your mood and reduce stress. Bring a healthy, chemical-free lunch that’s not packed in plastic to minimize chemical exposure from food.
Sadly, our schools are filled with chemicals from cleaners, supplies, furnishings and building materials, which often include toxic vinyl, PCBs, lead, and VOCs. Playing fields are commonly sprayed with pesticides, and numerous contaminants have been found in artificial turf and playground materials.
Relatively few school administrators are aware of these environmental toxins and their impact on health. To begin addressing possible health hazards in your school, you need to start with a conversation about common environmental pollutants.
As in the office, cleaning supplies are one of the easier places to start making healthier choices, and switching to plant-based cleaners can have a large impact since they’re used daily. Some “green teams” at forward-thinking schools have already replaced toxic cleaners with more benign ones.
Remediating PCBs and lead are bigger projects, and choosing safer building materials and finishes can only be done when building upgrades are planned. You can inquire about using lower-VOC products for routine refinishing of floors and repainting. When bigger rebuilding plans are underway, discuss toxics remediation and skipping vinyl products and other sources of environmental pollutants.
A number of nationwide campaigns can give you tools to get started making your school environment healthier and safer for students and staff alike. The Center for Environmental Health and Justice’s Green Flags program and Green Clean Schools are good places to start.
Hitting the road means encountering numerous different environments, each with their own mixture of chemicals: airports, restaurants, hotels, gas stations and so on. Enjoy the ride and don’t fret too much about what you can’t control, but use the same common sense tools you use at home to minimize toxic exposure.
- Skip hotel bathroom freebies. Bringing your own shampoo and lotion means you can avoid the hormone-disrupting chemicals so common in everyday beauty products. You’ll also cut down on the waste produced by your trip.
- Open windows for fresh air. You can help ventilate chemicals in the air coming from cleaners and furnishings.
- Flee fumes when you can. Give smokers wide berth, and leave restaurants, bars and other venues that have strong chemical smells. Choose dining options away from city streets and move on if there’s painting or road construction happening to avoid breathing in unnecessary chemicals.
- Avoid plastic packaging. Bringing your own water bottle and travel mug and being savvy in your food choices means you won’t be eating and drinking plastic chemicals. Seek out restaurants where you can use glass, ceramic and metal rather than plastic.
While there’s only so much you can do to avoid encountering common chemicals away from home, consistently avoiding what you can will lessen your toxic load overall. So wherever you are, have your glass or metal water bottle on hand, choose food options without plastic, and use safer, plant-based body products.
Remember to be an advocate and help others understand why limiting harmful chemicals is important. Hopefully one day there will be less to worry about while we’re out and about.