8 Subtle Ways Your Kitchen Might Be Making You Sick
Toxic chemicals and other harmful substances could be hiding all over your house. Here’s how to protect yourself and your family.
Your kitchen is filled with plastic
Plastic storage containers often contain harmful chemicals like BPA, which can leach into your food when reheating or even by filling them when leftovers are still hot. Polycarbonate plastic items (hard and marketed as shatter-resistant) like reusable water bottles, drinking cups or beverage jugs also often contain BPA, which may interfere with the body’s hormones and potentially raise the risk of developing cancer and diabetes.
And don’t let “BPA-free” on the packaging fool you. “Many manufacturers simply replaced BPA with another similar chemical in the same family, which may be just as bad,” says Adler. Avoid plastic whenever possible, says Adler, and opt for glass storage containers or stainless steel water bottles. Here are 11 water bottles that’ll help you get started.
All your cookware is non-stick
More research needs to be done, but what scientists know so far is that the synthetic chemicals used to prevent food from sticking in non-stick cookware can be released during high-heat cooking and potentially be harmful, even causing flu-like symptoms. Opt for stainless steel or cast iron. Learn how to choose the best skillet for you and your needs.
Your pantry is packed with canned food
Some cans are lined with a substance containing BPA, which can migrate into food, especially ones that were hot when packaged or are acidic, says Adler. “These are staples in people’s kitchen yet are a significant source of BPA exposure,” she says. Research companies that pledge not to use harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process and many brands now sell beans (try Better Bean Company, sold in refrigerated plastic tubs), soup and tomatoes in boxes, she says.
Your kitchen isn’t properly ventilated
If your stove uses gas, you could be raising the level of toxic fumes while you’re cooking without even knowing it. “Carbon monoxide, a deadly gas released from gas stoves and ovens, can quickly build up in your kitchen, especially without proper ventilation,” Adler says. “Some studies suggest that about half of all gas stoves can raise carbon monoxide to dangerous levels.”
If you have an electric stove, you’re not totally in the clear either: Some research has found the simple process of cooking can create fumes as well as fine particles that affect indoor air quality. Make sure you use your hood vent (ideally vented to the outside) or open your windows to properly ventilate and avoid the dangerous gasses, Adler says.
You have hidden sources of mold
Mold can also crop up in places where we don’t expect—and can’t even see. “Mold can grow anywhere that water has infiltrated—common places include under sinks, in attics or roofs that have leaks, or any homes that have experienced any degree of flooding or water damage,” Adler says. “The best prevention is moisture control: Keep humidity levels below 60 percent, install ventilation fans in bathrooms, immediately and thoroughly dry any wet areas, make sure pipes do not leak, inspect and repair gutters, and increase airflow inside the home.”
The EPA doesn’t recommend mold testing as there are no federal limits on mold; instead, if you can see it or smell a musty odor, you should remove it with a regular cleaner (avoid chlorine bleach if possible). If it’s a big job or it’s in the walls, call in a professional.
You don’t filter your water
“Some 77 million Americans currently drink water that has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act due to excessive contamination,” Adler says. “Hundreds of industrial chemicals have been measured in drinking water in the United States, but the EPA only regulates 91 of them. Additionally, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our water infrastructure a D grade.” Filtering drinking water is essential, she says—but to find the right type of filter you’ll need to test your water first; not all filters remove all types of contaminants.
The EPA points out that many county health departments will test your water upon request; your water supplier or other state-certified labs may as well. And if you have a private well, testing water at least once a year is crucial, as it’s your responsibility and is not tested or regulated by any other source.
You don’t sanitize sponges
The kitchen can be one of the dirtiest places in your home—even if you’re good about cleaning it. In fact, your sponge may actually be part of the problem, spreading germs like sickness-causing salmonella. “Clean your sponge between uses by rinsing it really well with soapy water; every so often, soak it for 30 minutes in an oxygen bleach solution, remove it and let it air dry,” Maker says. “You can also put them in the dishwasher, or the microwave.”
One study found that zapping your sponge in the microwave for two minutes killed 99 percent of bacteria. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends cleaning sponges daily; to minimize contamination, use paper towels instead of sponges to clean up raw meat. Maker says synthetic sponges are easier to sanitize than the more porous natural sponges. Whatever you use, remember to swap the sponge out regularly. Here’s how to clean your kitchen sponge.
Your kitchen is too clean
It is possible to go overboard with your cleaning—a certain amount of germ exposure is actually healthy. “When we over-disinfect our house and get rid of too much bacteria, it backfires on us,” Maker says. “Soap and water is a super-effective cleaner that will protect us from most things,” and what it doesn’t remove will give our immune system a healthy challenge, she says.
There’s another issue with antimicrobial cleaning products and disinfectants, says Geller: They encourage the creation of bacteria that can’t be killed. “Disinfectants may facilitate the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and the ingredients in many are harmful to human health and the environment,” she says. “Most routine cleaning does not require disinfection—simple soap and water are enough to remove most household dirt and organic matter.” Here are some natural cleaning products to use instead.