Choosing products made with natural materials and nontoxic finishes is a good step toward creating a healthy home.
Photo By Marshal Safron
Green products are often good for humans, but not always. “While ‘green’ has recently been redefined and expanded to include protection of human health, there is a difference between what’s good for the planet and directly good for people—or not,” says Allen Rathey, president of the Healthy House Institute (HHI).
In a report recently published by Air Quality Sciences, an indoor air-quality testing and consulting agency, 84 percent of homeowners cited “having a healthier place to live” as among their most important reasons for buying green homes. Yet, the report says, many of them don’t understand how to control sources of indoor air pollutants and provide adequate ventilation and filtration. Tight houses are great for saving energy, but they can trap pollutants inside.
Fortunately, green and healthy can coincide in your home—if you heed the following advice.
Keep toxins out
Cleaning Products: Some cleaning products (even so-called “green” ones) contain terpenes, which can react with ozone in the air to form formaldehyde and other toxins. Terpenes are found in citrus oil-type solvent products. Rathey recommends purchasing from companies that disclose all ingredients.
Floor and Furniture Finishes: Synthetic, water-based polyurethane floor and furniture finishes often contain glycols, solvents that can take six months to completely outgas. “This is true even for finishes that say they are nontoxic and solvent-free,” says healthy home consultant Mary Cordaro. “If they contain glycols, you can expect to have to ventilate using fans or a fresh-air exchange.” Cordaro recommends natural floor finishes that don’t contain polyurethane, including Osmo, Auro and BioShield products.
Joint Sealants and Insulation: Poly foam joint sealants and foam insulation— which are great for weatherizing homes—can also be troublesome. Some blown-in foam products contain flame retardants, which can be toxic. Cordaro recommends applying sealant or insulation behind a sealed air barrier such as drywall. “It’s not an outgassing issue,” she says. “Dust from the material can break down and get into the air, where it can be breathed in. If it’s behind an air barrier, then the toxic elements are contained.”
Recycled Products: Carpets made from recycled soda bottles are a popular (and affordable) green alternative, but they contain a toxic substance: plastic made from nonrenewable crude oil. Debra Lynn Dadd, a consumer advocate and author of Home Safe Home, recommends sealing the carpet with AFM Safecoat’s Carpet Seal.
Salvaged wood also could harbor preservatives or lead-based paints applied in the past. “It’s great to reclaim wood,” Dadd says. “But be cautious about what’s on those beams.” She recommends sealing old wood with a nontoxic finish.
Used Furniture: While flea market sofas are great in terms of reusing resources, vintage upholstered furniture can contain poly foam with flame retardants. “These chemicals release into the air at higher levels as the piece ages,” says healthy home consultant Mary Cordaro. “The older a piece, the worse it is.” Having a few pieces of used upholstered furniture is fine, but Cordaro advises against filling a whole home with used furnishings. For used wood furniture such as tables and chairs, wear a face mask when refinishing and seal with a zero-VOC furniture sealant.
Bring air in
Your home operates as a system, Healthy Home Institute founder John Bower says. “A change in one part of a house can easily have repercussions elsewhere in the building,” he says. “Weatherizing a house might mean lower utility bills, but it can also affect the way moisture migrates through walls and ceilings. Some newly tightened houses begin experiencing a higher relative humidity indoors—and mold growth.”
Rathey says opening windows isn’t enough. Constantly changing conditions—wind speed and direction, temperature and pressure differences between indoors and outdoors, and many other factors—mean you can’t rely on a specific ventilation rate. Installing an Energy Star fan or a good ventilation system with a cleanair exchange is the best solution.
Installing cork or linoleum on a concrete slab may cause moisture problems, which can be toxic and difficult to eradicate. Cork and linoleum don’t allow proper vapor transmission, so moisture can get trapped under the floor backing. Before you install any flooring, check local water tables to see if moisture is a concern. Area installers or retailers may have solution suggestions for your area. If in doubt, Cordaro recommends using stone or ceramic tiles, which allow vapor transmission.
Seven products you should ban from your home forever:
1. Nonstick Cookware
When heated, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the nonstick coating, releases toxic gases that have been linked to cancer, organ failure, reproductive damage and other dangers. Try anodized aluminum, stainless steel or cast-iron pans instead.
2. Chemical Insecticides and Herbicides
The active ingredient in Roundup is known to cause kidney damage and reproductive harm in mice, and cypermethrin, an active ingredient in Raid, is a known eye, skin and respiratory irritant and damages the central nervous system. There are many natural pest-control solutions.
3. Conventional Cleaning Supplies
All-purpose cleaners often contain ammonia, a strong irritant that has been linked to liver and kidney damage. Bleach can burn the skin and eyes. Oven cleaners can cause chemical burns and emit toxic fumes. Choose natural cleaners or mix up your own using vinegar and baking soda.
4. Flame Retardants
Foam items (mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, pillows, carpet padding) purchased before 2005 are likely to contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a chemical linked to liver, thyroid and neurodevelopmental toxicity. If you’re in the market for a mattress or sofa, look for products that don’t use brominated fire retardants. To make your existing mattress safer, cover it with an organic wool topper.
5. Antibacterial Products
Widespread antibacterial use helps create new strains of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Antibacterials may also interfere with immune system development in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Make it your goal to be clean, not germ-free. Regular soap and water will clean most things.
6. Air Fresheners
These are incredibly toxic and can aggravate respiratory problems like asthma.
7. Chemical Fertilizers
If you have a lawn, choose organic fertilizers, not dangerous chemicals.
–Reprinted with permission from Sustain Lane
Air Quality Sciences indoor air quality testing and consulting
earth-friendly, healthy interior design
Building Science Corporation
combines physics, systems design and sustainability to promote durable, healthy buildings
The Healthy House Institute
provides information to help consumers create healthier homes
home and business environmental consultations
–Kelly Smith, who writes about topics ranging from green homes to conscientious parenting, is on the lookout for products that benefit both the planet and her family.