Sheltering in Place? Here’s a Worthy Home Health and Safety Project

Sheltering in Place? Here’s a Worthy Home Health and Safety Project

Ways you can protect yourself at home

Thanks to Covid-19, we are all spending more time at home and more time cleaning. Once you’ve got your  anti-virus protocols in place, since you’re already focused on healthy and safety, why not look at other ways you can protect yourself and your family? To that end, I’d like to introduce the concept of “replacement cycles.” These are the predictable lengths of time that you can expect household products to last before they lose their effectiveness or deteriorate. Between waking up and going to bed, we engage in many routines for our personal hygiene, beauty and fitness, as well as household cooking and cleaning —all with the best of intentions.  However, many items we use carry hidden dangers if we don’t swap them out soon enough.  Here’s a room-by-room guide:


Smoke Detector Batteries. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends changing your smoke detector batteries twice a year, at the same time you change your clocks.  Of course, in the interim, if your smoke detector chirps at you to let you know the battery is dying, you’ll need to replace it before then.  This is so critical.  The CPSC says two thirds of residential fire deaths take place in homes without working smoke detectors.  A money-saving tip: After you remove batteries from your detectors, if they have life left in them, you can use them to power other, non-essential products around your home.

Smoke Detectors.  That covers the batteries.  But did you know the detectors themselves also need to be replaced, according to the National Fire Protection Administration?  Smoke detectors expire 10 years from when they were manufactured.  That date is printed on the back of the alarm.  Some smoke alarms are also programmed to beep at you in a unique pattern to alert you to the fact that their useful lifetime is over and it’s time to replace them.  Again, these are crucial, life-saving products, so check the date and replace yours if needed.  If your detectors do not yet need to be replaced, it’s a good idea to record the date that they will reach the decade mark on your calendar, so you can plan ahead and have seamless protection.                     

Surge Protectors. You may think of surge protectors as just devices that prevent electrical surges from frying your electronics.  But they are also supposed to protect you from fires.  Overloaded circuits can spark and cause a fire.  Surge protectors are meant to mitigate this risk.  Most people do not realize that they also need to be replaced.  A surge protector’s protective properties break down over time.  If you live in an area with frequent lightning storms or you know that your surge protector has been tripped at any point, pay even closer attention.  Some experts say to replace your surge protectors every two years.  There is no official government recommendation.  At the very least, most of us should replace these unsung devices more often than we are now —which is never!

Fire Extinguishers: If you do experience a fire, there are also replacement cycles for fire extinguishers.  The National Fire Protection Administration mandates that all rechargeable fire extinguishers should be recharged every 10 years.   The NFPA says you should replace all disposable fire extinguishers every 12 years.  You can tell which type you own by looking at the gauge on it.  If the gauge says “Charge/Recharge,” it is a rechargeable extinguisher.  If the gauge says “Full/Empty,” it is a disposable one.   


Mattresses. The National Sleep Foundation recommends replacing your mattress every 8 to 10 years for optimum sleep.  If you’re over 40, you may find your mattress gets uncomfortable even sooner, because older bodies often need more support.  There’s also a truly worthwhile bonus for anyone whose mattress was made before 2010. That’s about the time the nonprofit CertiPUR-US® program began certifying the polyurethane foam used in mattresses. CertiPUR-US certified foams are made without formaldehyde and Tris flame retardants and other chemicals of concern — and are analyzed by independent, accredited laboratories. The best way to select your next mattress is to check the regularly updated list of participating manufacturers and retailers on the CertiPUR-US website.

Upholstered Furniture. Ditto for upholstered furniture in your bedroom —or any room in your house.  The nonprofit CertiPUR-US program certifies the foam used in sofas, cushy chairs and other upholstered furnishings, like padded headboards.  So if your upholstered furniture was made before 2010, and you care about indoor air quality, you may want to make plans to replace it.  There’s another date to consider as well: January 2014.  That’s when the state of California changed its fire prevention rules for furniture, which are the de facto rules for the entire United States, since California is such a big market.  Prior to 2014, manufacturers wishing to meet California’s fire prevention standards almost always had to add flame retardants to some furniture components. After January 2014, they were able to meet California’s requirements without using them.

