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How Toxic Is Your Apartment?

The 411 on cleaning your living space

You'll never hear us bashing New York as a place to raise children. Still, there's an undeniable ick factor. (And we're not talking about the dog crap.) Even the most OCD among us can’t always detect the environmental hazards in our city homes. So we've asked Wendy Mindel Rubinstein—environmental activist, Executive Board Member of the Mount Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center (CEHC), and NYC mom—to help us identify common contaminants and point us in the right direction for cleanup.

Rubinstein cites lead, construction dust, mold, pesticides, asbestos, and volatile organic compounds (airborne chemicals known as VOCs) as environmental hazards that often find their way into New York apartments. And sadly, little ones are particularly sensitive to them: babies tend to play on the floor and stick their fingers in their mouths—behaviors that can increase their exposure to toxins. Children are also less able to metabolize and remove harmful chemicals from their bodies than adults.

So now what? Rubinstein suggests opening windows (there are actually more pollutants in indoor air than outside air thanks to VOCs that emanate from home furnishings). Try it at night when there’s less traffic. She also encourages regular wet mopping; it helps get rid of dust, where household toxins tend to linger. To test your water, Rubenstein suggests calling the City's 3-1-1 service—you can request a free kit through the Free Residential Lead Testing Program.

If you want to bring in a pro, hire a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), a credentialed scientist who has passed a rigorous national exam, has experience in environmental testing, and can inspect for all kinds of hazards. Rubinstein likes Olmsted Environmental Services. One warning: should you need to fix a toxin issue, Rubenstein suggests comparison shopping before booking. Prices can run the gamut.