On Memorial Day, we honor those who’ve given their lives in the service of their country. But for many of us, that solemn aspect of the holiday is paired with the first opportunity of the summer to enjoy some serious backyard cooking, outdoor time, or maybe an extended weekend road trip. Whatever’s on your agenda, a little planning will make sure the holiday weekend goes smoothly.
1. Food Poisoning
The problem: Your last cookout sent half the guests to the hospital.
Solve it: There are two main problems related to food safety this time of year, at least for home cooks: not cooking food to a high enough temperature, and leaving food out at an unsafe temperature, according to food-safety officials. This year, get out the food thermometer and make sure the meat on your grill reaches high enough temperatures (see the appropriate temperatures at the USDA’s food-safety website). While you’re at it, make sure you’re putting cooked meat onto a clean plate, not the same plate you used to carry raw meat out to the grill. And whether you’re at a picnic or in your back yard, don’t leave food sitting out unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours; keep a cooler full of ice handy in the event that you can’t get food back in the fridge within that time.
2. Pool Peril
The problem: Your pool guests have a tendency to use it as a toilet.
Solve it: One in five people admit to peeing in public pools; there’s no guarantee they won’t treat your pool the same way. Nevertheless, dousing your pool with extra chlorine won’t help, as it can react with the ammonia in urine to form hazardous disinfection by-products. Make sure you take kids out of the water regularly for bathroom breaks, and maybe a helpful sign will deter the loose-bladdered adults from going in the deep end instead of walking to the powder room.
Since Memorial Day is also the unofficial start of pool season, it’s a good time to double-check a few other safety features; for instance, fences that keep young children out of your pool, and drain covers that prevent kids from getting entangled or trapped by a pool drain’s suction. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 54 percent of pool-related injuries between 2007 and 2009 involving children younger than 15 occurred at a home pool or spa.
3. Road Rage
The problem: You don’t want angry drivers putting your safety at risk.
Solve it: Memorial Day weekend is notorious for motor-vehicle accidents, and ranks among the six worst holiday weekends of the year for traffic fatalities. You may not be able to control what other drivers do, but you can help keep yourself safe by wearing seatbelts and driving the speed limit. Considering that cars get optimum fuel economy between 60 and 65 mph, you’ll save about 15 percent of your gas budget while you’re at it. And don’t succumb to road rage that might cause you to drive more aggressively yourself. Not only does that make your passengers uncomfortable, but it also ups your risk for heart attack and stroke. Before you leave, pack a few healthy snacks; crunchy things like carrots or trail mix help you deal with travel stress.
4. Toxic Lawn Furniture
The problem: Your patio cushions are emitting a weird smell.
Solve it: Replace those cushioned pieces with sustainably harvested wood or recycled metal patio furniture. Outdoor cushions are often treated with chemicals to make them stain-, water-, and mildew-resistant, and some are made with polyester fibers coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the most toxic, environmentally damaging type of plastic. At the same time, popular teak patio furniture is made from wood unsustainably harvested from old-growth forests. Next time you’re reappointing your patio, look for furniture made from naturally rot-resistant red cedar, which doesn’t need treatments to keep it looking nice. For those times you want something a little softer, consider a hemp hammock or buy hemp canvas that you can use to reupholster the cushions you already have. Hemp naturally resists mildew, making it ideal for use outdoors.
5. A Summer Fall (Off a Ladder)
The problem: A weekend fix-it project can lead to a bad break.
Solve it: The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that falls from ladders send more than 530,000 people to the emergency room every year, and many of those falls happen during summer home-renovation projects. If any such projects are on your long-weekend agenda, keep these safety tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons handy: First, don't drink and deconstruct. Make sure you imbibe after your project is done, not before or during. Before climbing, inspect ladders for loose hinges and clean off any mud or debris that could cause you to slip. When working indoors, stand on step stools or stepladders, not chairs, to paint, hang curtains, or make small repairs. Whether indoors or out, always have someone nearby to help steady your base. Men are disproportionately injured in ladder falls, maybe because they won’t ask for help. So spouses or kids, step in and steady that platform without being asked.
6. Off-Road Wrecks
The problem: Uncle Joe just mangled Granddad's lawn chair with his ATV.
Solve it: In addition to being bad for road vehicles, Memorial Day is one of the deadliest for all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) riders, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. ATV use is rising in middle-aged and older adults, studies show, so if need be, send Uncle Joe for an ATV riding course over the weekend, and make sure he's riding a vehicle appropriate for his size, as well as a helmet.