Pillows. Even if you use pillow protectors and wash your pillows every six months, you still should replace them every one to two years, says the National Sleep Foundation. Hair and body oils can accumulate in the fabric and stuffing and create a breeding ground for bacteria and dust mites. If you experience allergy symptoms when you wake up, your pillow might be the culprit.  Pillows also lose their supportiveness over time.  Clue number one: if you sleep better at hotels than you do at home, it could be your pillow!  Clue number two: Try folding your pillow in half: if it stays folded, rather than springing back, it’s likely time for a new one.  


Cutting Boards. Over time, our cutting boards get, well, cuts in them — sometimes deep ones that are ideal habitats for bacteria.  There are expert tips for sanitizing them, but sometimes it’s just not enough.  Unfortunately, there are too many different kinds of cutting boards —solid wood, butcher block, plastic, glass, marble, bamboo— to make an across-the-board replacement cycle recommendation.  Instead, you’ll have to eyeball it.  If your cutting board contains lots of grooves or very deep ones, it needs to go.  One exception: You can sand down high-quality wooden cutting boards and get rid of the grooves that way.  

Kitchen Sponges. When was the last time you tossed your kitchen sponge? Have you ever really thought about the fact that they are almost always moist?  Despite decades of warnings, we Americans continue to use the humble sponge to wipe things like chicken juice off our counters, then use that same sponge to scrub our dishes.  That’s why reports like this one note that sponges can contain bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.  Instead, we should all use disposables, such as paper towels, to wipe up potentially pathogenic juices from raw chicken, beef and so on.  That way, the bacteria in your sponge won’t be as bad and microwaving it or running it through the dishwasher will help reduce whatever still ends up on your sponge. Not sure you can maintain this spongey separation of church and state between raw foods and clean dishes?  In that case, a study published in the journal Nature says be prepared to replace your sponge weekly.

Non-stick Pans. It’s a good idea to replace traditional non-stick pans made before 2010. That’s the year a potentially cancer-causing chemical used in them was removed.  I use ceramic or cast-iron pans instead. If you choose ceramic replacements, you’ll want to ditch those when they get noticeably scratched up, not because of a chemical hazard, but a cooking one: the risk of non-stick pans that are no longer non-stick!

Plastic Food Storage Containers. Similarly, you should replace plastic food storage containers when they show signs of significant wear and tear.  This is especially true if you microwave in them, which I don’t recommend, because microwaving can be hard on plastic and cause it to subtly break down.  If you see the symbols 3 or 6 on the bottom of your plastic products, they are outdated and you should bite the bullet and replace them. Plus, plastic products made before 2010, may well contain BPA, which can disrupt our natural hormones.

Pacifiers. Perhaps no plastic product gets more constant —and ardent— use than a baby’s pacifier.  These, too, need to be replaced more often than we parents would think.  The exact timing depends on how often your baby uses the pacifier and how hard they are on it.  The number one concern is that small pieces of pacifier could break off posing a choking hazard.  It’s also possible that bacteria from an illness could survive in grooves in the pacifier and re-infect your baby later.  Signs to look for: holes, rips and weak spots.  Pacifiers past their prime can also grow sticky with age, a sign that the latex or silicone is subtly breaking down.  Here’s something that may help you pull the plug on a pacifier: They are actually rated for different ages.  In other words, as your baby grows, they will need a new, larger one anyway. 

Water Filters. Whether you use a filter pitcher or have a water filter on your faucet or fridge, it’s important to replace it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.  The most common recommendation is to replace your filter every two months or after 40 gallons of water use, whichever occurs first. This is not just a taste issue.  Sure, over time, the unappealing chlorine or other flavor of your city water supply may creep back in.  But the real issue is that over the months the material used to filter out impurities loses its effectiveness, so you are no longer screening out the heavy metals, pesticides and microbes that you want to avoid. 


