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Breathe Safer Indoor Air With EWG’s New 'Healthy Living Home Guide'

Health + Wellness
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Americans spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. That's why it's more important than ever to think about indoor air quality and health.

Monday the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a user-friendly online guide to creating a healthier home, focusing on how chemicals in the indoor environment affect health and how making smart choices can make homes safer and greener. Whether remodeling a room, shopping for a new mattress or choosing cleaning products, the guide will help consumers avoid bringing potentially harmful chemicals into their homes.


"To protect their health at home, consumers should have as much information as possible," said Tasha Stoiber, an EWG senior scientist and lead author of the Healthy Living: Home Guide. "This new guide really allows people to do their homework. Potential health hazards come from paints and finishes, furniture, carpets, cabinetry and products under the kitchen and bathroom sink. These products and materials can release toxic chemicals into the air that also accumulate in household dust, which may lead to a host of health problems."

Babies and children are especially vulnerable to health problems from exposure to toxic chemicals. The Healthy Living: Home Guide was designed to guide choices to reduce or eliminate exposures to toxic chemicals such as volatile organic compounds, flame retardants and phthalates at home.

Some risks from home furnishings and products are unknown or not well-defined. When that's the case, consumers should take precautions to replace questionable substances with preferable alternatives. With the guide, consumers can quickly find information on chemicals in building materials, furniture and cleaning products. It also includes information on air and water filters.

The bottom line: The fewer chemicals in the home, the better.

"There are similar guides out there, but most we looked at were too technical," said Nneka Leiba, EWG's director of healthy living science. "We spent more than two years creating and designing something easy to use and understand."

Making a home healthier doesn't have to be hard or expensive. The guide provides suggestions for small changes like replacing air filters, cleaning supplies or water filters that can make a big difference.

"Labels that claim a product is 'green' or 'sustainable' may be nothing more than empty marketing claims, and can give consumers a false sense of security," said Stoiber. "We wanted to cut through the hype and give consumers the facts."

There are signs that the home products market is getting greener and safer, with states leading the way in the absence of strong federal regulations. This month, California passed a law to require cleaning product manufacturers to disclose ingredients on labels. Consumers are also demanding healthier products, leading manufacturers to make voluntary changes.

"Information is power," said Leiba. "This new tool will help people make smarter choices, and will encourage changes to the marketplace. Through their choices, consumers can push manufacturers to make home products that are better for all of us."

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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