20 Ways Your Home Could Be Giving You Cancer
Lurking in your safe haven could be a very unsafe collection of cancer-causing pollutants. Your bed, candle, carpet, sheets—even your tap water may contain or emit harmful chemicals that can raise your risk of cancer.
Not all cancers are preventable, but with some simple changes around the house, you can significantly lower your risk. Read this special Eat This, Not That! Health report on the top 20 cancer-causing household items—and our recommended safer options—and put the "sweet" back in "home sweet home."
Your Tap Water
The headlines made national news just last year: Nitrate pollution in U.S. drinking water may be the cause of 12,594 cases of cancer, according to a peer-reviewed, "first of its kind national analysis" by the non-profit Environmental Working Group and researchers from Northeastern University.
So what are nitrates anyway? They're a naturally forming compound created when nitrogen combines with oxygen or ozone. Nitrogen is vital for all living things—and in the form of nitrate, nitrite, or ammonium, is key for plant growth. Many fertilizers use nitrogen as a key growth ingredient. But high levels of nitrates can be dangerous to health, particularly for pregnant women and babies according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Rx: If you suspect that nitrates may be in your drinking water, you can get it tested. Contact your state's certification officer for a list of labs in your area that can perform a test on your drinking water. Well water is at particular risk. If your drinking water comes from a well, have it tested regularly, at least once a year, after installing a treatment system to make sure the problem is controlled.
Everyone blames the family dog for giving off gas. But consider the rug. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, many carpets are made of synthetic fibers that have been treated with chemicals that "off-gas"—literally, give off gasses into your home. An activist group called The Center for Environmental Health did a study on six of the largest carpet manufacturers in the USA and found that all 12 carpets they tested positive for toxic substances linked to cancer, hormone disruption, respiratory disorders, and developmental health problems in children, among others.
And you know that "new carpet" smell? While you may associate it with the excitement of a new or renovated home, that smell actually comes from chemical compounds that are linked to eye, nose, and respiratory complications.
The Rx: Steer clear of rugs made of polypropylene, nylon, or acrylic—and go with healthier options like wool, jute, sisal, mohair, or organic cotton.
Your Bed and Crib Mattress
One-third of your life is spent sleeping, but when you find out what may be lurking in your mattress, you might just lose some shut-eye. It may be chock-full of potentially toxic synthetic materials. In July 2007, a new regulation was passed that all mattresses are required to be flame retardant. In order to meet the flame retardant requirements, a mattress must be able to withstand exposure to a blowtorch for 70 seconds, which necessitates dousing the mattress in potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals.
The Rx: Look for a toxin-free, organic or 100% wool or latex mattress for yourself and your child (especially an infant!). Look for labels that say GOTS–Global Organic Textile Standard—or GOLS—Global Organic Latex Standard. GOTS is a rigorous certification, which means at least 95% of the mattress materials are certified organic.
Your Cotton Pillowcases and Sheets
We just talked about your mattress. Now let's get between the sheets. Many sheets and pillows are made of conventionally grown cotton—which is one of the dirtiest, most pesticide-ridden crops in the world. The National Wildlife Federation reports that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the nation's 14.4 million acres of cotton in the year 2000, and more than two billion pounds of fertilizers were spread on those same fields." That's scary. When possible, buy organic cotton bedding, and be aware that your choices have wide-ranging ramifications.
The Rx: Here's the great news: there are many excellent alternatives, including bamboo, linen, and organic cotton. Make the switch from conventional bed sheets and sleep tight
Your Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets
Ok, we've talked about your mattress, we've talked about your conventional cotton sheets. Now we have to talk about how you wash those sheets. You may want to stay away from conventional fabric softeners and dryer sheets. The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that some fabric softener sheets emit toxic chemicals. Among the most harmful ingredients: benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.
The Rx: If you want a non-toxic option, try Seventh Generation's Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener or Ecover's Natural Fabric Softener. Both are good choices because they are made of vegetable products and natural essential oils instead of harsh and potentially toxic chemicals. Another healthy option are Eco Nuts Wool Dryer Balls.
Your Cosmetics and Beauty Products
Yes—cosmetics and personal products make us look and feel and smell better, but would you still use the same items if you knew they could negatively impact your health? University of California, Berkeley reports that some chemicals commonly found in makeup and beauty products may contribute to the development of cancer—parabens are of particular concern. A common preservative used in foundations, body moisturizers, anti-aging creams, shaving cream/gels, shampoos, conditioners, and more—parabens help prevent bacterial growth from forming in your fave products. But beware… parabens can act as endocrine disruptors by mimicking estrogen, which is of particular concern because excess estrogen can drive tumor growth. To be safe, be paraben-free.
The Rx: Scan ingredient lists of products to make sure what you're purchasing; parabens commonly show up on ingredient lists as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. Breast Cancer Action has a great resource that lists paraben-free, non-toxic beauty, and personal product options to make living healthy easier!
