Like many celebrity advocates, Kelly Preston's road to activism began with the personal, when her 2-year old son was hospitalized for inhaling fumes from carpet cleaning agents in 1994. Soon after, the actress and mom, best known for her work in Jerry Maguire and For the Love of the Game, took on the role of spokesperson and board member of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), a non-profit organization whose mission is raising awareness about environmental toxins affecting children's health.
"It's not like 30 years ago, when the only way you'd get poisoned is if you accidentally swallowed something from under the sink," says the actress, who is married to actor John Travolta. "Now it's as simple as breathing the air or eating certain foods."
Unlike numerous celebrities, who commit to a cause-of-the-month and then move on, Preston has stayed the course, addressing the National Press Club on the hazards of household toxins last year, and making a CHEC educational video, "Not Under My Roof: Protecting Your Baby From Toxins at Home", with Olivia Newton-John.
Last month, Preston was on hand to promote CHEC's latest venture, HealtheHouse, a comprehensive and interactive website that provides parents with basic tips on limiting the effects of exposure to chemicals, and access to in-depth articles and research, as well as links to additional resources and strategies for healthier living.
Funded in part by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the site's prominent feature is its user-friendly "Virtual House", where visitors can click on a room to determine potential environmental dangers and their solutions. Also included is both a short- and long-version quiz, which provide visitors with a preliminary evaluation of possible environmental risks in the home, based on a series of multiple-choice questions.
"We don't want to scare you," stressed Preston at the recent media gathering, in Manhattan, to promote the launch of HealtheHouse. "We're here to empower you."
Indeed, some of the information on the website (www.checnet.org/healthehouse) and in a recent CHEC-funded report, "The State of Children's Health and Environment" - which documents rising rates in asthma, childhood cancer and ADD/ADHD, and their link to environmental causes - is frightening. However, HealtheHouse does offer several common sense strategies that are as simple as removing shoes before entering the home, or using water/vinegar solutions instead of extra-strength cleaners. Other strategies, such as replacing particleboard furniture (manufactured wood can release volatile organic compounds/VOCs that can pollute indoor air), or getting your kids to eat organic produce, is a bit more problematic.
Still, the website offers a wealth of information and a place for parents to start. " This is a way a parent can take it one step at a time, one week at a time, and make a difference," notes Elizabeth Sword, executive director of CHEC.
"Start in your own home," advises Preston. "Do whatever you can, even if you only do it for your family, friends and the people you come in contact with, and then start to branch out. The more you learn, the more you'll want to do to help the environment and others."
Five Ways to Improve Breathing Space for Asthmatics (Courtesy of www.checnet.org/healthehouse)
1. Ventilation is crucial. Many vapors trapped indoors, from perfumes and air fresheners, to formaldehyde from particleboard, irritates asthmatics. When it's fresh or even cold outside, keep windows open a crack to circulate air. On hot days, close windows and use air conditioners to ventilate and filter out smog.
2. Don't harbor dust mites. Microscopic dust mites and their droppings are a potent allergen and asthma trigger. Limit the amount of dust mites in the home by encasing mattresses with impermeable covers.
3. Eliminate cigarette smoking in the home, car, anywhere in an asthmatic's presence.
4. Check local air quality index daily. Asthmatic children should not exert themselves outside in hot, smoggy weather, or when a dusty wind blows. Smog counts tend to be highest between 3pm and 6pm.
5. Try air cleaning and purifying machines. A good air cleaner can help those allergic to dust and mold spores. A machine will help most in an asthmatic's bedroom; keep it at least 6 feet from the bed and don't place it on a carpet, as it can kick up dust.