The Dirt: If you plan to seal your blacktop driveway, avoid coal tar--based sealants. They contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, toxic compounds shown to cause cancer or other genetic mutations. When rainwater and other precipitation hit your driveway, the toxic chemicals run off into your yard and into your local drinking water supply. In fact, this situation has been compared to dumping quarts of motor oil right down a storm drain. The dust is often tracked into homes, too.
Better Alternative: Gravel and other porous materials are best for driveways because they allow rainwater to sink into the ground, where it gets filtered and doesn't inundate water treatment plants. But if you do seal blacktop, pick asphalt sealant and stay away from any product that has coal tar in its name (or products simply called "driveway sealant"). Lowe's and Home Depot have already banned the bad stuff, but smaller hardware stores may still carry it.
The Dirt: Chemical weed, fungus, and bug killers all fit under this category and should be avoided both inside and outside of your house. Researchers have linked these pesticides to various forms of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; insecticides have been connected to brain damage in kids. "This is a good time of the year to resolve not to use pesticides on lawns and gardens," says Phil Landrigan, MD, director of Mount Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center. "A few dandelions or buttercups or other little flowers in the middle of the lawn are not unsightly."
Better Alternative: Combating an indoor bug problem is as simple as cleaning up crumbs, sealing food in containers, and using wood shims and a caulking gun to fill pest entry points. If you're spending big bucks on chemicals for a turf-like lawn, reconsider. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers kill the health of the soil and create a lawn that allows for little rainwater absorption, which contributes to flooding. Try replacing some sod with plants native to your area; they don't require as much water and maintenance.
The Dirt: The antimicrobial chemical triclosan, used in some toothpastes and antibacterial soaps, is believed to disrupt thyroid function and hormone levels in people; when it mixes into wastewater, it can cause sex changes in aquatic life. And health experts believe that overuse of this and other antibacterial chemicals is promoting the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibacterial treatment.
Better Alternative: Good old-fashioned soap and warm water will kill just as many germs, studies have shown. If you must use a natural hand sanitizer, pick one that's alcohol based and doesn't list triclosan, triclocarban (another related antibacterial chemical) or other chemicals described as "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial" on the label.
The Dirt: Fragrance may be the most common type of chemical in your house. Used in laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, cleaning supplies, disinfectants, air fresheners, deodorizers, shampoos, hair sprays, gels, lotions, sunscreens, soaps, perfumes, powders, and scented candles--and dozens of other products you may not know about--fragrances are a class of chemicals that are well worth the time and effort to avoid. The term "fragrance" or "parfum" on personal-care-product labels can be a cover for hundreds of harmful chemicals known to be carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and reproductive toxicants, even at low levels.
Better Alternative: Go the unscented route whenever possible, especially with soaps and detergents. Avoid any kind of air freshener or deodorizer, including sprays, gels, solid disks, and oils, suggests Anne Steinemann, PhD, a University of Washington researcher who focuses on fragrances in consumer products. "These products do not clean or disinfect the air, but they do add hazardous chemicals to the air we breathe," she says. Use better ventilation and set out a bowl of baking soda or white vinegar to freshen up a room.
The Dirt: Isn't it ironic that we actually contaminate our air when we use harsh chemicals--some of which are known to cause cancer--to "clean" our homes? Ammonia can trigger asthma attacks, and harsh oven cleaners and drain openers can cause respiratory damage or burn the skin of children who come into contact with them.
Better Alternative: Save tons of money by turning to Grandma's homemade cleaning concoctions, including a general cleaning solution of one part white vinegar and nine parts water. This will kill up to 90 percent of bacteria and many spores. Just spray it on and let it dry to a nice shine on its own. The best surprise about distilled white vinegar? You can buy a gallon for less than $2 and make more than 10 gallons of cleaning solution. When you're finished using a vinegar cleaning solution, dump it down your garbage disposal or toilet for bonus odor control.
The Dirt: Is the convenience of nonstick worth it?. That slick, shiny, enticingly nonstick surface is made from a synthetic material known as perfluoroalkyl acid, a class of chemicals that have been linked to ADHD, high cholesterol, and thyroid disease. They're also potent sperm killers and are suspected of contributing to female infertility.
Better Alternative: Opt for safer cookware like made-in-America cast iron, glass or stainless steel. If you already cook with nonstick pots and pans, replace them with safer choices when you start seeing scratches and chips in the finish.
