Blueprint for a Healthy Home
How to Avoid the Most Toxic Remodeling Pitfalls
by Sally Lehrman
Reprinted with permission from Alternative Medicine magazine
Back in the 1980s, builder David Johnston specialized in energy-efficient, solar-based construction. He didn't give much thought to the dangerous products and fumes that were part of the building process, though, and when a chemically sensitive client started demanding special materials and questioning his ventilation practices, it nearly drove him crazy. Then one day she walked into the rooms he was adding to her Bethesda, Maryland, house, began gasping for breath, and nearly went into allergic shock. The culprit? A seemingly innocuous adhesive.
"It opened my eyes to things I'd never thought about," says Johnston, who's now based in Boulder, Colorado. "From then on we'd have her sleep next to the building materials before we used them."
Unless you're hypersensitive to chemicals, you probably don't need to go to bed with two-by-fours and open cans of paint. But if you're one of the millions of people planning to remodel your home in the next few years, you may want to think twice about simply accepting the standard construction materials and practices most contractors are likely to suggest.
As Johnston learned when he began to study the products he routinely used, many can contribute to both short- and long-term health problems, most often by emitting toxic gases into the air. The emissions are strongest when materials are first installed, but continue for years afterward. Formaldehyde, typically found in cabinets, hardwood plywood paneling, and the particleboard used for subfloors, can contribute to fatigue, rashes, asthma, allergies, and possibly cancer. Volatile compounds in paints and solvents can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as cause headaches and nausea, and may damage the central nervous system -- even at the levels found in a typical house. For some people, a reaction to these substances can provoke the immune system to overreact to all kinds of chemicals, resulting in multiple chemical sensitivity, in which exposure to even minuscule levels of chemicals can trigger serious illness.
And, of course, just the process of pulling apart old structures, then sawing and sanding new ones, produces lots of dust particles that can set off allergies and asthma. "Once I started researching it, I realized what a major set of issues we had in hand," says Johnston, who's since written a book, Green Remodeling, and is creating a national "green" certification program for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
Fortunately, it's gotten much easier to avoid troublesome products and to incorporate cleaner materials and techniques into your remodeling job. Builders used to wave off the suggestion of hazard-free construction as too expensive, but nontoxic materials have come down in price, and many more contractors these days are accustomed to using them.
For that you can thank, oddly enough, the commercial building industry. About ten years ago, some forward-thinking architects and designers began to realize that healthier, environmentally sound buildings would produce less pollution and use less energy, costing less to operate over the long run. As their ideas began to be more widely disseminated, the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded by former developer David Gottfried, came up with rating systems and resources to promote them. Soon demand for nontoxic materials rose, along with the need for environmentally sensitive builders who knew how to use them. Gradually, green products and practices have become more widely available for residential projects, as well.
Gottfried and his wife, Sara, applied the healthy principles he had conceived for commercial construction to the vintage home they recently bought in the hills of Berkeley, California. When they decided to freshen up the color scheme of the 1930 English Tudor, they chose paints that wouldn't emit toxic gases. They cleaned their air ducts and bought a HEPA filter to pull dust and particulates out of the air. Over time, they plan to install energy-efficient windows, beef up insulation with nontoxic materials, and buy a high-efficiency furnace that will improve indoor air quality even further, with a built-in electronic air cleaner that filters the air coming into the house.
All these changes are likely to pay off in the form of better health, while many are simply cost-efficient and better for the environment. And while some do require a little more up-front money, often the healthier products will last longer, need less long-term maintenance, and help lower energy bills.
Of course, it can be daunting to start planning any remodeling project, let alone one with special requirements. So we've done some of the legwork for you; in the pages that follow, we've pinpointed some typical remodeling mistakes in three rooms of the house and come up with sustainable, healthy alternatives.
Mistake #1: Installing toxic cabinets.
Health consequences: Plywood and particleboard, which are used in parts of nearly all cabinets -- pre-made and custom -- both contain urea formaldehyde, an adhesive and preservative that is released into the air for years and can cause breathing problems, nausea, and eye and throat irritation. The chemical, part of a class known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, causes cancer in animals; some research suggests it could do so in humans as well.
Remedy: Before you bring your new cabinets inside, cover all the exposed surfaces and edges -- inside and out -- with a low- or no-VOC sealant. (A low- or no-VOC paint also works.) It's a good idea to do the same on the underside of your countertops before they're installed, says Johnston, as this is often the largest formaldehyde-emitting surface in the kitchen. One option is the sealant Safe Seal, available from AFM, which also makes low-emission paint products.
If you know you'll be installing anything else that's likely to out-gas, including shelves or paneling, take down the curtains and any other fabric in the room and cover up existing wood to prevent these from absorbing the fumes. While you're at it, make sure the room is well-ventilated. You can buy a 20-inch, 3,000 cubic feet-per-minute fan to place in the window blowing outward, to create negative air pressure inside the room. You'll want to do this while work is going on and for about a week afterward.
