Rebecca Black has always been a problem-solver. So when her son, Barron, now 10, was diagnosed with autism in 2009, her fix-it mentality kicked in: After diving into research on autism, Black, 40, decided their Highland Park home needed to be gutted.
Built in 1915, the house had been renovated several times, but Black suspected that behind the walls lurked mold, a toxin that can cause developmental delays. Testing confirmed Black’s suspicions: Mold was found between the framing of the house and the brick. She also found out the paint on the outside of the house contained lead.
“When your child is struggling, everything is a big deal,” Black says. In addition to developmental challenges, Barron was “covered in rashes” and had eczema and stomach problems. Black’s daughter, Avery, was experiencing severe sinus issues.
“I didn’t want one thing on my house that had touched lead paint,” Black says.
But as Black found during the 18-month renovation, mold and lead were just the first two ingredients in the chemical cocktail cooking in their home.
Average Americans spend 90 percent of their life indoors, much of that time at home, says Samantha Dunne, sustainable designer and process analyst at TreeHouse in Dallas. “We are breathing in and exposed to whatever toxins are within our walls,” she explains.
That’s especially scary considering that furniture, cookware and even your shower curtain can contain chemicals like phthalates, formaldehyde and other carcinogens—yet many of us aren’t even aware of these toxins or the ways they are damaging our family’s health.
“Effects from exposure to these toxins can show up in subtle ways, such as coughing, sneezing or an itchy throat—essentially indoor allergies,” Dunne says. “However, effects can also be much worse—causing headaches, chronic migraines, asthma, increased risk of cancer, and even damage to the kidneys and central nervous system.”
Erin Maxwell, NMD, a naturopathic doctor with a practice in Lewisville, adds that many of the toxins found in homes can affect children’s behavior.
“A child might be hyperactive if he comes in contact with certain chemicals,” she explains.
Maxwell reveals she’s seeing a “significant increase of toxins in the home.” Yet these substances are often scantily regulated and poorly labeled so parents often have no idea their families are at risk—or how to go about coming clean.
Black’s family of four moved out in 2010 and began the process of making their craftsman home toxin-free from top to bottom, starting with the wood.
Like most manufactured products, composite wood off-gasses, or releases harmful chemicals, as it breathes and expands—think that “new” smell. Formaldehyde is the most common output. At low levels, it causes irritation; at higher levels, it’s a known carcinogen. In 2016, the EPA published a new rule on formaldehyde emission standards to limit the offgassing potential of composite wood—the results of a yearslong research process after the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act was passed by Congress in 2010—but the rule doesn’t take effect until December of this year.
Black checked every piece of wood entering her home to ensure it came straight from the lumberyard. But she says some wood used in the new framing may have been manufactured to allow it to bear more weight, an opportunity for formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to be introduced into the wood—and from there, into the air inside her home.
“The best way to fight off-gassing if these toxins are in materials is to let them breathe,” Black explains. “We not only allowed the wood to breathe for six weeks, but we also soaked it with water hoses to speed along any offgassing in order to rid the wood of toxins prior to walling the house.”
The Blacks’ new floors are made of repurposed wood, which has had years to off-gas toxins, and solid pine, which is natural and untreated.
And Black made sure all that craftsman carpentry was sealed with beeswax instead of traditional sealant, another off-gassing culprit. (To fight water stains without a traditional sealant, the Blacks found an unlikely but safe water stain remover: mayonnaise.)
Her new stone countertops are natural and untreated too—just like wood, stone off-gases toxins if they are present.
“Your family eats food prepared and served from countertops,” Black says. So instead of serving supper with a side of toxins, she chose 100 percent natural stone that doesn’t have toxins to off-gas.
Black filled the house with organic furniture and mattresses that are clean of flame retardants and stain- and waterproofing materials. Though many furniture manufacturers have phased out harmful flame retardants since California law stopped requiring them in 2014, the foam in older furniture may still harbor carcinogens that off-gas and make their way into the dust floating around your home. And the polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs or PFCs) used to repel water and stains are still found in some consumer goods, even though research has suggested links to cancer, developmental problems and higher cholesterol.
In other words, it may be a good idea to skip the flea market and invest in a nontoxic slipcover.
To cover the floors, Black sprang for 100 percent woven wool rugs without fire-retardant chemicals and special carpet tiles that are woven together—no need for toxic glues.
All the walls sport zero-VOC paint as opposed to enamel-based color that off-gases for years.
“The paint is not as convenient since it’s flat and shows fingerprints, but it’s all worth it,” Black says.
That’s because the Blacks noticed a difference in their health almost immediately when they moved back in. Allergies that were a constant issue now only flare up on occasion, Black says, and Avery, now 11, rarely experiences sinus problems. Barron’s autism hasn’t gone away—he still has anxiety and auditory processing issues—but his random rashes and eczema disappeared along with his chronic ear infections.
