The steep prices on some eco cleaners and organic sheets can make green living seem like a luxury few can afford. But if you consider the surprising range of household items that contain dangerous toxins—which scientists say could lead to allergic reactions, thyroid disorders, even cancer—going green starts to sound as much a health priority as an environmental one.
The good news is that you can get many of those benefits with just a few key changes. The following guide will help you decide which areas and items in your home are worth the extra money to buy organic, and which conventional versions are just as good for your body, your wallet, and the planet.
An Organic Mattress Conventional mattresses are laced with chemicals that protect against moisture, fire, and pests. But some of those chemicals create fumes that lead to respiratory problems in mice, says a study in the Archives of Environmental Health. "Since you spend so much of your life with your body pressed against your mattress, an organic one is a great health investment," says Jennifer Taggart, an environmental attorney and consultant and author of The Smart Mama's Green Guide. "Look for naturally flame-retardant materials like wool, latex, and coco husks." Queen-size mattresses from the companies Taggart prefers—Organicpedic and Naturepedic—start at $1,200, but it's a smart splurge for your health.
Sheets and Pajamas Though insecticides used in conventional cotton production are hard on the planet, they pose little risk to consumers. "You don't get much, if any, pesticide exposure through clothing or cotton home items," says Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group. So you could save for an organic mattress rather than spend on "green" sheets. As for bamboo textiles, last year the Federal Trade Commission charged four such manufacturers with falsely claiming their products were eco-friendly. Skip bedding labeled no iron, stain-resistant, or permanent press, as it often has harmful chemicals.
Earth-Friendly Fertilizer Many conventional fertilizers are full of heavy metals, which can cause cancer and birth defects, says a 2001 analysis by the California Public Interest Research Group. Plus, they're often prepackaged with a weed killing pesticide—usually 2,4-D, a chemical cousin of Agent Orange. Given the risks, the added cost for organic fertilizer is worth it. Plus, "you don't have to apply it as often, and eventually might not have to at all, because it enriches the soil, which chemical fertilizers don't," says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and founder of SafeLawns.org. "Look for a fertilizer derived from plants like alfalfa or seaweed or from bone-or fish meal." Three brands he recommends: Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care, Bradfield Organics, and Dr. Earth.
Compost If you don't have the space to make compost, you can purchase it, but you don't need organic. "Regular compost is more than adequate to promote healthy lawns," says Kathy Sargent-O'Neill, a landscape designer and board member of the Ecological Landscaping Association, who differentiates "regular" from the costlier, pesticide-free compost best used for growing organic food crops. "It still feeds the good microscopic critters and keeps grass healthy and green," says Tukey. Just avoid any compost made of "biosolids," which can be a nice way of saying "sewage" and may contain chemicals, he adds.
Green Laundry Detergent Switching to certain green cleaners offers great heath benefits. "Even healthy adults heavily exposed to conventional cleaning products are at greater risk of developing asthma," says Sutton. "We don't even know what's in most of these things because manufacturers don't have to list ingredients." Although eco laundry detergent is pricey, it's especially worth the expense. A 2008 study found that a big-brand conventional detergent had 13 VOCs, five of which are deemed toxic hazards by the EPA. "Plus, many mainstream detergents have chemical scents and optical brighteners, which can irritate skin," says Taggart.
Dish Detergent Paying extra for green dishwasher soap is less worth it from a health perspective, notes Taggart. "Unless your machine is malfunctioning, there's little chance of a conventional detergent leaving toxicants on dishes," she says. "Some may contain synthetic fragrance, and inhaling it can expose you to hormone-disrupting phthalates, but it's a relatively small exposure."