Building, renovating and decorating our homes involves making thousands of choices, and trying to choose healthy furnishings and décor can make the process even more complicated. Unfortunately, many home décor products are mass-produced with chemical-laden synthetic materials and little to no regard for the health threats they can pose. While in most cases safer alternatives exist, they can often be more expensive or more difficult to find, and even most furnishings designed with health and sustainability in mind are imperfect. But any shade of green—especially when it comes to indoor air quality and your health—is better than brown. Be informed. Start small. And make the best choices whenever you can.
One of the best ways to improve the health of our homes is to remove sources of indoor air pollution—but identifying them can be tricky. Toxic chemicals lurk in everything from shower curtains and sheets to couch cushions and the carpet beneath your feet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that thousands of items, many of them common household products, furnishings and building materials, emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that are released into the air at room temperature. Breathing these pollutants is linked to myriad health problems including sore eyes, burning in the nose and throat, headaches, fatigue, reproductive disorders, respiratory illnesses, heart disease, cancer and other serious long-term conditions. To help improve the quality of your indoor air and protect your family’s health, choose materials and products that release the fewest possible pollutants. Here are some guidelines to help you create a home that is beautiful, sustainable and safe.
Whenever possible, choose solid wood furniture over pressed wood products. Bookcases, dressers, cabinets and other seemingly “wood” furniture are often made from particleboard, plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF)—all of which outgas formaldehyde. According to the EPA, this colorless, pungent-smelling gas can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; and severe allergic reactions. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and is classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Although solid wood furniture is often more expensive than pressed-wood products, it is also generally higher-quality and won’t need to be replaced in a few years. If you’re considering a wood piece, check carefully to make sure it is solid wood. Many manufacturers save on production by constructing the front from solid wood and the back, sides, shelves and drawer bottoms of particleboard or plywood. Also consider the finish on solid wood furniture. Ideally, you want furniture with low-VOC water-based or wax finishes. If your furniture has a standard finish, air it out before bringing it inside and ventilate the room once you do. You can also purchase unfinished wood pieces and apply your own nontoxic wood finish or paint.
Secondhand or antique furniture is another excellent option for health and sustainability. In the past, furniture was more often made from solid wood, so search for wood furniture at antique or secondhand stores, garage and estate sales, auctions and on Craigslist. Buying secondhand furniture made with pressed wood products is also safer than buying new, as formaldehyde emissions decrease as products age.
If you do buy new pressed wood products, ask about the formaldehyde content and only purchase low-emitting products. IKEA offers affordable solid and veneered wood furniture sourced from sustainably managed forests that meets or exceeds stringent emissions guidelines set by the European Union. In the United States, products certified by Greenguard and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) meet similar standards. And if you do buy or already own furniture you suspect may be emitting formaldehyde, don’t worry. AFM Safecoat makes several sealants specifically designed to reduce indoor air pollution.
Upholstered furniture is among the most difficult items to find constructed with healthy materials. Unfortunately, most furniture fabrics and foams contain chemicals that are bad for our health and the environment. Pillows, cushions and padding are usually made from polyurethane foam—a petroleum-intensive product that breaks down over time and emits fine particles of chemical dust. If furniture was made before 2005, the foam is likely to contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—a toxic class of fire-retardant chemicals that accumulate in people and wildlife and disrupt brain development and hormone systems, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The type of PBDE used in foam products was pulled from the U.S. market in 2004 because of safety concerns, so you shouldn’t have to worry about new purchases. However, it’s still wise to ask manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use and avoid products with brominated fire retardants (the group PBDEs belong to).
Better yet, choose less-flammable natural stuffing such as wool, natural latex, kapok (a down-like substance that surrounds Ceiba tree seeds) and organic cotton batting. Although these alternatives are not widely available in ready-made form (see Resources at the end of this article), a local upholsterer may be able to create new cushions for wood-framed furniture or refurbish the cushions on your old couch. Never reupholster foam furniture yourself, which can release PBDEs or other potentially harmful fire retardants. PBDEs are released more easily when furniture covers are torn, so replace or repair foam items with damaged covers.
Also keep in mind that upholstery fabrics are often treated with fire retardants and chemicals to help prevent stains and wrinkles. Polyester, rayon and other common synthetic upholstery textiles are made with nonrenewable resources, and the manufacturing process often involves the use of carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, arsenic and heavy metals. Fortunately, increasingly available natural, untreated fabrics such as organic cotton, linen, wool, hemp or silk provide healthy alternatives with lower ecological impacts.
Because flooring covers a lot of surface area in our homes, it has the potential to release a lot of chemicals. Conventional carpet is made of synthetic petroleum-based fiber that can emit as many as 120 hazardous chemicals including pesticides, neurotoxic solvents and carcinogens. These toxic chemicals are found in the rubber padding, adhesives and carpet itself, and they can take years to outgas. Carpet also traps in dust, mold and environmental toxins tracked in from outside, and typical carpet cleaners contain harmful ingredients such as brighteners and antibacterial agents.
Your best bet is to remove wall-to-wall carpeting and replace it with a healthier alternative such as wood, natural linoleum, stained concrete, ceramic tile or cork. During removal, wear protective gear (mask, safety glasses and gloves) and isolate the area from the rest of your home. Mist carpet with water until its backing and padding are damp enough to keep dust down. If you’re renting or your budget won’t allow new floors, enforce a no-shoe policy and vacuum often with a HEPA-filter vacuum.
