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Make your home healthier in five easy steps

  • Story Highlights
  • Avoid fumes from pans with perfluorochemicals by turning down the heat
  • Your tap water may contain toxic chemicals. Find out what's in it.
  • Know which toys could contain lead
  • Watch out for wood decks and play sets treated with arsenic
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By Celeste Perron
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Parenting.com

You may think your home is safe, but there may be toxins in your water, linens, and even your deck. There are several simple steps you can take to make your kitchen, living spaces, playroom, and backyard healthier for you and your family. Here's what to do:

IN THE KITCHEN

Potential danger: Nonstick cookware

The scoop: Pans that let cookies slide off easily and make cleanup a cinch contain perfluorochemicals (or PFCs), which have been shown to cause cancer, hormone disruption, and hypothyroidism in animals. In humans, they've been linked to a decreased ability to fight infection, as well as low birth weight in babies whose mothers were exposed to them during pregnancy. PFCs are found in the linings of fast-food packaging and most microwave-popcorn bags to keep grease from soaking through (as well as in some furniture and carpeting).

Healthy-home fixes: It's not clear whether humans are at risk from day-to-day exposure, but environmental health experts recommend these commonsense precautions:

• Turn down the heat! Don't preheat an empty pan, and keep burners on medium while cooking. "It's when nonstick pans get too hot that they emit potentially dangerous fumes," says pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., author of "Raising Baby Green."

• Replace flaky, peeling pans when they start to go. Switch to old-fashioned stainless steel or cast iron, or try one of the new PFC-free nonstick pans on the market.

• Take your takeout out of the containers, and serve it on plates.

• Pop popcorn on the stove, or use an air popper.

IN THE KITCHEN

Potential danger: Pollutants in tap water

The scoop: Here's something you can worry less about. "Tap water is more regulated than bottled water," says Dr. Paulson. However, it can vary greatly from region to region. An analysis of tap-water data from 19 cities by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for instance, revealed elevated levels of lead, arsenic, and other hazardous chemicals.

Healthy-home fixes:

• Find out what's in your water. Your community water department is required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regularly review the makeup of local water supplies and publish those results. If you don't get a report in the mail once or twice a year, call and ask for one. For a guide to understanding water-safety facts and figures, go to safe-drinking-water.org.

• Test your own H2O with a simple kit from Everpure ($85; everpure.com). After sending in a sample of your water, you'll receive detailed results, plus the best ways to filter out any impurities that the test turned up.

• And then, use a filter. "Many contaminants can be removed with a simple activated-carbon one," says Anne Steinemann, director of The Water Center at the University of Washington, in Seattle. These are the relatively inexpensive filters that attach at the faucet or below the sink. Parenting.com: Great greenware for eating and drinking

However, there are some water contaminants (percholate, a by-product of rocket fuel, for example) that may require a reverse-osmosis filter. These under-sink units are expensive and waste some water in order to clean it, but they may be worth it if you live in an area with heavily contaminated H2O. Whatever type of filter you choose, look for one labeled as meeting NSF/ANSI Standard 53, which means that the manufacturer's claims have been verified. You can find a more detailed explanation of water-filter options at waterfiltercomparisons.net.

IN THE FAMILY ROOM AND BEDROOMS

Potential danger: Chemical flame retardants in bedding and furniture

The scoop: Tons of household products contain chemicals called PBDEs, which slow the rate at which something burns. The problem is, PBDEs have been shown to interfere with a child's developing nervous system, causing problems with memory and attention. What's more, they have widely contaminated the environment and even our bodies. Although there's still a scarcity of data regarding the danger to humans, several states are concerned enough to have banned the production and sale of certain PBDEs.

Healthy-home fixes:

• Keep your house as dust-free as possible. (Yes, not easy for a busy family!) "PBDEs like to attach to dust particles," says Sarah Janssen, M.D., a science fellow at the NRDC in San Francisco. "And kids are especially likely to be exposed because they spend so much time on the floor and put things in their mouths."

