In Your Own Backyard

Reduce the toxins in your environment with these close-to-home solutions.
By Samantha Cleaver

The typical patient at the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University comes in concerned about the water flowing from her tap, the air she breathes, and the chemicals her kids are exposed to at home. Sound familiar? The list of environmental health concerns seems to grow everyday, along with the clinic’s roster of clients.

As salve for their worries, the clients, called “impatients” because they’re not willing to wait for government solutions, get a prescription for a lifestyle change or an unconventional experiment, such as an air-filtering houseplant or a water-testing tadpole. The impatients then track their progress and share their findings at the clinic’s online community.

Natalie Jeremijenko, PhD, started the clinic because anxiety over global warming and other environmental problems has grown so much that individual actions, like changing a light bulb, no longer seem sufficient. And as environmentalists focus on global changes, Jeremijenko thinks we’ve lost touch with local concerns. “The unfortunate consequence of this global conversation,” she says, “is that it makes the problems seem like they’re not local enough to be actionable, and anything you do is by definition marginal, at best symbolic.”

In response, Jeremijenko focuses on projects that give people the power to change their immediate communities. “Your own sense of control over environmental issues is much more productive than the general anxiety that we feel,” says Jeremijenko. So even as the health impacts of the environment become more apparent every day, take some advice from Jeremijenko and other experts and address the health of yourself, your home, and ultimately, your planet.

Problem: Outdoor soil and water quality
After it rains in New York City, chemicals, oil-produced neurotoxins, and other waste wash off the streets and flow into the harbor, which hosts a diverse ecosystem (including whales that swim around the Statue of Liberty). This runoff damages the estuary and, eventually, ends up in the city’s water supply.

In 2007, for the Trust for Public Land’s National Park(ing) Day, Jeremijenko and her impatients constructed “No-Parks,” emergency parking areas planted with switch grass, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and other plants that catch and absorb toxins. If No-Parks were planted at every fire hydrant, says Jeremijenko, most of the pollution from heavy rains and 100-year storms could be prevented from draining into the water system.

Local solutions:
Compost. According to the US Composting Council, composting helps remove pollutants and stops heavy metals or pesticides from leaching out of the ground by binding them to the soil. It also increases the amount of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which strengthens the soil and allows it to hold more water, filter more pollution, and reduce erosion and runoff, ultimately improving water quality.

Renee Limon, cofounder of in Portland, Oregon, follows a simple composting procedure: Dig a hole in your backyard or garden, bury fruit, vegetable, and eggshell scraps, then cover the hole and let the worms do the work. Put a brick or stone over fresh compost holes to mark the spot and keep animals out. Alternatively, you can use one big bin and spread the fresh compost over your garden or lawn.

Create a rain garden. Unlike a perennial garden with flat or mounded beds, a rain garden is bowl- or saucer-shaped and contains looser soil to capture more water. It will filter runoff, clean the water, and put it back into rivers and streams that are much cleaner. Dig a plot that’s several feet deep where water tends to collect or starts to run off. Fill it with wood mulch and planting mix that’s 20 to 30 percent compost. Then plant native flowers and plants, which are better adapted for the local weather conditions.

To add an educational component to your garden, NYU Environmental Health Clinic research assistant Christine Kim recommends planting rows of flowers that bloom at different times. Plants are very sensitive to climate change, and you may find that because of global warming, plants that are supposed to bloom in May are blooming in April.

Problem: Tap water quality
When Max Liboiron, a PhD candidate at NYU, saw brown water coming out of her tap, she wasn’t immediately concerned. She’d grown up in a rural area where brown water was standard. But after a nylon test—bunched-up panty hose attached to her faucet that ran on low for a half hour—revealed orange residue in the nylon, she started filtering her water. Depending on pipes and local water quality, tap water could contain cadmium, lead, bacteria, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, or other contaminants.

Local solution:
Try the tadpole thermometer. Before you can address your water quality, find out what’s in it by watching a tadpole. You’ll get accurate results. Tadpoles, says Liboiron, who’s worked with the Environmental Health Clinic, “are a better thermometer for what’s in the water than the most delicate kits.”

Put a common tadpole in a glass container full of tap water (plastic will off-gas particles that could affect your results), and keep a log of your tadpole’s development. If it grows legs quickly, that’s an indicator of endocrine disruptors. If it’s stressed or goes belly up there’s something in your water—an industrial contaminant, traces of medications, chemicals, or something else. Call your local water board or company, tell them what you found, and ask them to do testing to find out just what’s in your tap.

In the meantime, invest in a filter. Activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and distiller filters will take out heavy metals, chlorine by-products, and other chemicals. Look for products certified by NSF (a regulatory agency) to ensure the filter does what the packaging says it does.

As for the tadpole, you can raise him as a pet or release him into a local pond. (See other tadpole projects online at

Problem: Indoor air quality
Our well-insulated, energy-efficient homes ironically can contribute to asthma, allergies, and other health problems by recirculating stale, dirty air. Between paint particles, cleaning chemicals, and other microscopic compounds, the amount of pollutants indoors can be two to five times higher than the amount outdoors. Even a thin layer of dust, according to Aileen Gagney, American Lung Association program specialist, “can contain all kinds of toxins.”
Among those toxins are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene and formaldehyde that off-gas from furniture and are emitted from paint and fireplaces. Ultimately, says Christopher Portier, associate director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, VOC particles can cause DNA damage, cancer, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease.