Boats may be more your speed, and why not? Kayaking, canoeing, and sculling are great forms of exercise. If water-based activities are on the schedule this weekend, keep in mind that the week ending with Memorial Day Weekend is celebrated each year as National Safe Boating Week. Take some time to check that your life jackets are in good condition and that neither you nor your children have outgrown them, and save the alcohol for a post-boating celebration.
7. Mosquito Mayhem
The problem: Your back yard is as mosquito-friendly as the Everglades.
Solve it: You probably already know that effective mosquito control around the home involves removing things that harbor stagnant water—things like unused kiddie pools or old tires. You can also plop bacteria-based mosquito dunks in birdbaths and decorative ponds to keep the skeeter population at bay.
To keep the bloodsuckers off of you, avoid bug spray loaded with toxic chemicals, including DEET, which has been shown to damage the nervous system. Instead, look for repellants containing picaridin, a compound derived from black pepper, or plant-based geraniol or oil of lemon eucalyptus. (You may have to apply them more frequently because they tend to wear out in a couple of hours.) Of course, there are other methods of controlling mosquitoes, too. Wearing long sleeves and pants reduces bodily blood-sucking real estate. Since mosquitoes don’t like gusts of wind, you could also sit near a fan set on high. The moving air also helps clear out the carbon dioxide people exhale, which is another mosquito attractant.
8. Tick Attacks
The problem: Your last outdoor excursion left you covered in pepper-fleck-sized bloodsuckers.
Solve it: Ticks are tiny, but the damage they can inflict includes debilitating ailments like Lyme disease and the malaria-like disease Babesiosis, among other ailments. And the teeny bloodsuckers aren’t just in the deep woods, either. Many ticks turn up in people’s yards. Although there are toxic bug sprays on the market that can prevent a tick bite, nontoxic alternatives are also available. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that performing a full-body tick check within 36 hours of spending time outside, and showering or taking a bath within 2 hours of being in the yard, drastically cut the risk of developing Lyme disease. The leaves of American beautyberry bushes have also been shown to promote some tick-repelling activity. For more nontoxic tick-repelling ideas, read 5 Ways to Keep Lyme Disease out of Your Yard.
9. Here Comes the Sun
The problem: You turned into a sun-scalded lobster the last time you partied outside.
Solve it: Sunburn prevention shouldn’t rely solely on sunscreens. In fact, sunscreen alone can’t keep you safe. Compounding the problem, many sunscreens contain hormone-disrupting chemicals like benzophenone or octinoxate that act like excess estrogen in the body. More natural formulations often harbor zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in nanoparticle form, which hasn’t been proven safe, either. (Retinol A in sunscreen might accelerate tumor growth!) Visit the Environmental Working Group's 2012 Sunscreen Guide to find safer sunscreen, and adopt less-toxic forms of sun protection, as well. Better yet, stay out of the sun during prime burn time—10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—or use sun-protection clothing and wide-brimmed hats to reduce exposure.
10. Lightning Strikes
The problem: A storm approaches and you don’t want anyone to become a rare lightning strike victim at your get-together.
Solve it: Throwing an outdoor shindig brings with it the added stress of what to do if the weather doesn't cooperate. But protecting yourself and your guests from serious summer storms and lightning is as easy as memorizing this catchy phrase: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” If you hear thunder, lightning is near.
If a thunderstorm strikes your party, have guests go inside a large permanent structure or sit inside their vehicles to wait out the weather. (Sorry, open-top Jeeps and convertibles won’t suffice—the cover needs to be fully enclosed.) Don’t flock to sheds, covered porches, or picnic pavilions—they won’t protect you from a lightning strike.
11. Gross Grill
The problem: Your crusty, greasy grill grossed everyone out at your last cookout.
Solve it: There are lots of harsh grill cleaners on the market, but who wants toxic residue sticking around to marinate the next round of ribs?
Luckily, green grill-cleaning methods exist. Arm yourself with a stiff wire grill brush, a well-made spatula or spackle knife, tongs, cheap vegetable oil, paper towels, and a load of caution—the best time to clean a grill is when it’s hot. Preheat the grill for 15 minutes and scrape the grate with the wire brush. Use the tongs to pick up a bunch of wadded paper towels, and dampen it with vegetable oil. Using the tongs, rub the oily paper towel over the grill grate. The oil will also help create a nontoxic, nonstick surface for the next time you grill. For more intensive cleaning tips, check out How to Clean Your Grill the Fast, Easy, Green Way. (And don't forget to use a marinade to reduce carcinogens formed on the meat while it’s grilling!)