When choosing new flooring, consider materials that are healthy and sustainable. FSC-certified or reclaimed hardwood is a good choice. Be sure to choose solid wood flooring—not laminate or engineered, which are often glued with adhesives that emit formaldehyde. Sustainably harvested cork, bamboo, natural linoleum and recycled-content ceramic tile are other good options. You can find Greenguard-certified products at the Greenguard website. Whenever possible, select low- or no-VOC factory-finished flooring, which will eliminate the need to stain and seal flooring inside your home. If the flooring is unfinished, use water-based stains and sealants and ventilate the work area. For healthier subflooring, use exterior-grade plywood (aired out and sealed) instead of interior-grade. Although exterior-grade pressed wood contains formaldehyde, it emits less than interior products.
If you want to avoid indoor air pollution but still crave something soft underfoot, warm up hard surfaces with area rugs made from organic cotton or wool, which you can wash more easily or take outdoors to air out. If you prefer carpet, you can find low-emitting carpet and padding certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) Green Label program. (Install it with carpet tacks instead of glue.) Organic wool carpet not treated with mothproofing pesticides is another good option. It’s expensive, but it can last up to 50 years and is naturally flame-, stain- and mold-resistant. You might also consider carpet tiles, which can be cleaned and replaced piece-by-piece.
Thanks to environmental regulations and growing demand, most paint manufacturers offer low- or zero-VOC paints and finishes. But these products may still contain chemical-based pigments, binders and additives that contribute to indoor air pollution. If you really want to go au naturel, try milk or clay paint, made with plant and mineral ingredients. Good sources include Unearthed Paints, American Clay, The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and The Real Milk Paint Co.
8 Sustainable Furniture and Flooring Products
1. Lounge Act
sustainably harvested solid wood frames and PBDE-free soy-based cushions; available in cotton and cotton-linen fabrics
West Elm Henry sofa: 76 inches long, $699; 86 inches long, $899
2. Whole Grain
reclaimed old-growth wood finished with water-based stain
Fran Design Lab Hortencia coffee table: $250
3. Fine Dining
made of solid birch and meets EU emissions guidelines
IKEA Björkudden table and four Bertil chairs: $260
4. Haute Seat
domestically and sustainably sourced wood frame and PBDE-free soy-based cushions; available in cotton, linen and hemp
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Colin wing chair: starting at $1,620
5. Period Piece
sustainably sourced solid Hevea wood finished in one of 30 zero-VOC paint colors
Martha’s Vineyard Furniture Co. Menemsha side table: $350
6. Stately Storage
reclaimed Douglas fir finished with water-based stains and formaldehyde-free glues
VivaTerra Classic chest of drawers: $1,875
7. Recurring Pattern
100 percent wool rug with cotton backing and natural latex adhesive; GoodWeave-certified
Company C Cyprus rug, 4 1/2-by-6 1/2 feet: $765
8. Comfort Zone
FSC-certified wood frame, water-based finishes, PBDE-free soy-based cushions, recycled fiber pillow filling, and organic and natural fabrics
Lee Industries 3979-41 chair: starting at $1,948
Find many more resources for sustainable furniture and flooring online at 2012 Natural Home & Garden Resource Guide.
Wood Furniture Resources
sustainably sourced solid and veneered wood; meets EU emissions guidelines
handcrafted from FSC-certified wood
Martha’s Vineyard Furniture Co.
sustainably sourced solid wood and zero-VOC paint
solid and reclaimed wood; some finished with wax
Room & Board
solid and pressed wood (most sustainably sourced); CARB-compliant
reclaimed wood furniture
solid reclaimed wood; low-VOC, water-based stains
reclaimed wood furniture
3M LeadCheck Swabs
instantly test antique and vintage painted furniture for lead
natural-pigment, formaldehyde-free stains and sealers
Upholstered Furniture Resources
Inside Green line: no flame retardants; natural latex foam; organic textiles; FSC-certified frames; water-based adhesives
natural latex foam; locally sourced organic wool, organic hemp and recycled fabrics; FSC-certified frames; Greenguard-certified adhesives
no flame retardants; organic natural latex foam; organic textiles; FSC-certified frames; nontoxic wood finishes; water-based adhesives
soy-based foam available; upholstered in reclaimed Army tents
no flame retardants; natural latex foam or wool cushions; organic textiles; FSC-certified frames; nontoxic finishes; water-based adhesives
soy-based cushions; recycled fiber filling; some organic fabrics; FSC-certified frames; recycled springs; water-based finishes
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams
soy-based cushions; cotton, linen and hemp fabrics; sustainably sourced wood frames; water-based glues
PB Comfort line: soy-based cushions; sustainably harvested wood frames; available in untreated organic cotton canvas
soy-based cushions; fabrics certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard; sustainably sourced frames
reclaimed and FSC-certified wood
Ambient Bamboo Floors
FSC-certified, CARB-compliant bamboo
bamboo; cork; recycled glass, wood and metal
recycled-content carpet tiles; many CRI Green Label-certified
natural linoleum; Click line features glueless installation and cork backing
Garuda Woven Art
handspun wool rugs with natural dyes
untreated wool carpet with natural rubber and jute backing
recycled cotton rugs