Air Pollution:  for most of us, that conjures up images of city smog, and dense, dirty air,  visible to the human eye.   For years, we’ve seen Air Quality readings that indicate the pollution levels around us.   In some cases, we’ve had ‘Warning’ days that advise that children and the elderly shouldn’t be outdoors, and even healthy folks should limit their outdoor activities.

What’s less recognized, however, is that air pollution can be up to 10 times greater INDOORS… and since we spend almost 80% of our time in homes, schools or workplaces, the impact there can be significantly greater on our health.   In recent years, with improvements in building materials, design and technology, the focus has been on creating an ever more energy efficient home by creating a ‘tighter seal’ on the building ‘envelope’.   This is intended to keep homes at a comfortable temperature, with as little heating/cooling energy used as possible.

Unfortunately, this tighter seal means that indoor pollutants are sealed in the homes with us!    It’s important to know the sources of indoor pollutants, and how to minimize their impacts on our health.  Typically, new homes have the highest levels of ‘volatile organic compounds’ (VOCs) from the building materials used in construction and finishing.

If you have a new, or recently remodeled home, the top ten things to be aware of are:

  1. Laminate or synthetic flooring –with easy maintenance, long wear and lower cost than hardwood floors, laminate flooring looks like wood but is actually an image of wood applied over a core layer of fiberboard and resin.   Vinyl flooring is popular because it can match style choices in color or design, or be made to look like wood, stone, and tile.   In both cases, the chemicals used in the product manufacture, and the glue used during installation can create persistent high VOC levels in the home.   Though regulated in some states, there is no guarantee of compliance.   In May of 2015, a major California flooring retailer had to pull all their Laminate flooring, made in China, for excessively high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.   Tests of 31 samples found only one that was compliant, and some tested at more than 13 times the allowable California limit.
  1. Carpeting – a major source of VOCs, because of the many synthetic materials and chemicals used in manufacturing and installation, covering a large percentage of the home.   Most carpets are treated with several toxic chemicals – artificial dyes to create the color of the carpet, chemical repellants to prevent stains, flame retardant sprays, and nylon or vinyl additives to improve long life and even wear.    It’s a special concern for families with young children who may spend a large part of their day crawling or playing on the floor.   Some of these chemicals have been identified as carcinogens and can pose serious health risks like respiratory problems, hallucinations, thyroid and immune system damage, and brain development problems.    Whenever possible, choose natural carpet fibers, or minimize the amount of carpet, and opt, instead, for bare wood floors.
  2. Cabinets – many that appear to be ‘solid wood’ are really ‘engineered wood’, as they are more readily available to home developers using a ‘design template’ and they are significantly less expensive than custom built solid wood cabinets.   ‘Engineered wood’ is a composite of wood fragments, pressboard, and glue that emits formaldehyde into the air.   Since cabinets are a common element in most rooms of the home, these emissions can add up.   When you include the paint, stain, or varnish that finishes the cabinets, the VOCs are even greater, and they can ‘off gas’ for weeks or months.
  3.  Insulation, Heating, and Air systems – many new homes are designed to be ‘air tight’ so they can meet heating and cooling standards of performance and energy efficiency.   However, this same reduction in air flow means that VOCs are tightly sealed inside as well, increasing potential health threats.   As a replacement for dangerous asbestos, fiberglass insulation also has its perils – bits of fiberglass can be inhaled, and many products contain formaldehyde as well.   Heating and cooling systems can be fitted with HEPA filters to help clean the air, and reduce indoor pollution.
  4. Paint / Stain / Varnish – with painted walls, wood trim, stair railings, cabinets, and countertop sealants, it’s easy to see why this can be such a concern.    According to a Johns Hopkins University study, “oil based paints and stains can contain potentially 300 toxic chemicals and 150 carcinogens.”    Items like kerosene, lead, mercury, toluene, and tri-chloroethane are all harmful to health, yet are found in these commonly used home improvement items.   Whenever possible, opt for a latex water-based paints, or ‘low volatility’ paints, which have fewer toxic solvents, to reduce the VOC load in your home.
  5. Furniture – often, a new home means new furniture – which can bring its own list of VOCs into the picture.    With fabric furniture, you face some of the same chemical issues as in carpeting, and the structural elements of most furniture are likely engineered wood or particle board components.   Since most fabrics have surface stain repellant chemicals, and polyurethane foam filled cushions, their off-gassing can be a complex cloud of VOCs.   Choosing solid wood frames and more natural fabric options can help reduce the toxic load.
  6. Paneling, wall papers – faux wood, or laminate paneling can pose the same dangers as laminate flooring  – with chemical materials used in manufacture and glues used in its installation.  Because they often ‘surround’ a room, the potential effects can be serious, without sufficient ventilation.   Wallpapers, often made of a vinyl or treated ‘paper’ material, and affixed with glue, can also be toxic as they dry and release VOC gasses.  In many cases instructions recommend not using the room for several days, to help minimize the impact of the VOCs.
  7.  Kitchen/bathroom counters and caulking – in high use ’water areas’ the use of glues and caulking serves two purposes – solid countertop installation, whether tile, granite or synthetic and sealing the seams and surfaces from water infiltration.   To prevent mold from forming under sinks, you need a tight seal, and most of the caulking products used are synthetic, adhesive vinyl-like materials that cover all edges and plumbing hardware openings, to prevent any leakage.  The chemicals used are some of the worst for off-gassing VOCs and instructions generally say to stay out of the bathroom for a few days after the caulking is done.
  8.  Porch / Deck – Pressure treated wood designed to resist water damage, sun wear, and pests can be a highly toxic mix of preservatives, chemicals, pesticides, and even a derivative of arsenic. It’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to walk barefoot over that toxic combination.
  9.   Yard / Pool – creating a backyard landscape can involve many kinds of fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides and building materials that all contain chemicals that can be harmful, especially to children or pets, who are most likely to be playing or rolling in the grass.     If you add a pool to the mix, you have all the chemical sealants, caulking and adhesives at install, as well as the pool chemicals that can be highly toxic.  Chlorine, in particular, can cause respiratory distress, skin rashes, and eye irritations.

What Can I do to Reduce Exposure?

Over time, these gasses will deplete as the materials age, and the odor will be less noticeable.  There are several precautions you can take to minimize the impact of new home VOCs:

  • Open windows and use fans to circulate the air, and draw fresh air inside.
  • Minimize harsh chemicals in cleaning supplies – especially sprays that are easily ingested
  • Avoid sources of additional VOCs including dry cleaning, air fresheners, candles, dryer sheets
  • Buy smaller sizes of harmful items (paints, varnish etc.) as the containers can leak VOC gasses
  • Keep exposure to a minimum by choosing more natural methods of cleaning, pest control
  • Choose neutral materials – glass, ceramic tile, metal, stone, and hardwood are less toxic

As awareness increases about the dangers of a toxic home, new alternatives are being developed in construction materials, cleaning supplies and maintenance products. If possible, choose ‘Green Seal’ building products and practices to help ensure an environmentally friendly,  healthy home for years to come.


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