Most people are aware of the health hazards associated with lead and asbestos in older homes. But owners of newer homes also should take precautions for potential toxins associated with paint, flooring, carpeting and furnishings in their dwellings.
According to the WELL Building Standard, 90 percent of people’s time is spent inside a building. Yet building design often revolves around the function, performance and outcome of specific tasks, sometimes completely exclusive of the physical needs of the inhabitants. And often it’s to their detriment.
In residential design, oftentimes little attention is paid to details that, with long exposure, are not beneficial to the well-being of homeowners. In fact, they could be harming your health — which is the opposite of the safe, secure shelter your home should be providing you and your family.
The most relatable examples of this are lead and asbestos. Homes built before 1978 stand the risk of bearing lead-based paint, which can lead to lead poisoning if it is disturbed or accidentally ingested by children. Renovating an older home — especially with the dust that comes with any kind of demolition — can be a serious health hazard. If you are hiring others to do work, be sure to discuss lead concerns with them before the start of any deconstruction. If your house is lead positive, you will need to hire contractors who are EPA-certified lead renovators so that the healthiest procedures for removing lead materials are followed. Lead-test kits are easily purchased online and important to use before disturbing any walls built before 1978 in your home.
Asbestos was also used in building materials in the early 20th century. While highly toxic, it is not necessarily dangerous if it is found in good condition in your home: Experts usually recommend leaving it untouched and undisturbed. Typically, for instance, if you are replacing the floor in your house, you should remove all flooring down to the subfloor. The only time it is acceptable — in fact, recommended — to layer new flooring on top of existing flooring is if there is asbestos beneath your tiles, lest you risk kicking up any dangerous asbestos particles and fibers into the air.
With new home construction, there should be no concerns for lead or asbestos. However, there are still important material decisions you and your architect make influencing how healthy your home really is. These choices are not exclusive to new construction, though: Many of them are easily relatable to additions, kitchen remodels or even a new paint job. It took decades to realize the adverse effects of lead and asbestos but there are many toxic materials still abundantly used in the home today; it is important to be aware and educated to make the healthiest, most informed decisions for you and your family.
One of the most important points is to select materials as free from toxins as possible. Paint is one of the easiest starting points: Insist on zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Benjamin Moore’s Natura is one of the most popular on the market with zero-VOCs, zero emissions and certification as asthma and allergy friendly. Because it is odorless, this paint is frequently used for renovations in large public buildings that cannot be closed off or shut down to repaint a surface, and it is organic enough to be used in nursing homes and apartment buildings without disturbing sensitive patients or residents. Using it, or a similar product, in residential applications is an easy start to the path of a healthy home. If you are unable to find zero-VOC paint, low-VOC is the next best alternative.
Formaldehyde — found in cabinetry, adhesives, carpets and padding — is a carcinogen often and abundantly found in homes and construction materials. Be sure any furniture, including kitchen cabinetry, is constructed of plywood or particleboard that complies with CARB (California Air Resources Board) formaldehyde emissions standards. Similarly, it is important to select materials that have low off-gassing rates. Often referred to as the “new car smell” (or new carpet, couch, etc. smell), off-gassing is the release of VOCs into the air from a particular product and is commonly an issue with household items — everything from mattresses to computer keyboards to dryer sheets. Buying solid wood furniture, circulating fresh air into your home and purchasing items second hand can help reduce your exposure. When in doubt, you should read all labels (look for low- or zero-VOC) or call the manufacturer before a purchase to ask about off-gassing in their product.
Another way to reduce the effects of off-gassing and improve the indoor air quality (or IAQ) of your home is through effective ventilation. The best houses in new construction have superior insulation for energy efficiency, but a tight envelope requires good ventilation for the health of your home. Effective ventilation will help mitigate fumes, control moisture and stimulate air circulation through a house. This is frequently achieved through an ERV (energy recovery ventilation) system, which smartly uses the conditioned air it exhausts from a building to precondition the fresh air it brings into the building.
Keeping you and your family healthy and well goes beyond exercise and a conscientious diet. There are many choices you can make — whether you are designing a new residence, renovating an old one or just purchasing household goods — toward the goal of a healthy, organic home.
Stephanie Brick is senior architectural designer at Sustainable Design Group in Gaithersburg, Md.