Eye Makeup.  Old, contaminated eye makeup can cause pink eye, blepharitis —a type of eyelid infection— and the loss of your eyelashes.  Mascara and eyeliner applied inside the lash line are the most concerning of all.  For that reason, both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend replacing your eye makeup every three months.

First Aid Kit. This is a simple but overlooked replacement cycle.  No, you don’t have to replace the bandages and such.  However, definitely plan on inspecting your kit once a year to look for expired medicines — those you’ll need to recycle responsibly and replace with current medications.  The risk here is that the medicines you rely on in an emergency won’t work.  While you’re restocking, you can check the Red Cross list of essential items to include in a first aid kit.   

Loofah. Whether you use a natural loofah or a manmade body-scrubber, it’s kind of like the kitchen sponge of the bathroom.  It’s a miracle if the thing gets a chance to dry out between showers, so it’s the perfect place for bacteria to set up shop.  And, of course, it comes in intimate contact with our bodies and, like it or not, we bring our own bacteria into the shower with us.  The Cleveland Clinic recommends replacing natural loofahs every three to four weeks and synthetic ones every two months.

Razor.  Damp bathrooms can harbor bacteria, viruses and yeast —and razors can nick you.  Put the two together and you’ve got a potential infection. Dermatologists advise replacing your razor after five to seven uses —even more often, if the blade looks rusty, gunky, or blunt.  Bonus: A newer blade will give you a much nicer shave.  Hot tip: Dry your razor blade after each use and you can keep germs at bay and extend its life a bit. 

Sunscreen. Did you know that sunscreen expires?  I didn’t either.  Consumer Reports says sunscreen expires after three years.  Once again, the hazard isn’t that outdated sunscreen will harm you, but rather that it will fail to protect you.  If you were to slather on expired sunscreen and get a false sense of security from it, you could end up with a severe burn.  Experts say even one extreme sunburn could lead to melanoma later, because the ultraviolet radiation can damage the genetic material of your skin.  The risk is even greater for severe childhood sunburns.  Some sunscreens are marked with a date.  If yours isn’t, I suggest writing on it with permanent marker based on when you bought it.                     

Toothbrush. Using a toothbrush (or electric toothbrush head) longer than three to four months carries the risk of dental problems, bad breath, bleeding gums, and worse, according to the American Dental Association. Not only do worn bristles fail to clean teeth effectively, they harbor bacteria from the air around your toilet and contaminated sinks and countertops that you definitely don’t want in your mouth.  So plan to replace your toothbrush quarterly. The beginning of each season is a handy reminder.


Bike Helmet. Experts recommend replacing your bicycle helmet every three years.  This is particularly true if you keep it in a hot garage where extreme temperatures will degrade the materials, such as foam, used to protect you.  Plus you will always benefit from replacing any safety device like this because new technology comes along frequently that offers better protection. 

Running Shoes. It’s a good idea to replace your running shoes every 300 to 400 miles.  Make that closer to 400 miles if you’re lightweight, 300 miles if you are heavier and pound on your shoes more.  To give you an idea, an avid runner might travel 350 miles every six months, but of course this varies greatly. Even if the wear on your shoes isn’t obvious, running in shoes that are past their prime can cause sports injuries such as runner’s knee and shin splints.  Plus, old running shoes just don’t feel as springy, so you may not run as far in them.

Tires.  When I did an experiment for Good Morning America, where we checked the tires of 100 cars in a random parking lot, we found that 11 percent of the vehicles were sporting tires with dangerously deficient tread.  That’s identical to the national average and scary for those driving on the worn-out tires —and those driving near them —because bald tires make it harder to stop and easier to spin out.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends replacing your tires every six years —or more often if you drive a lot.  Your owner’s manual contains individual recommendations for your vehicle. You can also conduct the classic self-test: Poke a penny into your tire and if the tread comes up to Lincoln’s head, you have one-sixteenth of an inch of protection.  That’s the minimum.


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