For those with chemical sensitivities, the home is sometimes anything but a refuge. Volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde can “off-gas” from carpets, wallpaper, and paints, irritating lungs and promoting headaches and itchy eyes. Luckily, there are increasingly more options to traditional building materials and furnishings that are both kinder to Mother Earth and safer for our health.
For flooring, the Seattle-based Environmental Home Center recommends cork, linoleum, bamboo, and selected hardwoods as the best choices from an indoor-air-quality standpoint. If you choose any of these options, make sure installers use nontoxic adhesives; the devil — leaking VOCs — is often in such details.
For those seeking something plusher underfoot, Earth Weave and Natural Home, among others, use natural fibers such as wool, jute, hemp, and rubber to create attractive, chemical-free carpeting for both wall-to-wall and area-rug applications. Both companies avoid toxic dyes and mothproofing, as well as stain repellants, relying instead on the natural resiliency of the materials they incorporate.
And don’t stop at the carpet. All-natural wool padding, which is usually needled together to avoid the VOCs often found in adhesives, will keep the top layer soft without introducing toxins to the underfoot mix. Traditional carpets and pads can off-gas a smorgasbord of noxious chemicals, including VOCs.
A raft of new wall coverings has also come to the rescue in recent years. Most wallpaper is not made from paper at all but from a malleable plastic called polyvinyl chloride, which generates several known carcinogens, including dioxin, during its production. One green alternative is Sherwin-Williams’ nonvinyl Easychange brand. Made from paper, it requires no special solvents or adhesives to install and is stocked in a variety of designs and styles. Another good choice is Pallas Textiles’ DialTones line, made from discarded phonebooks. Also, Environmental Home Center makes its own Innovations brand, which is made from nontoxic polyester and wood pulp with the use of water-based inks completely free of heavy metals.
In the paints category, there are now many nontoxic and low-VOC offerings, including AFM Safecoat, Livos, BioShield, Yolo, and Olivetti. GreenHome.com stocks many of these, and mainstream paint dealers may carry eco-friendly paints from more familiar names, such as Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams.
Remodelers beware, though: Changing out your flooring and wall coverings won’t banish chemical irritants entirely. Many homes built or remodeled during the 1970s were insulated with formaldehyde foam, which can remain a health nuisance long after installation. Luckily, there are now plenty of greener insulation choices, such as cellulose, cotton, and radiant metal barriers. Open-cell spray insulations such as Icynene and Air-Krete are also popular with green builders because they are effective, inexpensive, and easy to apply. Some of these products are available at Home Depot and Lowe’s, but small green-building-supply retailers can be researched at GreenerBuilding.org.