If they won’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want what’s in it.
We want our homes to be happy, healthy, and safe. But in reality, many of them are filled with health hazards and toxins that we are exposed to for years. Many chemicals found in homes have been linked to birth defects, infertility, hormonal imbalances, and cancer just to name a few. We spend over 90% of our lives indoors, and more than half of that time is spent in our home. So it makes sense that the things within our homes affect our health, whether we like it or not. This isn’t meant to fill you with doom and gloom. However, when our wellness is on the line, we can’t ignore the truth and pretend none of this matters.
In the healthcare interior design world, we often speak in terms of material health & sustainability. Material health looks at the chemical composition of the materials that make up a product, and sustainability refers to using resources without depleting them. These terms can apply to the residential design world, too.
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a medical condition that can occur when occupants of a building suffer from a wide range of ailments—the most common being respiratory or cold-like symptoms. SBS is attributed to poor indoor air quality, but the precise cause is unknown. The key to SBS is that symptoms improve when you leave the building, but the symptoms reoccur when you return to the building. As a direct result of the 1973 oil embargo, there was a movement among builders in the 1970s to “button-up” buildings and homes to save on fuel for air conditioning and heating. This was good for the wallet, but not for our health. The result was virtually airtight buildings with poor indoor air quality. Today, this condition persists in about 30% of new and remodeled buildings.
The air you breathe in your home or office may be hazardous to your health—more dangerous, in fact, than the outdoor air in the most polluted of cities. This is especially so during the cold months, when windows and doors are kept tightly shut and homes, schools, and office buildings are made as airtight as possible to conserve energy.
– “Dangers of Indoor Air Pollution,” The New York Times, 1981
Be sure to not shut yourself up too tightly this winter!
Many of the chemical toxins in our homes are found in cleaning supplies, laundry detergents (and those terrible dryer sheets we all love), makeup, beauty products, candles, air fresheners, and pesticides (sooo much more to come on this in a later post). However, today I want to discuss a couple of design elements in our homes that may be silently harming us everyday…
Much of our lives happen in our living rooms. The furniture and upholstery often contain toxic chemicals which are released into our homes and attach to dust particles—before you know it, the entire household has inhaled them. Still think your couch is a great place to lounge?
Upholstery and seat cushions can be coated and filled with toxic, flame retardant chemicals. Growing evidence shows flame retardants are adversely associated with cancer, infertility, fetal/child development, neurological functions, and endocrine and thyroid functions. One flame retardant you may remember—chlorinated tris—was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s because it was shown to cause cancer. Other types of flame retardants include brominated flame retardants and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Brominated flame retardants are abundant in many consumer goods—electronics, furniture, building materials—and have been linked to adverse health effects including hormone disruption. PBDEs do not chemically bind to the surfaces they are applied to and, as a result, release very easily from the furniture or electronic products that contain them and into dust and air. These PBDEs can lower birth weight and impair neurological development.
Flame retardants were originally required in foam-filled furniture by the state of California in 1975 and then quickly spread to the rest of the United States. In 2014, scientists at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that the flame retardants in household furniture don’t work, and instead are dangerous. While California has removed the mandatory requirements for flame retardants in upholstered furniture filling, this doesn’t mean flame retardants are banned in furniture—it just means manufacturers do not have to use them to pass the fire test. So some furniture still contains flame retardant materials.
Furniture frames can contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Solid wood naturally releases trace amounts of formaldehyde. However, engineered woods such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particle board, and plywood releases much higher levels of formaldehyde. During the manufacturing process, engineered woods are treated with high temperatures for a prolonged period which increases the amount of formaldehyde emitted from the wood.
Furniture frames are often connected with a formaldehyde or solvent-based glue. A formaldehyde-based glue is used when layers of engineered wood are put together. The toxic chemicals used in these glues are absorbed by inhalation and skin contact.