While you might want to consider an air exchanger (which reduces the toxins swirling around by bringing in filtered, outdoor air), simple, less expensive changes can instantly improve the air you breathe.

Local solutions:
Plant with pebbles. Bill Wolverton, PhD, author of How to Grow Fresh Air (Penguin, 1997), found that growing plants in soil-free inert pebbles (hydro-culture) is as much as 50 percent more effective at removing VOCs from the air. The method also keeps the growing surface dry, which reduces mold growth. Place at least two plants—areca palm, peace lily, or lady palm are ideal—in the rooms where you spend the majority of your time.

Switch to a steam humidifier. Cool-mist humidifiers vibrate water, sending droplets that contain mineral particles into the air. That essentially creates acid rain in your house, says Kathleen Ward Brown, ScD, research fellow with Harvard University’s Exposure, Epidemiology, and Risk program. Steam humidifiers, on the other hand, boil water to send gas, not water droplets, into the air without the heaviest particles.

Add water to your cleaning routine. Dusting sends VOCs and other particles that have settled on your furniture back into the air. Adding water to your dust rag or mop head will pick up those unwanted and unhealthy dust particles, preventing them from ending up in your lungs. Another solution: microfiber rags that capture dust effectively.

Invest in a HEPA filter. HEPA vacuums may be more expensive, but, says Portier, they’re “the best way to protect yourself from at least some [air pollution].” HEPA vacuum filters trap lots of small particles that other vacuums spew back out. But a filter is only half the remedy. “If you don’t vacuum long enough,” says Gagney, “you walk over dust and make it airborne.” Vacuum for much longer than you think you need to: Gagney once vacuumed a tiny hallway for 45 minutes to get all the dust out.

Problem: Cleaning chemicals
Sensitivity to chemicals from air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, and other products builds over time. Instead of becoming more tolerant, you may become more sensitive, says Charlene Bayer with the Georgia Institute of Technology Indoor Environment Research program. Opening the windows might not help as much as you’d think, since that lets outside pollutants, like ozone, in. “Ozone is one of the bad boys of the last decade,” says Allen Rathey, president of the Healthy House Institute, “because it reacts with by-products of household cleaners and produces formaldehyde and a mixture of other compounds.”

The primary culprits are terpenes, found in pine and citrus oil products and air fresheners. Even “natural” products scented with citrus oils can have ozone-reactant terpenes in them.

Local solution:
Shop smart. Once,’s Limon thought that the talk about chemicals was hooey. But after she sprayed cleaner on a spot on the carpet and listened to her daughter cough for hours afterward, she changed her mind. Now she reads labels and doesn’t buy anything with artificial fragrances. Limon uses Bon Ami polishing cleaner and cleaning powder, BioKleen cleaner and degreaser, and the naturally scented Mrs. Meyer’s all-purpose cleaner.

Greener pastures
Addressing environmental health involves more than changing our habits. “We need to change our relationship to the natural world,” says NYU Health Clinic research assistant Christine Kim. Rather than seeing nature as removed from or outside of us, we need to realize that, no matter how urban our environs, we live in nature. “Even if we can’t see the immediate impact of an intervention,” she says, “we need to recognize that we share the space with all other living species, and we must make long-term changes for the better.”

Samantha Cleaver is a writer in Chicago. Since working on this article, she's switched humidifiers and added soil-free green plants to her apartment.


After watching a documentary about the diminishing oil supply, Kauai, Hawaii, resident Lynna* was shocked. “It was the first time that the reality [of the climate crisis] affected me,” she says. The more she learned, the more anxious she became. It was such big stuff, and she felt powerless to stop it.

Lynna isn’t the only one feeling eco-anxiety, or concern about the environment. Recent Gallup polls found that 40 percent of Americans think that global warming will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetime, an increase from 25 percent in 1997. And 40 percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about the quality of the environment.

For help, Lynna turned to eco-anxiety coach Rebecca Elliott in Danville, California. Elliott helped Lynna form a positive vision of the future and focus on realistic changes, like using dish towels instead of sponges and joining the Kauai farmer’s co-op. “It sounds cliché,” says Lynna, “but I feel like I’m part of the solution now.”

Feeling some eco-anxiety yourself? Mitigate it with these tips:

Recognize and accept your “aha” moment. When thinking about global warming, says Elliott, “at some point, people have an aha moment.” In Lynna’s case, it was the documentary. This moment, while illuminating, can also spark anxiety. “But what you’re feeling is totally normal,” says Elliott, even if other people think you’re overreacting. “You’re beginning to have awareness that these life-sustaining resources on Earth are in peril, and it’s normal to feel something.” Elliott recommends seeking out information from expert sources, making small changes, and maintaining optimism.
Take the one-can challenge. One change you can make right away: Reduce the amount of trash you produce. In July, founder Renee Limon wanted to see if she could get her family’s trash production down to one 32-gallon trash can a month. She reduced the amount of packaging she bought, placed recycle bins at strategic places around the house, focused on reusing products, and changed from nonrecyclable products (plastic laundry detergent bottles) to recyclable versions (cardboard laundry powder boxes). Now the garbage man stops by once a month, and less trash is headed over to the landfill. Take the challenge yourself at
Join an online community. Add some camaraderie to your daily green living by joining the NYU Environmental Health Clinic online at, or share your stories at