Your Air Freshener
Air fresheners are everywhere: bedrooms, bathrooms, cars, and more‚ and their ingredients go largely undisclosed due to regulatory protections on consumer product ingredients and fragrance formulations—with potentially hazardous chemicals hiding behind a black box of catch-all terms like "fragrance," "perfume, "'scent" or "parfum." The Journal of Building and Environment reports that this allows companies to hide harmful ingredients like phthalates, formaldehyde, and many other preservatives (many of which are known carcinogens) in their products—without the consumer knowing.
The Rx: For a more natural and non-toxic alternative, try Grow Fragrance, made with 100% plant-based materials. Or perhaps, instead of using air fresheners, get rid of the real source of the smell (we're looking at you kitty litter!) or open a window and turn on a fan. Last, not least—our favorite stink vanquisher? A box of baking soda—a smart, safe, and effective way to reduce odors.
Your Scented Candles
They may be an essential part of your self-care routine, but experts say your love of scented candles may be causing you to breathe in dangerous toxins. One of the main culprits? Added fragrance. The National Institute of Health (NIH) released a survey of selected scented consumer goods that showed the products emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some which are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal laws. Paraffin is a problem too. Most candles are made with paraffin wax, which comes from petroleum—and petroleum-based candles emit varying levels of cancer-causing chemical compounds like toluene and benzene.
The Rx: Here's how to set the mood in a healthier way: opt for natural wax candles that use soy. They are considered the cleanest because they only produce about a tenth of the soot typically created by paraffin candles!
Your Baby Bottles and Plastic Water Bottles
Plastic's fantastic, except when it isn't. Most of us are exposed to many plastic products every day—from baby bottles to toys to spatulas. But not all plastics are created equal. Research suggests that while all plastics may leach chemicals if scratched, degraded, or heated, some plastic by-products are particularly dangerous, like BPA (bisphenol A)—and may cause cancer in humans among a host of other serious issues with accumulated build up in the body. BPA is found in many plastic products, dental sealants, and on paper cashier receipts to stabilize the ink.
The Rx: Want to limit BPA in your life? Carry your own glass, steel, or ceramic water bottle; only use baby bottles and other children's food products that clearly state that they are BPA-free.
Your Closet (Specifically Your Dry Cleaned Clothes)
Dry cleaning is dirtier than you think. According to the National Institutes of Health dry cleaning can be a toxic—and likely carcinogenic—process due to the use of a chemical called perchloroethylene, or PERC.
The Rx: Look for green dry cleaners in your area or try washing your clothing at home. We will let you in on a little secret: according to some fashion experts, many dry clean only labels are not accurate, meaning that the clothing item may actually be able to be washed by machine (gentle cycle) or by hand.
Your Couch and Loveseat
Take a seat for this one: It's a story about a safety measure gone awry. In 1975, California passed a law requiring furniture manufacturers to treat their products with flame retardants to, well, protect against fires (at that time often caused by lackadaisical cigarette smoking). Soon all American furniture included flame retardants. But later it was found that these chemicals could migrate from the products into the people using them, causing endocrine disruption and neurotoxic effects, particularly for pregnant women and kids.
But here's some good news: California updated the law in 2013, and also in 2014, passing new regulations that indicate that is less likely that flame retardants will be part of the filling materials used for sofas and other upholstered furniture items. Yes–this means is that manufacturers are phasing out the use of these chemicals!
The Rx: If you are making a couch (or other upholstered furniture) purchase and want your new piece to be non-toxic, pay attention to labeling and be sure to check the brand so that you know for certain. The store or website may not have all the information.
Your Granite Countertops
Granite countertops are prized for their durability and beautiful appearance, but they can give off radon gas that could potentially be higher than the levels considered safe. Radon is "a cancer-causing natural radioactive gas that you can't see, smell or taste," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry published a study which found that the radium content of certain colored granites was higher than others. (Radium is the immediate chemical precursor to radon, which means that radon emission is directly correlated with radium content.) Sometimes color does sound the alarm: red and pink granites had a 3.5 times higher radium content than black or grey granite.
Now—most experts say that the amount of radon emitted from your average granite countertop is not enough to impact health, but the only way to know for sure is to get your granite countertop tested. And note that the EPA advises that all homes be tested for radon – regardless of countertop material.
The Rx: Knowledge is power. For more EPA information on radon, go to this page. And if you're renovating your kitchen, consider quartz or Corian countertops.
Your Nail Polish
If you love to paint your nails, this warning is for you: several chemicals commonly found in nail polish and nail products are known carcinogens. Many nail polishes contain formaldehyde, a nail-hardening agent, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says can raise cancer risks, along with butyl acetate, a solvent, and ethyl methacrylate, the main ingredient in acrylic nails. Exposure to these carcinogenic chemicals can also lead to central nervous system damage and reproductive problems.
The Rx: Nail polish lovers, fear not, there are some fantastic non-toxic nail polish options free of formaldehyde and other carcinogenic chemicals. Check out this shopping guide from the Sierra Club to find the right one for you!
Your Plastic-Wrapped Processed Food
It's designed to please your buds and wait patiently for your cravings on your pantry or refrigerator shelves, but there's an inconvenient truth lurking in your processed food: If it can stand the test of time (3 to 6 months at least) without going bad, it may also raise your risk of cancer. A study published by BMJ showed a correlation between consuming ultra-processed foods and a number of health disorders, including cardiovascular, coronary heart disease, as well as cancer. Further research needs to be done, but the study results seem to indicate that rapidly increasing consumption rates of highly processed foods, "may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades," warn the researchers.
