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Updated 9-25-2015

Avoiding Unnecessary Chemicals

Rose Naseef, Go Green La Grange!

    Why is it important to avoid chemicals?

    It seems that more people are becoming aware of the chemicals in theirchemistry environment, particularly the chemicals in their homes and in their communities.  Of primary concern is the effect of chemicals on human health, specifically as they relate to cancer, autoimmune diseases, allergies, infertility, and birth defects.  Environmentalists are also noting the ways chemicals impact the land, air, and water.  While scientists continue to analyze the impacts of various chemicals, there are steps individuals can take to limit chemicals in the environment.

    In many situations, people use chemicals to achieve a purely aesthetic quality, such as using bleach to whiten clothes, herbicides to kill lawn weeds, or make-up to change appearance.  By analyzing the products you purchase, you can determine whether the benefits are worth the risks of exposing yourself to chemicals and harming the environment.  Often, you can find safer alternatives when you work with, rather than against, nature and when you challenge your views of what is attractive, desirable, or necessary.

    Ways to avoid unnecessary chemicals

    Maintain your lawn without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers (such as Roundup, Chemlawn, and weed and feed products)

    People concerned about health risks from lawn chemicals are reevaluating how their lawns should look and tolerating more weeds.  They are choosing natural fertilizers and they are pulling weeds by hand.  Also, in the La Grange area, homeowners are starting to replace some or all of their lawns with native plants which thrive under local weather conditions.  Native plants require less fertilizing, watering, and overall maintaining and, thus, are the best choice for a healthy environment.

    Risks of lawn chemicals and tips on how to have a healthy lawn:bowser


    Lawn chemicals and lymphoma:

    Buy and grow organic food

    Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers,orga boy sewage sludge, genetic engineering or irradiation (see below for a more detailed description).  Many people buy organic food to avoid pesticide residues in their food.  Some people buy organic food for the taste and nutritional value.  Environmentalists also buy it to prevent farm pesticides from contaminating air, land, and water.  Organic food is readily available, especially when you buy food that is locally grown and in season.  You can also grow many fruits and vegetables organically in your own yard.

    Why buy organic food:


    Shopper’s guide to pesticides, including the dirty dozen (compiled by Environmental Working Group):


    Environmental effects:  Fertilizer and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone:


    Pesticide drift in Illinois:

    Buy organic cotton and hemp instead of conventionally grown cotton

    Conventionally grown cotton uses a significant amount of pesticides, arguably more than any other crop.  image007These pesticides can harm humans and wildlife and contaminate soil and water (see the websites below for detailed information about problems associated with conventional cotton).  Fortunately, alternatives such as organic cotton and hemp are becoming more available.  Also, thrift stores allow you to reuse clothes and linens and, thus, avoid new items dependent upon the use of pesticides.  Investing in earth-friendly products may cost more, but hopefully you will enjoy each product more, knowing you are creating a healthier environment.


    Avoid Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

    According to the U.S. EPA website (

    “Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.  VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic.”

    The Sierra Club offers a useful guide. In addition, you can do the following:

    Clean your home with natural products:  You can avoid harsh chemicals, including bleach, and still clean your home thoroughly.  Natural cleaners with a little bit of elbow grease are just as effective.

    Buy Low or No-VOC paint and eco-friendly sealers :  A growing number of paint suppliers carry low and no-VOC paint.  You can find earth-friendly products for sealing wood, tile, and stone at local stores and on-line.  All products should have labels showing the concentration of VOCs.

    Avoid home products with high levels of VOCs:  Formaldehyde is often present in pressed wood products, foam insulation, and durable press drapes.  Building materials, including wood and vinyl flooring, carpeting, and wall coverings, may contain adhesives and sealants that can cause health problems and harm the environment.  There is a lot of information about eco-friendly alternatives, so you can research your products well before you buy.  Don’t forget, you can avoid the off-gassing problem entirely by buying used furniture at an estate sale!

    Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products

    Commonly referred to as vinyl, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a plastic-like material usedimage011 in a variety of products.   PVC often contains toxic additives, such as phthalates, that help to make it softer and more pliable.  PVC is used in building materials, vinyl siding, shower curtains, children’s toys, school supplies, clothing, upholstery, hoses, tubing, wires, pipes, signs, flooring, figurines, waterbeds, pool toys, and inflatable structures.  Concerns about PVC include cancer and infertility.  In addition to problems from off-gassing and leaching from PVC products, the production and incineration of PVC appear to cause significant health and environmental problems.  You can reduce impacts from PVC by buying natural, PVC-free alternatives, buying used products, and foregoing unnecessary items made from PVC.

    Avoid fire retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

    image013PBDEs are used for their flame retardant properties in items such as foam-padded furniture, computer and television screens, carpet padding, chairs, couches, toys, and food packaging.  Because of their prevalence in the environment, PBDEs are present in human beings, our food, and our water.  Notably, researches have found relatively high concentrations of PBDEs in the breast milk of North American women.  Health concerns regarding PBDEs include thyroid malfunction, neurotoxicity, and infertility.  Although you cannot eliminate exposure completely, you can alleviate the problem of PBDEs in the environment by avoiding products that might have PBDEs added, such as those described above.  Buying less overall also will allow you to spend money on high quality items made with natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, which are naturally fire resistant.

    Find an alternative to dry cleaning

    image015Most dry cleaners use the solvent perchloroethylene (PERC).  Health concerns regarding PERC include headaches, dizziness, nausea and memory problems as well as cancer and liver damage.  When you bring clothes home, you expose yourself to the solvents directly.  However, more importantly, PERC can contaminate the air and ground water at dry cleaning sites and affect those who work and live near the sites.  Fortunately, dry cleaning is unnecessary and serves a purely aesthetic function.  Healthier alternatives, such as wet cleaning, are available.  Better yet, you can save your money and protect your health by washing your clothes and linens at home.

    Dispose of hazardous chemicals properly

    Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up with unwanted chemicals in your home.  Perhaps, you purchased the chemicals before becoming enlightened or had a situation in which you felt there was no other choice than to use an unsavory product.  It happens to everyone.  However, if you no longer need the item, you should dispose of it properly.  Occasionally, there are household hazardous waste drop-offs in local communities, so be on the lookout for these events.  In Naperville, there is a permanent drop-off facility that is open on weekends.  You can drop off a variety of solvents, batteries, mercury items (including those old thermometers), and pesticides/fertilizers.

    More information about chemicals in the environment

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