Upholstery fabrics can be doused in toxic flame retardants, anti-stain, anti-wrinkle, and/or antimicrobial treatments. Read the labels, people. All of these finishes we deem necessary are actually just releasing toxic chemicals which we accumulate in our bodies little by little over time. As a general rule, avoid any of the “anti-this” or “anti-that” treatments, as they typically break down over time and expose us to the toxic chemicals they contain. For example, PFCs, or perfluorinated compounds, are highly toxic and found in stain-resistant finishes (also think Teflon non-stick cookware). For a modern, eco-friendly furniture line, check out Stem furniture.
Recommendations for Furniture:
- Avoid flame retardant chemicals—choose natural latex, cotton, wool or down filler instead of polyurethane foam.
- Solid hardwood frames, specifically kiln-dried hardwood, have far less moisture content than air-dried wood and are stronger and more durable as a result.
- Find furniture manufacturers who use water-based or low-VOC glues.
- Choose certified organic fabrics—cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, or blend.
And consult your nose—if it stinks don’t use it.
Ah, the smell of freshly laid carpet. For some it’s comparable to the coveted “new car smell.” Unfortunately, new carpeting is a major source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in your home and can include toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and more. New carpeting has even been associated with coughing and wheezing in babies during their first year of life. Although the largest release of these VOCs typically occurs during the first 72 hours after installation, lower levels can continue to be emitted years later and join the VOCs coming from other sources in your home. Carpeting, along with its backing, adhesives, and padding, is often treated at factories with toxic flame retardants, stain protectors, and antimicrobials. Always question materials that make health claims. There’s no proof of what really happens to these “antimicrobial” finishes over time, and they can actually end up doing more harm than good.
- Hardwood—Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified solid wood or reclaimed wood is the most sustainable. Look for the stamp!
- Wool carpet—usually more expensive than man-made synthetic carpets, but a healthier option, which may be worth the cost to some. Bonus: wool carpets naturally repel insects! Other non-toxic carpet materials include cotton, jute, hemp, and sisal.
- Tile—especially useful in bathroom and kitchen areas—be sure to choose floor tile rather than backsplash or wall tile.
- Cork—a newer “thing” that is a sustainable and renewable material and is actually very durable and looks great—who knew?
- Linoleum—made from all-natural, biodegradable materials and typically lasts between 20–40 years. It is stain resistant, naturally antimicrobial, and hypoallergenic. As the linseed oil within linoleum naturally breaks down, it kills microbes that come in contact with it.
Paints & Wallcoverings
Paint is another primary culprit of VOC emissions. As we’ve discussed, VOCs are suspected carcinogens which are toxic to development and reproductive health, and are suspected asthma triggers. Traditional wallpaper can contain Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalates, as well as chemically-toxic adhesives. PVC is among the most deadly of toxins, and can be found in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, upholstery, toys, and a wide variety of plastic consumer products. AVOID IT. Vinyl chloride, used to make PVC, has been classified as a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization. PVC has a high chlorine content and production creates pollution as a compound called “dioxin.” Dioxin has been found to accumulate in animal fat throughout the food chain and is associated with severe health problems, such as cancer, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects, impaired child development, reproductive problems and immune system damage. PVC is not easily disposed of and releases huge amounts of pollution when burned in landfills.
- Low-or no-VOC paints contain less than 5 grams of VOCs per liter of paint. They also produce little to no odor, which makes it possible to paint in an occupied space.
- Wallpapers with water-based ink and recycled or FSC-certified paper have low to no VOCs
- Renewable wallcoverings such as bamboo, stone, burlap, linen, or cork
So you’re informed… now what?
Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean building products should. I am not saying go out and build a new house or buy all new furniture to avoid these toxins. However, I am suggesting to be aware, and when the opportunity presents itself to choose better—do it! Ignoring the facts and saying “well, it hasn’t killed me yet” is not a viable option. When it comes to living well, your health is necessity.
I hope this information inspires you to continue improving your environment and lifestyle. Stay tuned for more empowering tips and information!
Live well, by design.