“Did our nontoxic renovation aid in some of the healing that is necessary when raising a child with autism to enable him to see gains like typical children? Absolutely,” she says. “Living in a toxic home was adding weight to all of us. For Barron, the weight was too much on top of the load he was already carrying.”
Keeping it Clean
Creating a toxin-free home is only step one. Ironically, the myriad sprays, wipes, detergents and even scented candles we use to keep our homes clean and fresh can do
exactly the opposite.
For example, candles made from paraffin wax produce harmful benzene and toluene when burned. Maxwell points out that benzene, which has been linked to leukemia and breast cancer, can also be found in glue, furniture wax and detergent.
Suspect ingredients like benzene are the reason Black uses mostly vinegar to clean her toxin-free home, plus an all-purpose cleaner from the Young Living essential oils line. In fact, oils are diffused throughout the house daily instead of scented candles, which now give the family severe headaches.
Preston Hollow mom Jennifer Helms, 47, has overhauled her clean routine too. Before, the mom of two found herself at the pediatrician’s office all too often with her son, Jack, who had problems ranging from chronic ear infections and stomach pain to developmental challenges like feeding issues and sensory sensitivities to infections like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rotavirus. After years of doctors and therapists, and no real remedy, Helms looked to her chemical cabinet.
“My husband, John, and I had childproofed the home with locks on cabinets to keep Jack and Grace away from products like Windex and bleach, and I began thinking why we even had those products in the first place,” Helms recalls. “It never occurred to me back then that there might be safer product choices that would not harm my children.”
Her own research and consultation with an osteopathic doctor revealed that the toxins in her everyday household products could be contributing to her son’s neurological, developmental and immune system challenges.
Mary Ann Block, DO, medical director of The Block Center in Hurst, says fragrances found in detergents can wreak havoc on the body. “These petroleum products are manipulated to smell better,” she says. “Since the FDA does not regulate these products, thousands of chemicals can be hidden in them without people realizing it.”
It’s true: The Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have banned very few chemicals, and new ingredients are innocent until proven guilty by the government.
For now, there are also limited labeling requirements for household products, making it hard for consumers to spot harmful ingredients—especially fragrance components, which have historically been included within the unhelpful catchall “fragrance.”
That could be changing in the next few years. California passed a law in October that requires manufacturers to list certain chemical ingredients in household products right on the label beginning in 2021. (Cleaners are included, but personal care products like shampoo are not.) New York is working on a similar initiative, and the new rules are likely to be followed nationwide.
In the face of consumer calls for transparency, SC Johnson (maker of Glade) and other companies have voluntarily begun publishing detailed ingredient lists for the fragrances in their products.
Though transparent labeling will help savvy parents avoid cleaning supplies and scented candles with unwanted toxins, it may take longer for those toxins to exit the market entirely.
Progress was made in June 2016 when the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was passed to reform the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that famously didn’t even confer the power to ban asbestos. Now all new and existing chemicals must be evaluated for health risks by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and companies can’t necessarily hide behind claims of confidentiality and proprietary recipes.
The EPA has already begun prioritizing chemicals for risk assessment (asbestos was high on the list), but considering there are about 85,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory, removing all toxins from the grocery store shelves won’t be a quick process.
On a Mission
In the meantime, Block explains, many people just don’t know how these ingredients are affecting them. At The Block Center, she has treated many patients who did not realize their health conditions were caused by their environment until they removed toxins from their homes. She says some patients who had been taking asthma medication no longer needed it after cleaning up their environment.
“The improvement once these products are removed can be very dramatic,” she says.
Five years ago, Helms slowly started detoxing her family’s home and implemented dietary changes to clean up their eating habits too.
Soon she noticed that the monthly doctor visits became more spread out. Daily trips to the school nurse ended. Over time, many of her son’s chronic issues have become nearly nonexistent. Jack, now 14, sees the doctor once a year for his annual checkup.
“It was shocking the difference all of it made,” Helms says. “I kept thinking if someone could have taught me how to eliminate toxins and provided me with a list, it wouldn’t have taken so long.”
Helms’ wish for specialized detox services led her to leave her 18-year career as a lawyer to start Cleerlife, a company with a mission to teach people how to reduce toxins in their homes. Helms and her business partner research brands in order to sell safe products—they’re expert label readers, clueing in other moms to the meaning of confusing terms like “fragrance-free” and “unscented.” (The former means no fragrance has been added, while the latter means a chemical has been added to mask the smell.)
“We meet people where they are, understanding that everyone doesn’t have the means to renovate their home,” she says. “And we know that children can’t live in a bubble, but as a mom, if you can control the home environment, even small changes like toxin-free laundry detergent and cleaners can make a big difference.”
This article was originally published in March 2018.