We all want our homes to be safe and healthy places, but indoor environments are two to 100 times more polluted than the outdoors, so it’s clear our homes are not the temples of health that we’d like to imagine. Much of these pollutants are toxins that leach out of the house itself—our walls, countertops, paints and varnishes as well as our furniture, carpets, and curtains.
The choices we make about the materials that go into our homes have long term health impacts on everyone who lives there. Toxins are introduced to our bodies through our skin, through what we breathe and ingest. They can impact our neurologic, developmental, immune, respiratory, circulatory, reproductive systems and our genetic health. For those of us with children, this is even more concerning because their developing bodies are more susceptible to these toxins.
Regulatory agencies permit exposure to a minimum level of toxicants, but as more information has become available about toxic chemical exposure and the impacts caused by inherited pollution from the products we are living with, many architects are considering how to avoid these hazards entirely. For clients interested in a new healthy building, we employ a comprehensive study on the materials we specify, but for those who are doing their own renovation or remodeling work, you can minimize the toxic hazards by reducing or avoiding altogether the use of, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) volatile organic compound (VOC) containing solvents, formaldehyde, flame retardant chemicals, and pesticides. Here are eight specific suggestions to detox your house.
TIP 1: Paint the walls before installing soft furnishings. When porous substances, like upholstered furniture, drapes and carpets, act as ‘sinks’, VOCs and other contaminants are absorbed in high concentrations. They are released at lower concentrations over a prolonged period of time, exposing occupants to "chronic" exposure. Chronic exposure is much more angerous than "acute," or sudden, short term exposure at high concentrations. According to the EPA, VOC’s can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; headaches; nausea; drowsiness and damage the liver, kidney and the central nervous system.
TIP 2: Try a natural fiber shower curtain as an alternative to PVC and plastic curtains and liners. Plastics such as PVC shower curtains release over 100 chemicals into the air when they are first opened from their packaging.. A study conducted by the Center for Health Environment and Justice measured amounts of VOC’s from a newly opened PVC shower liner at over 16 times greater than the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council.
TIP 3: Shop around for products labeled VOC-free or low-chemical content and emissions to avoid toxic solvents contained in paints, adhesives, wood floor sealers and coatings.
TIP 4: Whenever possible use recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, regional, renewable, salvaged materials and FSC-certified wood. All of these sustainable attributes mean reduced lifecycle impacts and less impact to natural resources. Avoid using formaldehyde-containing composite woods like particleboard in cabinets and free-standing furniture.
TIP 5: We wrote about flame retardants and how to replace your cushions and furniture foam filling in our earlier post, Toxic Furniture. If replacing your old furniture is not an option, focus on reducing dust. Most exposure to flame retardants occurs after the chemicals migrate out of a product’s foam and settle into household dust, which then enter our bodies by hand-to-mouth contact. Vacuuming frequently with a HEPA filter, wet mopping, and dusting with a damp cloth can reduce household dust. Finally, washing your and your children’s hands frequently, and always before eating, can help reduce ingestion of dust containing flame retardants.
TIP 6: Beyond Pesticides ( a non-profit organization working to protect public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org) offers safer alternatives for a variety of common pest problems. The organization advises readers to weigh the risks associated with the use of even a “least-toxic” pesticide against the problems caused by the pest. Pesticides are connected to asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and several types of cancer.
TIP 7: Good ventilation is important in any healthy space. You could just open your windows—unless you live near an airport, landfill, highway or factory. If windows aren’t an option, a well-maintained ventilation system with high-performance filtration is ideal.
TIP 8: Use non-chlorinated “green” cleaning products and don’t fall for the seemingly harmless pine and citrus oil products—natural doesn’t mean healthy.
Pfau Long and Thornton Tomasetti are involved in a movement in the architecture and design industry to encourage building product manufacturers to disclose what is in the materials we select for our buildings and shift the building product marketplace to toxic chemical alternatives. We recognize that this approach is new and contrary to common practice. Manufacturers and the mainstream scientists that work for them have met these efforts with significant push-back. However, Americans are indoors for 90% of their days, so as designers of these spaces we will continue to advocate for transparency and the importance of healthy homes and workplaces.
Note: This was written with input from Marian Keeler, AIA, a Senior Associate at Thornton Tomasetti and a member of the engineering firm’s healthy materials and sustainability team.
Mattison Ly, LEED AP is a Project Manager at Pfau Long Architecture
For our clients interested in healthy buildings, Pfau Long Architecture collaborates with Thornton Tomasetti’s sustainability team for their expertise on the problematic chemicals in building materials to look at nearly every component in the home, from acoustical assemblies to kitchen countertops to shingles, siding and waterproofing. The chemical profile of each material /product/system is studied to determine the hazards posed to the people who live and work in the home, to the product manufacturer’s factory workers, to the professional installers, and to the health of our water, soil and air.