The Rx: The great news? You don't have to give all of processed food up. Check these 15 Homemade Swaps for the Worst Ultra-Processed Foods and use real ingredients you can find in your kitchen to make them.
Love the smell of a freshly painted home? You may love it less after learning that that new-paint smell comes with a hidden cost to your health. House paint is one of the most common sources of volatile organic compounds or VOCs—which are known carcinogens. Here's why that matters: paint continues to release low levels of these toxic chemicals into the air for years after application. And as you might imagine, exposure is most potent when indoors.
The Rx: Water-based paints tend to be safer than solvent-based paints. Here are some of the best eco-friendly paint options so you can spruce your home up safely!
Your Old Books
If you are into collecting old books, you might also be filling your bookshelves with more than just dust—a cancer causing chemical can be lingering around them. Because very old books have a tendency to grow mold, ethylene oxide may have been used to sterilize and fumigate them at some point in their life. While the chemical is most dangerous to the people who spray it on books or other items, traces may still be present.
The Rx: Unless you spend a good amount of time inhaling the pages of your books, you probably aren't going to be exposed to enough ethylene oxide to cause chronic health issues. However, you might want to consider keeping old books enclosed in a glass cabinet just in case!
Your Radon Level
While most of the cancer-causing items in your home are visible, one very dangerous element is not: radon. This colorless, odorless, radioactive gas is naturally occurring, forming from the decaying of radioactive elements—such as uranium. Unfortunately, these elements are found in soil and rock around the world and are incredibly common. Radon gas in the soil and rock has the ability to fill the air and also seep into underground water and surface water. While it is present outdoors and in, it is the radon inside of your home that is the most hazardous to your health.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon exposure is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and second leading cause overall. Every year, 21,000 people die of lung cancer due to radon, with about 2,900 of these deaths occurring among people who have never smoked. The EPA estimates that nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the United States has elevated radon levels, so there is a decent chance you are at risk. This is why most home inspectors suggest having a radon test done during the home buying process.
The Rx: Have a radon test done in your home, either via an at-home kit or by a professional. The average indoor radon level is about 1.3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), per the EPA. If your levels are 4.0 pCi/L or higher, you should take action to remedy the situation. Even if you have to install a radon mitigation system, the cost is small to remedy such a huge health risk.
Most of us avoid spending time in our attics, which are often dark, dirty, and filled with insulation to keep the cold out of our homes. However, as DIY home renovation projects are increasingly popular, some people opt to take on an attic reno on their own, which can be a big mistake. According to the EPA, a single mine near Libby, Montana, was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite, used to make insulation, sold in the United States from 1919 to 1990. Unfortunately, there was also a deposit of asbestos at that mine, so all the vermiculite originating from there was contaminated with asbestos. Unfortunately, the product was used heavily during that time period to make insulation and could be in your walls right now. If disturbed, asbestos can be leaked into the air and inhaled. No amount of exposure is safe, as it can cause a number of diseases including cancer.
The Rx: You can determine whether your insulation is from Libby by viewing photographs on the EPA's website and comparing it. If it is, you shouldn't even think about touching it. Instead, hire a professional to remove it. Also, if you are concerned about insulation in places that aren't visible, you can have that checked out too.
Your Popcorn Ceilings
Popcorn ceilings—a look achieved by using a textured spray made with lung cancer-causing asbestos—were a big trend from the 1930s through the 1990s. The method was often used to cut costs, as it was a cheap way to hide imperfections in the ceiling. While the EPA started regulating spray-applied asbestos materials through the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants in 1973, the existing inventories of suppliers and installers were exempt and subsequently used for years to come. In 2020, many homeowners consider them a design faux pas, and opt to remove them. However, if you attempt to do the work, you could be putting your entire family at risk for developing lung cancer.
The Rx: While not all popcorn ceilings are contaminated with asbestos, you should always take precautions when removing them from a home. There are a number of tips available online, which involve wearing a mask, and ensuring family members and pets are not in the room during the removal process. Preferably, hire a professional to do the dirty work for you. Also, keep in mind that asbestos is not dangerous unless it is disturbed — so even if you do have asbestos-contaminated popcorn ceilings, you aren't putting anyone's life at risk unless you disturb them.
While many of us are aware of the EWG's "Dirty Dozen" most pesticide-contaminated fruits and veggies, there are other less-known cancer-causing food culprits lurking in your refrigerator and pantry. "You might not realize that smoked and salted foods commonly kept in the pantry and refrigerator can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer," says Kimberly Johung, MD, Ph.D., a Yale Medicine radiation oncologist and director of the Gastrointestinal Radiotherapy Program. These can include pickles, smoked, cured, or pickled fish and meats, or anything else pickled for that matter.
The Rx: "Try to avoid smoked foods, salt-preserved or cured fish and meat, and pickled vegetables as much as possible," encourages Dr. Johung. If you do eat them, consume only in moderation. Instead, she suggests filling your diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.