To find less toxic cabinets and shelving, look for Dow BioProducts' Woodstalk brand, a low-emission line made from wheat straw, or products made from bamboo by environmentally conscious makers such as Neil Kelly Cabinets in Portland, Oregon, or AlterEco in Sausalito, California.
Mistake #2: Pulling in unhealthy air.
Health consequences: The kitchen and bathroom fans that you rely on to get cooking odors and steam safely out of the house can sometimes be part of a chain of events that brings dangerous pollutants into your home.
How can this happen? As fans pull air out of the house, there's a tendency for other openings in the structure to suck air in, to equalize the interior pressure. In older, draftier homes, this isn't a health risk, because the outside air flows in through cracks around windows and doors. But in tightly sealed, newer homes, sometimes the only openings that can pull in air are the vent pipes for the furnace and water heater -- meaning that as air enters through those pipes, they stop venting gases and exhaust as they're supposed to. The result can be serious illness or even death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Remedy: The simplest solution, says Johnston, is to install a vent, usually somewhere in or near the kitchen, that pulls in fresh air from the outside. This is basically a small hole, three to four inches in diameter, fitted with a flap so air can only go in, not out. Some home improvement stores carry them, or try sheltersupply.com.
A more complex alternative is a mechanical venting unit called an air-to-air heat exchanger. It connects the exhaust fan with an intake fan, so when the exhaust fan pulls unwanted air out, the intake fan brings fresh air in. This isn't a do-it-yourself project; better to hire a heating-cooling contractor.
Whether you're working with an existing space or building a new one, make cross-ventilation a top priority so you can enjoy natural heat and cooling as much as possible. Leave space under closet and interior doors so the house can breathe.
Mistake #3: Buying non-energy-efficient appliances.
Health consequences: Okay, we admit that the wrong refrigerator or dishwasher isn't likely to make you sick. But those that require lots of electricity and water to do their jobs contribute to air pollution and global climate change -- and it's quite easy to make better choices.
Remedy: Look for the Energy Star label, which means that your new acquisition is part of a voluntary industry/government efficiency program. A dishwasher with this label uses one quarter less energy than minimum federal requirements and 44 percent less water than conventional models. Gottfried and his wife plan to install an on-demand, tankless water heater to save even more energy. Standard models keep a tankful of water hot at all times -- whether you're home to use it or not. With a tankless version, when you turn on the faucet, the water flows through a small unit that heats it instantly. Not only do you save energy, you'll never run out of hot water.
Mistake #1: Sealing with nasty goo.
Health consequences: Some of the worst contributors to indoor air pollution are those most often overlooked -- namely, the adhesives, sealants, and caulks that hold most of your house together, especially the bathroom. They're filled with additives, resins, and solvents, says Christi Graham, founder of Healthy Home Plans, a Mill Valley, California-based company that sells ready-made "green" architectural plans.
Remedy: Insist on adhesives marked "solvent-free," "low-VOC," or "earth-friendly," and avoid any that contain urethane. You'll find these at most home improvement stores and some hardware stores. (Graham recommends Titebond Solvent-free Construction Adhesive.)
For caulk, choose brands that emit only low levels of VOCs; anything below 100 grams per liter is okay. Graham suggests Window & Door Supercaulk by Liquid Nails or Acrylic Caulk with Silicone by OSI Sealants. (But ventilate the room for at least a week anyway.)
If you go with tile, the mortars and grouts made with portland cement contain few volatile chemicals, but they still may have a strong odor and create a lot of dust during mixing. Make sure there's good ventilation during the installation and, if you're doing the job yourself, wear a respirator.
Mistake #2: Choosing vinyl flooring.
Health consequences: It's inexpensive and available just about everywhere, but flexible vinyl flooring has several counts against it, starting from the moment it's made. The manufacturing process requires vinyl chloride gas, a carcinogen, and releases dioxins, which are linked to cancer and hormonal disruption. Once in your house, the flooring releases phthalate, another troublesome chemical that can disrupt hormones. And a 1999 study in the American Journal of Public Health linked vinyl flooring with asthma in babies and toddlers.
Remedy: Consider ceramic tile or sealed cork. Or go for natural linoleum, which is made from sawdust, cork, linseed oil, flax, pine resins, and jute. The material mends itself (if say, you were to drop a razor) and because the coloring goes all the way through, wear doesn't show. As a nice bonus, the oil acts as a natural bactericide. While linoleum may cost twice as much as vinyl, it lasts much longer.
Linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a while after it's installed, so test a sample first to be sure you aren't sensitive to it. The edges can soak up moisture, too, so install it carefully. Caulk the edge where it meets the shower or tub.
Mistake #3: Keeping your old water-guzzling toilet.
Health consequences: This is another instance where sticking with the old standby won't harm your health -- but isn't so good for the planet. Besides, water costs money.
