When it comes to brain health, there are certain things we almost never think about. We’ve been warned about the toxic effects of living near a waste disposal site, a freeway, or a golf course or farm that heavily applies pesticides; and the Flint, MI water crisis underscored the importance of a clean, lead-free water supply, but what about the toxins we expose ourselves to daily in our own home?

Scientists who work with government to study toxins and devise ways to mitigate the results of those such as lead, aluminum, and zinc that make their way into our bodies via public works also ring the warning bell against the toxicity of air pollution. The National Library of Medicine cites studies pointing out that researchers suspect that air pollution is related to neuro-inflammation, which is connected to cognitive decline and could be a precursor to neurodegenerative disease. (National Library of Medicine)

As science and government do their part, we can do our part by reducing the cumulative effects of toxins in our own home. Here are a few simple things we can reach for or push away as we manage the indoor air we breathe and the products we use.

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Indoor Air:

If you don’t live near heavy traffic or near an industrial zone that contributes to air pollution, reach for plenty of ventilation. Open windows when possible. Bring the outdoors inside with nature’s own filtering system, plants. NASA uses plants to help purify the air at the International Space Station, and if the ISS sacrifices some of its limited room to plants, we can be sure of their positive effect. Think of them as beauty and health together throughout the home.
If opening windows will expose you to known air pollutants, reach for HEPA air purifiers, and use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter often to keep the environment as clean as possible.
If you use air fresheners, reach for natural air fresheners. Think candles (with a caveat) and essential oils in diffusers. Granted, anything that is combustible contributes to air pollution and can irritate eyes, lungs and other organs, but if candles are a mainstay in your home décor, the caveat is to burn those that are non-toxic and give off zero soot. These include beeswax, coconut or 100% organic soy (not soy + paraffin) candles with hemp, cotton, 100% paper or wood wicks. The advantage of diffusing an essential oil is that its aroma lingers longer than a candle once the candle is extinguished and they don’t produce that nasty pollutant soot. Lavender, lemon, tangerine, bergamot, and cedar wood are among the most popular oils for diffusers – and the list goes on, so you’re sure to find some you like.
Push away aerosol air fresheners and scented or non-scented candles made with paraffin wax. Aerosol air fresheners give off formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes, which are extremely toxic chemicals. Paraffin wax candles also produce soot, which is toxic.

They also release benzene and toluene, chemical compounds linked to cancer and lung disease. Although they smell lovely, scented candles have another strike against them because they also discharge formaldehyde, yet another harmful compound. If you choose to continue to burn paraffin wax candles, prevent soot from being blown around the room and landing on window coverings, furniture, etc., by keeping them away from drafts and cut off the wick or use a wick dipper to extinguish them.

Personal & Household Products:

Reach for clean filters for household appliances. Make sure filters for your air conditioner, heater, clothes dryer, stove range hood, vacuum cleaner, and dehumidifier are changed or cleaned according to instructions and at recommended intervals. While a countertop microwave doesn’t have a filter, a microwave over the stovetop needs its filter cleaned, too.

Push away products that have the word “fragrance” or “scent” in the list of ingredients. Anything that comes into contact with the skin is fair game for a toxin attack. The Endocrine Society warns that petroleum-based synthetic chemicals such as phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that cause metabolic issues, interfere with immune and nervous system function and a host of other problems. Keep in mind that bath soaps, laundry and dishwasher detergent, household cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics can be toxic because of their phthalate-load. The website noharm-uscanada.org reports that common problems associated with exposure to fragrance chemicals used in these products include forgetfulness and loss of coordination along with respiratory and other issues. With this in mind, you can see why limiting exposure to scented products is recommended by many health care professionals.

Reach for household and personal care products that have a USDA Certified Organic label. Europe bans many of the chemicals used in the US, but look for products that have been independently certified as organic if you live in Europe.
Reach for personal air filtration products if redecorating an older home requires stripping leaded paints or if leaded pipes are being replaced.

Push away clothes that have been dry cleaned – ban them to the outside for a few days. Most dry cleaning solvents use trichloroethylene (TEC), which is a highly volatile organic chemical associated with cognitive decline.
These are a few simple things you can do to reduce the cumulative effect of toxins in your home and in the home of someone you love who may be cognitively compromised. Be proactive and do an online search for companies that sell the products you and they use currently. If the ingredients contain chemicals such as those discussed here and are known to add to the toxic load, let future purchases be informed by that.

Kathy Faenzi PhotoKathy C. Faenzi MA is a Clinical Gerontologist and Senior Care Consultant based in San Mateo, CA.

JC Spicer, M.Ed. is a Freelance Social Science Writer and Developmental Editor based in the U.K.