Five Steps to a Healthier Home
As a journalist who’s spent the bulk of her career as a health reporter and home design columnist, I’m intrigued when the topics of health and home intersect. New ways to improve my home’s health seemed especially important after the last flu season came through like Typhoid Mary causing me to view every surface as a bioterrorist’s weapon.
So, when I heard about a new book, “Toxic Home/Conscious Home,” by Rob Brown, MD, I got a copy. I was curious how a medical doctor would interpret the scientific literature (such as it is) surrounding health and home.
Having shoveled through an awful lot of pseudo-science and medical hooey (that’s the technical term) in my career, I remain, as my editing professor taught me to be years ago, healthfully suspicious. Better to be skeptical of something true than taken in by something false.
I dumped that whole disheartening disclaimer on Dr. Brown, a practicing radiologist, who lives in Pittsburgh, when I called him to talk about his book, which he self-published in January.
“It’s hard to embrace it all,” he said, referring to the book’s many non-mainstream ideas, which range from jettisoning plastic containers and ditching the microwave to practicing feng-shui furniture placement. He didn’t at first either. But little by little he’s tried all his own advice, he said, using his home, which he shares with his two teenage boys and one dog, as a test lab.
We chatted. I looked at his book, and he sent me some links when I asked for the science. Some seemed solid, some squishy. When I mention this, he says, he, too, wishes there were more studies on certain subjects.
In short, some of his advice I buy. Some I don’t. And some I need to think about more. However, regardless of whether you or I buy into all, some, or none of the notions regarding the potential toxicity of our home’ drinking water, air, and environmental chemicals, the questions he raises are worth at least thinking about.
And while I’m not going to tell you what to think, I will tell you what I think. When I ran Brown’s recommendations through my filters of life experience and common sense, I found these five healthy-home tips made sense to me:
Houseplants all around. Plants clean the air of pollutants, those infamous volatile organic compounds, says Brown. While absorbing VOCs, they also produce oxygen. He recommends a houseplant in every room. I say, even if they don’t do all that much for the air, they’re nice to look at.
Electronics out of the bedroom. Over the years, light-emitting devices have crept into the bedroom, said Brown. Whether from the digital alarm clock or the TV indicator, light of any kind is not conducive to good sleep, and the little blue lights on our electronics are the worst. Even when our eyes are closed, light can get through our eyelids’ thin skin, and reach the retina, which signals the pineal gland to stop making melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. You don’t want to mess with that. So don’t sleep with the TV on, shut down your laptop, and turn off your cellphone (or put it on airplane mode so it won’t ping) and put it in the next room. If you need it for an alarm, put it in a drawer, and. If you’re sleeping in a room where outside light comes in, wear an eye mask.
Cleaner filters, cleaner air. After dusting, sweeping and vacuuming to remove dirt and dust from the home, air filters are the next line of defense. Some are better than others. Filters are rated from one to 20 by a MERV system (minimum efficiency reporting value), explains Brown. The higher the rating, the smaller the particles the filter will trap. If you can see through your clean filter, it probably isn’t very good. Filters in the lower one-to-four range provide minimal protection mostly to keep air particles from clogging the equipment. Filters in the five to 10 range do a better job picking up dust and other particles. Better filters are pleated and look like cotton. “If anyone in your home has asthma, allergies, bronchitis, or lung disease, you may want to invest in filters that have a higher MERV value,” said Brown. However, the stronger filters will use more energy.
Fewer chemicals are better. The American Cleaning Institute promotes the idea that we need strong chemicals to clean, but most things can be cleaned with substances you can eat, said Brown. While I agree in theory, I have tried cleaning my house with vinegar, and it smelled like a giant salad. Lemon juice, literally, doesn’t cut it, and, in my hands, a baking soda solution leaves a dull residue. What does work and makes sense to me is using watered-down cleaning products. I cut my spray cleaners with water, using one to two parts water to one part cleaner.
Don’t be too clean. “Our bodies are covered with fungi and bacteria that are protective.” he said, which makes me kind of squirm. If you over sanitize your environment and kill too many contaminants, you can damage your natural defenses, and become more susceptible to disease. Takeaway: Don’t overdo it. You want a home that is clean, not sterile.
CAPTION: Double duty – Houseplants, like this lovely orchid, not only look beautiful in a home, they make it healthier because they absorb pollutants from the air, says “Toxic Home/Conscious Home” author Dr. Rob Brown. Photo courtesy of Gini’s Orchids.