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A Family Guide:
20 Steps to Personal Environmental Health

Adapted from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Because your body is so susceptible to what's in the air and water, to a large degree your environment is your health. To protect your health, make sure your family's environment is a healthy one. Here's how:

1. Read the label on house and garden chemicals. If you need to wear rubber gloves or a respirator, chances are the product poses some danger to you or your family. Does it also carry a warning for birds, insects, pets and barefoot children? Consider something else. Read the labels for dry-cleaning solutions and household cleansers, too. If a label says, "Open windows and ventilate," it could make you sick if you accidentally inhale it. Also check labels on arts and craft supplies; some ingredients pose a cancer risk. You can find safe alternatives here and here.

2. Turn down the volume. While occasional loud noises may reduce your hearing temporarily, continuous exposures or very loud noises can cause permanent damage. Additional information is available at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Clearinghouse.

3. Install a carbon monoxide alarm. Carbon monoxide (CO) from cars in garages, space heaters and other home heating sources can be deadly. Smoke alarms won't alert you to CO. For that, you need at least one carbon monoxide alarm. A few dollars, a trip to the hardware store and a few minutes' installation are all you need to forestall a possible tragedy.

4. Grow plants. Plants, including house plants, increase the sense of well-being in one's surroundings, both indoors and outside. But perhaps just as importantly, they clean pollutants from the air. Chrysanthemums, dieffenbachia, Chinese evergreen and schefflera are among varieties to consider for indoors.

5. Put cleaning products, drain openers, and paints out of kids' reach. Don't leave anything lying around that could expose kids to cancer-causing pollutants.

6. Know the hazards of your job. Risks exist wherever you and your family members work. They may be physical, like falling off a ladder or lifting heavy packages, or chemical, such as exposure from petroleum products and solvents. Computer use and other repetitive tasks could cause carpal tunnel syndrome and hard-to-cure muscle strain. Identify possible risks you face at work and take the necessary precautions. Wear a respirator, gloves, goggles, use ergonomic equipment, and try yoga.

7. See if that 'cold' might be an allergy. You may think Johnny gets lots of colds, but maybe he's allergic to dust mites, your cat, the pollen from trees, or cockroaches. Eliminate dust using plastic mattress and pillow covers, and dust-holders like curtains and rugs. Use boric acid mixed with sugar to kill cockroaches. If pollen is a problem, change air conditioning and air filters frequently. For indoor air pollutants that trigger asthma, look here.

8. Don't drink the lake. A crystal-clear stream or lake may be a nice place to wade or swim, but it could also harbor bacteria that can turn your stomach inside out. When you and your family walk in the wild, take along your own drinking water or a disinfection kit .

9. Watch for lead. If there's a chance a child in your family is being exposed to lead, a simple blood test can alert you before lead poisoning causes significant learning and behavior problems. More than one fifth of African-American children living in housing built before 1946 have elevated blood lead levels. For more information, talk to your doctor or read " Lead and Your Health ".

10. Test for radon. A naturally occurring radioactive gas that seeps out of rocks and soils, radon comes from uranium buried in the earth. Radon in homes may pose a cancer risk. You can't smell it, but you can test for it, and the test kit is cheap. When found, high radon levels can often be reduced by simple ventilation. For more information, call 1-800-SOS-RADON.

11. Don't get overheated. Heat is a serious threat: Every summer, hundreds of people lose their lives from heat exposure. With global warming heat waves on the rise, the situation could get worse. The problem is particularly serious for senior citizens and those with weakened immune systems. Make sure people in need can keep cool, or can get to a cool place.

12. Know about ozone. Ozone is a highly reactive form of oxygen that occurs when vehicle exhaust and factory emissions build up in the air. Ozone can irritate and damage tissue in the lungs, nose and throat, and can make breathing hard, especially if you exercise outdoors during its peaks. Watch for ozone and other air quality alerts in your newspaper, TV and radio weathercasts. During alerts, jog in parks away from auto traffic, when possible. Especially if you have asthma, bronchitis or emphysema, limit the time you spend outdoors when ozone levels are high. Since evaporating gasoline adds to the ozone problem, when you service your car or mower, don't overfill the tank and spill the gasoline. Drive as efficiently as possible, carpool, and use mass transit to reduce the amount of exhaust you generate.

13. Wash your hands. Washing your hands with warm, soapy water is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent the spread of germs and infection.

14. Beware pesticide drift. If you spray your roses upwind of your tomatoes, you are likely to dose your family with unapproved pesticides. Some pesticides are for non-food use only and have not been proved safe for foods. If you do use pesticides, keep them as far away from food plants as possible.

15. Eat a good diet. Not just an apple but five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day may help keep the doctor, and cancer and other disorders away. Whenever possible, buy locally grown, organic produce and free-range meat, dairy and poultry products.

16. Take a vitamin. The federal government recommends all females of childbearing age take 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid, one of the B vitamins, daily, to reduce the chances of having a child with a neural tube defect, a disorder in which the spine is open and easily damaged or even the child's brain is missing. The vitamin is needed regularly, before as well as during pregnancy, and it's hard to get the amount needed from an ordinary diet. But women and girls can get the additional folic acid they need by taking a multi-vitamin pill. The March of Dimes has more information .

17. You can't avoid all accidents, but you can minimize the results. Some good safety habits can save the lives and health of your family. Wear seat belts and bike helmets. Check your smoke and CO detectors at home to make sure they beep. Don't have a gun. Carry a first aid or snake bite kit when in the wild. Find a partner or two for climbing, swimming, biking and skiing, in case someone needs to go for help.

18. Respect sex. More than 13 million Americans - two thirds of them under age 25 - have sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infections. Use condoms. Practice safe sex.

19. Don't puff or chew. Smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes kills more people than AIDS, alcohol, drug abuse, car crashes, murders, suicides and fires combined. For help in quitting, look here .

20. Stay out of the sun. It's not just the temporary pain of a sunburn you need to worry about. The thinning hole in the ozone layer is leading to a rise in skin cancers. Ultraviolet light from the sun or from sunlamps and sunbeds is also linked to cataracts that dim vision. Hats and other covers, ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses and clothing, and sunblocking lotion of at least SPF 30 all can help.


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