A funny thing happened on the way to sustainability: Consumers became aware that the toxins environmental groups have been warning them about for decades are not just harmful to the planet, but to their health, as well, and that having an eco-friendly home is about much more than saving money on their utilities. There has always been a segment of the population that tracked these home wellness topics, but it has become much more mainstream lately.
The U.S. Green Building Council, probably best known for developing and managing the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications, is helping to get the message out, especially as states like California mandate strict conservation codes that overlap its standards, and wellness moves into the forefront of public consciousness. “Sustainability and health are very much connected and a topic that the green building community continues to research and examine,” notes Melissa Baker, USGBC’s senior vice president.
“We’ve been tracking health as a driver for buying greener products for years,” says Knoxville, Tennessee-based sustainability marketing researcher Suzanne Shelton. “Last year, we tested health messages for building materials against a variety of other messages and found the health message was the winner across the board. Clearly, protecting your health (and your family’s health) is a better reason to pay a little more for green home improvement products than saving a few bucks on your energy bill,” she comments. She notes that consumers are seeing the connections between their homes and their health, and feel that better indoor air quality (IAQ) is worth the investment.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that indoor air “concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.” What’s causing these issues? “Factors [such] as energy-efficient building construction and increased use of synthetic building materials, furnishings, pesticides, and household cleaners” are among the reasons why they’re increasing, according to the EPA. We can’t easily change what our homes are made of, but we can impact what goes inside them, especially when we’re remodeling or redecorating.
“There are many potential health risks in the indoor environment,” notes Santa Barbara-based environmental health specialist Janette Hope, MD. “However, as a general rule, correcting water damage if it occurs, maintaining good ventilation and keeping toxic materials out will greatly improve the health or your home.”
Kelly Kreuzinger, a LEED AP (certified professional), interior designer and sustainability instructor at the Design Institute of San Diego, teaches future professionals about how to avoid those toxic materials, design for safe IAQ and generally make their building projects healthier for occupants. “By embracing sustainable strategies that help create cleaner air, more restful sleep, higher productivity and better moods, we feel like we are truly making a difference in people’s lives.”
Kreuzinger points out some of the hidden dangers impacting your home’s IAQ and potential health risks:
- “Phthalates are an endocrine disruptor that are often found in soft vinyl products such as shower curtains and vinyl flooring.”
- “Formaldehyde can be found in engineered wood products such as particle board, MDF and plywood.”
- “Adhesives used in flooring and wood products can also be a significant source of harmful [volatile organic compounds] VOCs.”
“Luxury vinyl tile has boomed in design markets for good reason,” shares Kreuzinger. “It looks great, is soft underfoot, and is very easily maintained. The big concern with LVT is the use of phthalates in the manufacturing process. Consumers should look for products that say ‘phthalate-free’ to be sure they are not exposing themselves to those harmful chemicals. Also look for products that have the FloorScore label, which is specific to resilient flooring products,” she suggests.
“Chemicals such as formaldehyde are persistent in their off-gassing and can cause harm long after they are initially installed,” the instructor warns. Formaldehyde may be present in your cabinets, flooring or furniture. The designer suggests, “You want to regularly change the filters in your heating and air conditioning system, and the higher the [Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value] MERV rating on those filters, the better for air quality.”
Potential exposure symptoms of toxins in your home include fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches, respiratory and digestive symptoms, according to Hope. In addition to the built-in elements Kreuzinger mentions above, these are real areas of concern, the doctor notes: “Mattresses – including crib mattresses – and memory foam mattresses can emit formaldehyde and other VOCs, and flame retardants used in these products have been linked to endocrine and immune disruption and thyroid cancer.”
Who’s most at risk? “Pregnant women, infants, toddlers and children, and persons who are immunocompromised, as well as those suffering from allergies and asthma are particularly vulnerable to the effects of indoor toxins,” Hope shares. “I would also consider people with significant neurologic or psychiatric disorders to be particularly vulnerable to the health effects of indoor toxins, due to neuroinflammatory effects.” Those with previous exposures to these materials are also at additional risk, she says.
Where is the greatest risk at home? “Creating a healthy bedroom is one of the most important things a person can do, given the time spent in the bedroom and what we know about the importance of sleep and rest. A healthy bedroom would be well ventilated, would not have carpeting or other toxic flooring, furniture and mattresses and other VOCs. In addition, I recommend using an air filter with a HEPA and carbon component in the bedroom to minimize particulates.”
Other problematic areas the doctor points to include kitchens, especially those with gas cooktops and poor ventilation, and rooms where toxic chemicals (such as paints, glues, etc. are stored), like garages, and “any area that has suffered water damage can pose a significant health risk until the problem is successfully remediated.”
If you suspect your home might have a pollution problem, Hope has this advice: “I would encourage people to always consider environmental exposures, especially when there is an unexplained change in their health or the health of family members.”