The Dirt: Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the country, is sprayed on everything from cotton to canola, lawns to golf courses. So it stands to reason that the stuff winds up in our air and water. But when you're eating "Roundup Ready" food, as in, food that's been genetically modified to withstand all those Roundup applications, you're eating it too, according to plant pathologist Don Huber, PhD, professor emeritus at Purdue University. That's problematic because scientists are learning that Roundup affects defensive enzymes our bodies use to keep us healthy. Roundup also reduces a plant's ability to take up vital micronutrients that humans require for survival.
Better Alternative: Corn, soy, and canola are common crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand heavy dousings of Roundup (or other glyphosate-containing chemicals), and foods containing these ingredients tend to contain higher levels of Roundup than other crops do. To avoid genetically engineered (GE) foods and Roundup in your food, buy organic.
The Dirt:Some environmental health groups have dubbed vinyl the "poison plastic," due to its harmful production process and its effects on humans. Vinyl is laced with phthalates, chemical plastic softeners linked to hormone disruption, stunted growth, obesity, and other health problems, as well as low IQs.
Better Alternative: When it's time to replace flooring in your home, opt for wood, bamboo, or cork that's Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified or for real linoleum, instead of vinyl. Avoid plastic shower-curtain liners, as well as fake leather furniture, clothing, and accessories, to cut down on phthalate exposure. (Try hemp or organic cotton shower curtains.)
The Dirt: Flame-retardant chemicals can be found in electronics, carpets, carpet padding, and furniture foam. They've been associated with a wide range of health problems, including infertility, thyroid problems, learning disabilities, and hormone disruption. And the exposure to all these potential health threats could be for naught: Added to materials in the event they come in contact with a lit candle or cigarette, the chemicals only delay a fire, and for just a few seconds. When these flame retardants do burn, they release higher levels of carbon monoxide and soot, the two leading causes of fire-related deaths, than non-treated materials.
Better Alternative: When shopping for new furniture, call the manufacturer and ask if it contains flame retardants. If you see a tag that says "complies with California Technical Bulletin 117," avoid bringing home that piece of furniture (California requires all upholstered furniture to be flame retardant, and nearly all furniture sold in the U.S. is made to comply with their law). Take care when selecting electronics, too: Environmental Working Group lists electronics that are free of flame retardants.
The Dirt: Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a hormone-disrupting chemical linked to male infertility, diabetes, heart disease, aggressive behavior in children, and other ills. The chemical is used in some No. 7 plastic bottles and most canned-food containers, and although some manufacturers are phasing the chemical out of their cans, it's not clear that the replacements are totally safe either. In 2010, scientists also discovered that we absorb BPA from cash-register receipts through our skin.
Better Alternative: Opt for fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, and bypass cans as often as possible. Don't store or microwave food or beverages in plastic containers. And say no thanks to receipts for minor purchases like gas and coffee, and at the ATM.
The Dirt: Nasty indoor air-polluting culprits, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, could be trashing your indoor air, especially in the kitchen, the basement, or even the laundry room. (Scented, petroleum-based laundry detergents contain high levels of VOCs.) These hazardous chemicals are linked to asthma and, in some instances, even cancer, and they add to indoor air pollution. Pressed wood and particleboard cabinets and other furniture are big emitters of the VOC (and carcinogen) formaldehyde in the home, too.
Better Alternative: Choose unscented, plant-based detergents, or go old-school and use castile soap or washing soda and borax to clean your clothing. For new paint projects, choose readily available no-VOC paint, and avoid storing paint in your garage or basement--fumes can escape even tightly closed lids and enter your home. Avoid plywood and particleboard when buying new household furnishings, and keep VOCs contained by sealing any plywood or particleboard furniture with a product like AFM Safecoat Safe Seal.
The Dirt: Sure, it's convenient to drop your clothing off with a dry cleaner, but the cleaning chemical of choice in this country remains perchloroethylene, also known as PCE, or perc. This chemical is classified a probable carcinogen and is linked to kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage. It's not something you want to wear or have holed up in your home closet. Although many states and cities are phasing out perc, it's still among the most widely used dry-cleaning chemicals.
Better Alternative: You can work around "Dry Clean Only" instructions on clothing tags. You just need to know how to treat different types of fabric. Read Dry Clean Only? Nah, There Are Cheaper, Safer Ways for instructions on cleaning delicates like wool, rayon, and silk.
Want to learn more about creating the ultimate healthy home? Check out actress and environmentalist Jessica Alba's fact-filled book, The Honest Life, for easy ways to detox your cleaning, shopping, and cosmetics routines, too.
The Honest Life includes tips on:
• Alba's 10-minute face--natural, comfortable makeup tips for a healthy glow
• Healthy, slimming recipes, including Alba's Go-To Green Drink
• Honest style and home design
• How to make your own beauty products from scratch