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Building a Healthy Home

Questionable chemicals lurk in many common home-renovation materials. But safer alternatives do exist.

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The average American spends about 90 percent of every day indoors. As a result, we inhale a lot of dust, and within that dust lurk various chemicals—some toxic—that are shed from furniture, electronics, and toys, as well as building materials like insulation, sealants, adhesives, and paint. “Chemicals don’t stay put inside products,” says Veena Singla, an NRDC staff scientist and coauthor of a recent study on household dust. “They continuously migrate out into air and dust and then get into our bodies.”

Yes, it sounds terrifying, but you can minimize your exposure to these toxins by researching the standards and certification systems that exist for the materials you need for your home construction or renovation project. Then you can nix potentially toxic items in favor of safer alternatives. Your contractor (if you’re using one) can do all this for you, though it’s key to establish this expectation up front. “A lot of times, when people are talking about green buildings, they’re talking about energy and water efficiency,” Singla says. “But that may not encompass some of these material health concerns. When you’re thinking about a contractor or designer to work with, you want to make sure they’re also considering health issues.”

Some states and companies are making efforts to phase out hazardous chemicals. In Washington State, for example, companies are required to report the use of hazardous chemicals in children’s products. Comprehensive policies broadly banning most hazardous chemicals have yet to scale up nationally, though. Until they do, here are some crucial home-construction pointers to keep in mind.

Identify the big offenders.

  • “Vinyl flooring, blinds, wall coverings—any kind of building material made from vinyl in the interior of a space is a concern,” Singla says. Phthalates, which are chemicals used to make plastic soft and flexible, are as ubiquitous in vinyl as they are dangerous. They mimic the body’s hormones and can impact normal body functions. In particular, when a pregnant woman is exposed, phthalates can affect her child’s brain, reproductive system, and other organs.
  • “Adhesives, sealants, and surface coatings, including paint, are the kinds of interior finishes that can contain numerous toxic chemicals,” Singla says. They often contain phthalates, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The latter is a group of chemicals, such as methylene chloride and benzene, that can release, or off-gas, into the air we breathe. Each chemical has its own toxicity and potential to impact health, but common symptoms of VOC exposure include headaches and eye, throat, and nose irritation. Chronic exposure over the course of a lifetime may be linked to certain cancers and liver and kidney damage.
  • “Anything that has engineered wood can have formaldehyde and/or other VOCs that can off-gas,” Singla says. Indeed, formaldehyde is prevalent in pressed-wood products like particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard—materials often used for flooring, cabinets, and furniture. Exposure to formaldehyde can lead to eye, throat, nose, and skin irritation and increase the risk of asthma. Formaldehyde exposure is also linked to some cancers. 
  • Building insulation—and more specifically, foam plastic insulation (often just known as spray foam)—contains toxic flame retardants and other chemicals that can exacerbate, and even cause, asthma. It’s a big issue for the workers who install it and can harm home dwellers, too. In one study, people in 10 homes retrofit with spray foam developed watery eyes, sinus congestion, and headaches. In another study, two people were diagnosed with asthma and reactive airway disease after foam installation.

Seek out safer alternatives.

  • Register at the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree website, and you’ll have an excellent resource on hand to identify healthier materials from flooring to paint (cabinetry and countertops will soon be added). “Healthy Building Network has done years of careful and detailed research on products,” Singla says.
  • Use materials with a stamp of approval from reliable certifiers. Through its Living Product Challenge, the International Living Future Institute bans a comprehensive list of worrisome chemicals (such as phthalates) from the building materials and products it approves. Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, Green Seal, and BlueGreen Alliance also thoroughly vet many items—from sealants to insulation—before deeming them safe. 
  • Buy from companies and manufacturers that take part in the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. They disclose everything—including potential chemicals of concern—that goes into what they make and sell. “You can see what’s in a product to make sure it doesn’t have harmful chemicals,” says Singla. “And it’s nice to support that kind of transparency.”

Stay safe day to day.

  • Ventilate: If time, availability, or cost prevents you from selecting the best building materials, you can still reduce your exposure to unhealthy chemicals. A good home ventilation system will go a long way, but even opening windows—assuming outdoor air quality is reasonable—can help, too.
  • Keep dust to a minimum: Use a wet mop on floors, dust with a damp cloth, and use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Even washing hands with plain soap and water (don’t use fragranced or antibacterial soaps) before eating to remove dust can make a difference.
  • Support new policies aimed at regulating toxic chemicals: “It’s unfair that consumers and builders are in this situation,” Singla says. “You’re buying materials to build your home—those materials shouldn’t be exposing you to chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive problems.” Help boost demand for healthier building materials by purchasing items deemed safe by a reputable certifier or produced by a company that discloses the ingredients it uses. Support specific initiatives—like the California Safer Consumer Products program’s proposed regulation of spray foam. (Statewide regulations can have national repercussions.) And tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that you support the restriction of risky chemicals.

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