Nontoxic Home Improvement

By DiAnne Crown

August 3, 2015 4 min read

As the days shorten and the winter holidays approach, many homeowners decide to freshen up walls, floors and furniture. But the effect isn't always fresh. There are many reasons to save home improvement projects and furniture purchases (such as mattresses) for windows-open weather. For one, good air circulation will minimize exposure to molds and allergens disturbed during carpet removal and any irritants used during paint or wallpaper removal.

But even more seriously, those new finishes may emit toxic chemicals that can cause a wide variety of health problems for your family, friends and pets.

This invisible process is called off-gassing, which lifestyle blog CustomMade describes as "the release of airborne particulates or chemicals -- dubbed volatile organic compounds, or VOCs -- from common household products. Potential sources of off-gassing range from construction materials to carpeting, cabinetry, furniture, paint, and any number of household goods. Some of the most common chemicals off-gassed from household items include formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia, and toluene. While off-gassing can be easily identified by so-called 'new car' and 'new carpet' smells, it can also be odorless."

So, although new paint, carpet and furniture suggest clean, updated, well-maintained rooms, they may trigger headaches, asthma and nausea, and even contribute to cancer -- and not just over the course of a weekend but, especially with carpet, padding and plywood or particle-board furniture, for several years.

Interior decorator Ruth Smith works at Dellert's Wallpaper and Paint. "Many states have passed legislation banning the use of certain toxic chemicals in paint because they create problems for people with chemical sensitivities," Smith explains. "And because they create ongoing issues in the environment."

There's plenty of science about this, and it's not a newly discovered problem. The least-expensive solution is to make sure plenty of fresh air circulates freely through the house to dissipate fumes. But, fortunately, as awareness of health safety and indoor air quality has grown, so have other consumer choices.

Don Dellert, owner of the popular wall-and-floor-finishes store, recommends starting with low- or no-VOC paint. "Basically, a lot of people who have asthma like the no-VOC paint because it helps them breathe better. Even low-VOC products can affect people with asthma," says Dellert. "Benjamin Moore and some others are now at the point where both the base of the paint (the liquid) and the pigment (the color) have no VOCs."

Latex paint is more likely to be VOC-free than oil paint, says Smith. But, before buying, look at the label on the can. "Green" products will be clearly labeled and may be certified. Then, if you're still unsure about the chemical content, request the material safety data sheet. It will detail the ingredients and any hazards, precautions and first-aid treatments. For more information, search Google using the keywords "no-VOC" and "zero emission paints."

An important note: If you live in an older home, it's possible that there are toxic building materials present in the construction. Be on the lookout for lead-based paint and asbestos-containing building materials. If those turn up, it's time to call in the professionals.

Lastly, for the most organic solutions, expect to pay extra. Natural fiber wool rugs, clay paints and solid wood furniture with natural finishes all cost more, but uncommon, high-quality solutions often do. The answer? Schedule your green home improvement projects in affordable stages over a few years, or finish what you can this fall, enjoy planning the rest of your projects in the winter months ahead and pick up where you left off in the spring when you can open up the house.

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