• Make small changes now. No need to chuck all the flame-retardant items in your house, but do consider replacing some.

"Start with your children's bedrooms, since kids spend so much time in there and their faces are close to their bedding all night," Greene says. When you buy new bedding, switch to the organic-cotton kind (organic fibers are never treated with PBDEs, so opting for organic sheets and pillowcases is one way to make sure you avoid them). If you're ready to replace mattresses (including crib mattresses), consider looking for ones that meet flame-retardant standards without using chemicals. Also, toss old "egg crate" foam mattress pads, since they're coated with flame retardants. A list of companies that make PBDE-free mattresses and bedding can be found at ewg.org/pbdefree.

• Make bigger changes later. When it comes time to buy new furniture, many experts feel it's worth a little extra effort to find PBDE-free options. Most products aren't labeled as such, so you'll have to ask questions at the store (or even call the manufacturer) to find out whether or not an item contains PBDEs. As a general rule, pieces made of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and hemp don't catch fire easily or burn quickly, and so are less likely to be treated. Ikea has stopped using PBDEs in its products; other furniture manufacturers are catching on to the concerns about fire retardants. For more information, go to cleanproduction.org/safer/about.php.

IN THE PLAYROOM

Potential danger: Lead in toys

The scoop: You no doubt heard last year that hundreds of thousands of popular toys, including many based on characters from kid favorites like Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine, were found to contain lead paint -- a dangerous neurotoxin that can hinder brain development and cause learning and behavioral problems (and which was banned by the government from house paint in 1978). The toys were recalled, forcing parents to stealthily toss them in the dark of night (or return them to the company).

Healthy-home fixes: There's really no way to tell if a toy has lead. (DIY tests aren't accurate, say most experts.) Parenting.com: How to take recalled toys away

Keep an eye out for toy recalls related to lead paint. You can sign up for e-mail alerts at recalls.gov, and you can find an up-to-date listing of recalled toys here.

• Find out what's in your kids' toys at healthytoys.org, which lets you sort by specific toy, brand, or type.

• Know your child's lead levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that kids be tested for lead at ages 1 and even 2, if your pediatrician thinks it's necessary based on factors like lead levels in your community. Although results under ten micrograms per deciliter are considered normal, "based on new research, you should pay attention to blood levels as low as two and find out how the lead exposure is happening," says Dr. Greene.

• Get the lead out. Some states and cities have rules for dealing with household lead paint. To find local contacts, go to epa.gov/lead or call 800-424-LEAD.

IN THE BACK YARD

Potential danger: Arsenic-treated wood decks and play sets

The scoop: It's hard to fathom, but for decades, arsenic was added to outdoor wood as a preservative. After evidence emerged that it could cause cancer in humans, the EPA banned the manufacture and sale of arsenic-treated wood for most uses. However, wood decks and kids' play sets built before 2004 usually contain arsenic.

So if you've got any wood in your yard that's more than four years old, you can take some simple precautions to protect your kids, who can ingest arsenic when they touch the wood or the soil underneath it and then put their hands in their mouths. (If you want to know for sure whether wood in your back yard contains arsenic, you can buy a simple but reliable test kit, priced from $25 to $40, at ewg.org.)

Healthy-home fixes:

• Have your kids scrub up as soon as they come inside. "One study showed that washing with soap and water removes arsenic from hands and greatly reduces risk," says Dr. Greene. Parenting.com: Shortcuts to keeping children clean

• Don't have your wood structures professionally cleaned with pressurized water. The force of the water can release arsenic from the wood. Parenting.com: Five ways to speed through cleaning

• If you remove the deck or play set, don't burn it or you'll release arsenic into the air.

• Reseal outdoor wood at least once a year with latex paint or polyurethane, recommends the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing levels of harmful chemicals in the environment. You can do this yourself or hire a pro, but either way, you'll be taking just one more important step toward making your home as healthy as it can be.

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