If you are undertaking a remodeling or decorating project, you may want to add some additional criteria to your specifications list. Many construction and home decorating
materials contain hazardous chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can “outgas,” or vent fumes, for weeks or even months inside your home. These chemicals are typically found in synthetic carpets and carpet padding, kitchen cabinets and furniture made from particleboard and finishing products such as wallpaper, paints, stains, floor adhesives and sealants. Flame retardants are also chemicals of concern that are commonly found in building products and should be avoided where possible.
The good news is that more and more designers and manufacturers are aware of these potential health problems and are responding with greener materials and products. However, if you cannot find these safer alternatives, there are simple
steps you can take to minimize exposure:
• Home renovations should be scheduled during the warmer months when windows can be opened and fans can be used to blow contaminated air out and bring fresh air in.
• Use damp cloths and floor mops to clean up construction dust, and shake out curtains, bedspreads and slipcovers outdoors.
• Use only VOC-free or low-VOC latex paints, stains, wood sealers and finishes. Milk paint, made from milk powder and organic color pigments, is extremely durable and the safest paint you can buy. Avoid stains with wood preservative chemicals as these contain pesticides.
• Use only VOC-free and formaldehyde-free building materials and wood products, including particleboard, fiberboard, plywood, kitchen cabinets and built-in furniture. Solid wood is always the best choice, especially for kitchen cabinets and other built-ins.
• Avoid products made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) such as vinyl windows, vinyl blinds or flooring. Phthalates and heavy metal stabilizers are also avoided by choosing PVC-free products. Other chemicals of concern to stay away from in building materials include halogenated flame retardants used in some foams, insulation and wiring. Since there is no added fire safety benefit for this use, they should not be used.
• If you decide to install carpet, choose natural materials (such as wool or cotton) and avoid those with added stain-resistant chemicals. Avoid PVC and flame retardants in carpet padding and backing as well as pesticides used to repel insects and mold. For hard floors, avoid PVC/vinyl sheets or tiles and choose solid wood, bamboo, cork or linoleum. Marmoleum is an all-natural linoleum made from safe, bio-based materials and can be used for many different flooring projects.
• To avoid particleboard, look for new or used solid wood bedroom and playroom furniture. A lead detection kit, available at paint and hardware stores, will tell you if there is lead in old painted furniture.
• Select fabrics for curtains and bedspreads that are free of stain-resistant and water-resistant chemicals. If this is not possible, wash items several times before using, first with baking soda and white vinegar and then with regular detergent.
• Housings for electronic equipment without brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are becoming more widely available, as major companies are redesigning products using alternative materials which eliminate the need for these harmful chemicals.
• Look for latex or down-filled upholstered furniture and mattresses instead of polyurethane foam that is typically treated with flame retardant chemicals.* Wool is naturally fire-resistant and can be used as both an upholstery fabric and infill material for furniture.
• Using longer life incandescent light bulbs for lighting fixtures is the safest way to illuminate your home. However, it is sometimes hard to find these bulbs as more energy efficient LED bulbs have flooded the market. If you do choose LED light bulbs, make sure they are in the warmer color temperature range, 3000K or below. 2700K is the best for home lighting and is easiest on the eyes.
• Look for alternatives to plastic PVC shower curtains, which can outgas potentially harmful chemicals, including phthalates. Also avoid any shower curtains with claims of being “mold or mildew resistant,” as these products may contain triclosan or other antibacterial chemicals. Natural fibers, polyester and nylon are good choices
When renovating your home, especially your child’s room or play area, the following tips can help reduce exposure to toxic chemicals:
Note: flame retardant chemicals continually migrate out of products into the dust in our homes and cars and eventually into our bodies. You can take steps to reduce exposures by vacuuming and damp mopping floors regularly, dusting with a damp disposable towel, washing hands before eating and asking a manufacturer about their use of flame retardants before purchasing building materials.
* While a federal ban on flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture, mattresses and children’s products is unlikely to be enacted any time soon, many states are stepping up to require labeling or to ban or severely restrict certain fire retardants. The laws are based on science supporting the fact that the health risks associated with the use of these toxic and persistent chemicals can pose a potentially greater hazard than the risk from the fires they are supposed to prevent.
Safe Products & Solutions
Milk Paint – An old-fashioned and environmentally friendly paint that is ideal for antique furniture, decks, floors and walls.
BioShield – Non-toxic, no-VOC, environmentally safe paints, stains and finishes.
AFM SafeCoat – Primer & paint choice for personal health, especially for the chemically sensitive.
Organophosphate esters: Are these flame retardants and plasticizers affecting children's health? Doherty, B., Hammel, S., et al, Current Environmental Health Reports, 2019, 6(4), p. 201-213