Remedy: Choose a low-flow model. Most new toilets fit the bill, so it should be easy to find one you like. Gottfried is quite proud of his two-button, dual-flush models from Australia. The sleek new Caromas use as little as 0.8 gallons, while 20-year-old clunkers use four times as much. More cost-conscious folks may want to go with Toto low-flow units. They're more effective than most other U.S.-made choices, and if you shop around, the prices can be quite competitive.
Mistake #1: Carpeting with chemicals.
Health consequences: As comfy as it may seem, a carpet isn't the best choice for the rooms you sleep in. That's because wall-to-wall floor coverings are usually chock-full of compounds that will give off gases for three to five years. Your typical synthetic carpet contains about 120 volatile chemicals, according to Graham, and many are neurotoxins.
Carpets also collect dust mites and dander, other impediments to easy breathing. If you decide a carpet is essential, then air it out in a warehouse or a garage for several weeks first, she suggests.
Remedy: Bamboo flooring, cork, or hardwood with a throw rug are all great alternatives. If you're absolutely set on carpet, go for wool or cotton with no glue on the back. Ask for a natural pad and backing, and make sure that no insecticide or mothproofing has been added.
Or you can apply a product that seals in the gases, like Carpet Seal, available at afmsafecoat.com. (This also makes carpet more resistant to stains.)
One manufacturer to consider is Earth Weave Carpet Mills, which makes a biodegradable wool carpet. (Wool is, however, more expensive.)
Mistake #2: Insulating the wrong way.
Health consequences: Insulation is often made of fiberglass. "Over the years, the material can lose its structure, making long, microscopically thin shards," Graham says. The problem is that these microfibers can migrate out of the walls and ceiling and be blown about the house through the forced-air system. Fiberglass may contain formaldehyde as a binder, as well.
Remedy: If you're opening up walls anyway, now's the time to remove and replace that old fiberglass insulation. Johns-Manville has come up with a formaldehyde-free version (jm.com/insulation). But Graham's favorite alternative is Bonded Logic, batts of recycled blue jean fibers treated with nontoxic borates as a natural fire retardant. The University of Texas has used this material in one of its new buildings.
Other options include cellulose insulation made from recycled newspapers (look for it at environmentalhomecenter.com, as well as insulating foams made with soybean oil (www.biobased.net and healthyseal.com).
Mistake #3 Selecting killer colors.
Health consequences: Even water-based paints can contain toxic chemicals that can produce gases for up to a month; you may suffer eye or skin irritation, headaches, or asthma even after you stop smelling them.
Remedy: Fortunately, there are lots of options at about the same price and quality as a conventional high-grade paint. Choose a primer and topcoat marked "no-VOC." Benjamin Moore, Glidden, Kelly Moore, and Sherwin-Williams all make these, as do smaller, alternative paint companies. Don't expect to solve the problem with additives that claim to detoxify paint -- they just mask the smell.
Sally Lehrman is a contributing writer.
What to Do Before You Begin.
You know the scene if you've ever been through a home construction project: workers tromping around with remnants of your old kitchen or bedroom, dust everywhere, chemical odors that linger for months. That may seem tolerable in the short term, but if you're sensitive to toxins, you may feel lousy long afterward. Here are some tips to make sure you don't shorten your life in pursuit of a more comfortable home.
Hire a "green" contractor. The best way to find one is to ask around locally; or try a Google search using "green building." To learn more about the specifics of this approach, check out Green Remodeling, by David Johnston.
Identify preexisting toxicity problems that you might as well fix as long as you're tearing things apart. These may include asbestos, radon, moisture seepage, or lead paint.
Consider investing in a certified environmental or indoor air quality inspector, who has the training to be a better sleuth. The International Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology in Florida offers referrals to a few such professionals nationwide on its website. Or check the yellow pages or the local health department.
Plan to do the work during spring or summer when you can throw open the doors and windows to let fumes and particulates waft away.
Assemble your nontoxic selections before you start. Home improvement stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot now routinely stock many environmentally friendly products. For a list of ingredients in each product and related safety precautions, consult the items' Material Safety Data Sheets; manufacturers must send them to you upon request. Or check this website: msds.ehs.cornell.edu/msdssrch.asp.
Cover up if you plan to do any of the work yourself. Lay in a supply of long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect your skin from volatile compounds. And for about $20 to $40, you can buy a good, cartridge-style respirator that covers your nose and mouth and will filter out fumes and tiny particulates.
Make sure the contractor covers all the vents and returns in the area where the work will take place. If he or she doesn't take steps to keep fine dust out of the ductwork, the debris will end up in every room (and in your lungs). Tape heavy plastic sheeting over doorways and spaces where walls will come down. Overlap the plastic barrier so workers have to snake through to get in, not just pull open the flaps. Keep your pets out of the work area so they don't track dust into the rest of the house.
Keep generators and other gas-driven tools out of the house and away from anything destined to go inside; the exhaust will seep into porous materials.
Cover wood and drywall so they don't soak up moisture, which then creates an attractive habitat for mold. - S.L.