Coming Home to Health

Eco-friendly home furnishings and building materials can help make your home a healthy one.

Twenty years ago, holistic health practitioner Daryl Stanton remodeled her home in Los Angeles. She refinished her wood floors with polyurethane, replaced the carpet, painted the walls, reupholstered her furniture in the newest synthetics and added shelves built from particleboard to her closets. Stanton was delighted with her newfound space and sparkling surfaces.

Immediately after moving in, however, she began to feel sick. She developed asthma-like symptoms and headaches, and she had trouble concentrating. Stanton consulted several healthcare practitioners before she made the connection between her home remodel and her illness. “I began to research chemical exposure and discovered that a house full of off-gassing materials can make people sick,” she says. “Ultimately, I left that house and built myself a healthier home.”

Stanton is now living in Santa Fe in her third “healthy home,” a straw-clay structure with plaster walls. The earthen floors – made from a mix of clay, sand and straw, and finished with linseed oil – look and feel like polished leather. Her sofa is upholstered with linen and stuffed with down, and her bed has an organic wool mattress, organic cotton and wool blankets, and hand-dyed hemp-silk pillows. Having eliminated every possible toxic chemical in her domain, Stanton says she feels like she’s living in nature, rather than apart from it.

“I have such a sense of relief coming home every day to my healthy oasis,” says Stanton, who now uses her background in healthcare to create healthy indoor environments for others through her Santa Fe interior-design business.

Stanton feels lucky that she experienced the effects of the chemicals she lived with previously, because it forced her to educate herself about them. “Many people can’t smell or feel these things, or they’re used to feeling a little dizzy when they get new carpet or paint, and they think it’s OK,” she says. “People don’t realize what they’re being exposed to. But everyone should be aware of what’s in many conventional, mainstream products.”

Hidden Toxins in Today’s Homes

People with chemical sensitivities may be the “canaries in the coalmine” – the first to experience the effects of toxins that will ultimately cause problems for most of us. But that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t all benefit from looking for healthier ways to furnish our homes, starting now.

Potentially hazardous chemicals, in the form of building materials, furnishings and cleaning products, infiltrate nearly everyone’s homes. They’re found in upholstery, manufactured wood products such as plywood and pressboard, traditional paint, permanent-press fabrics, vinyl, sealers and adhesives. And they hang around in the air and carpets for years.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the air in our homes has pollutant levels two to five times higher than the air outside, and sometimes even 100 times higher, depending on what furnishings, building materials and cleansers you’re using.

Synthetic or engineered home-building materials and furnishings contain chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which evaporate at normal room temperatures (the process known as off-gassing) to pollute indoor air. Some VOCs are suspected carcinogens. The carcinogenic effects of formaldehyde, for example, common in pressboard and plywood, are well established. People who are exposed to VOCs can experience a range of symptoms, from headaches and nausea to skin and respiratory irritations, memory impairment – even central nervous system disorders.

Unfortunately, exposures have increased during the past 30 years. To conserve energy, homes have been sealed so tightly that air is exchanged only once every five hours or less. Today’s tight houses also harbor biological contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, pollen and toxic molds, which grow easily in wet basements and bathrooms and on the cardboard backing used for drywall. The combination of these toxic factors can pose particular challenges to children, pregnant women, older people and individuals with allergies or compromised immune systems.

A Healthier Home – Step By Step

Although the conflagration of potential health threats in today’s conventional homes may sound rather dire, the concerned homeowner can make significant improvements just by phasing out and replacing toxic items on a gradual basis. Unless a member of your household suffers from chemical sensitivities, and more immediate remodeling is critical to their well-being, you can simply begin making selective choices, starting today, that support you in creating a chemical-free home over time.

In your quest to create a home that nourishes you, start with the basics. Open windows when you can. Ask everyone who enters your home to remove their shoes, which track in dirt, pesticides, bacteria and other pollutants. Eliminate chemical air-fresheners and burn only soy or beeswax candles made with lead-free cotton, hemp or linen wicks (conventional candles are made with paraffin, a petroleum product, and the wicks of many imported candles may contain lead or other metals).

Switching to chemical-free cleaning agents will free you of daily exposure to a host of toxic fumes and substances. Many natural cleaning products are available on the store shelf, or you can use staples already in your kitchen cupboard. Rather than relying on chemical-laden furniture polishes, rub a dab of olive oil into your wooden furniture. Baking soda cleans and deodorizes; vinegar cuts grease and cleans windows. (Find more green cleaning tips at http://housekeeping.about.com/cs/environment/a/alternateclean.htm.)

When a household item wears out, look for a nontoxic replacement. Beautiful, chemical-free household materials and furnishings – from paint to pillows – are readily available and bring warmth, comfort and, often, superior performance to your home. Consider, for example, the alternatives to synthetic carpet, which contains more than 200 chemicals and has been linked to respiratory problems, allergic reactions and fatigue. Fibers such as sisal and jute are naturally strong, with earthy texture. Wool, which is naturally stain-, mildew- and mold-resistant, should last at least 25 years. Natural linoleum, made from linseed oil, pine resins, wood and cork powder on a jute backing, is not only gorgeous but will endure for 30 to 40 years.

Antiques, as well as character-rich salvaged wood flooring, lend quality and personality to your space. Unlike the current generation of mass-produced pieces made from wood veneer glued to particleboard, they’re generally made from high-quality materials and are more solidly constructed. Plus, any off-gassing they might have done – which isn’t all that likely in pre–World War II pieces – took place long ago.

If you’re remodeling or building a new home, start natural, and work from the ground up. In Albuquerque, N.M., Lance Rudolph, MD, an internist, and his chemically sensitive wife, Beth, who also suffers from asthma, have chosen chemical-free materials for the healthy home they’re currently building. Stone floors, earth-plaster walls, natural wood and autoclaved, aerated concrete walls lend the house a solidity and appeal that would be virtually impossible to achieve with more conventional materials. “These things just make the home feel really beautiful and warm,” notes Rudolph.

Their architect, Paula Baker-Laporte, says she always suggests earth plasters and other natural materials because “something wonderful happens to humans when we surround ourselves with earth. Natural materials create a house that nurtures you on every level.”

Start With One Room

If all of this seems overwhelming, consider remaking your healthy home one room at a time. First up: the bedroom. We spend an average of eight hours a day (one-third of our lives) in our bedrooms, and it’s there that our bodies do the important work of repair and rejuvenation. The liver, which detoxifies the body, works best while we sleep – so creating a peaceful, healthy sleeping environment should be a top priority. “Make your bedroom an oasis, where your body can heal,” Baker-Laporte advises.

Try not to sleep in a room that’s above a garage, where fumes are common, or in the basement, where mold and mildew thrive and light is scarce. Also try to place your bedroom as far as possible from outdoor pollution sources, especially if you live in a city. Move your sleeping space as far away from street noise – and fumes – as possible.

Choose your bed, mattress and bedding carefully. Traditional polyurethane foam mattresses encased in polyester emit harmful chemicals, make for a clammy sleep environment, and harbor dust and dust mites. Today, organic cotton and wool mattresses are widely available. They draw water vapor away from the body, keeping body temperature more consistent. Latex mattresses, blown from natural rubber, are durable, nonallergenic (unless you’re allergic to latex) and resist moisture buildup. (As an added bonus, they tend to buffer the effects of large weight differences between sleeping partners.) Replacing conventional sheets, mattress pads and comforters, which are laden with chemicals such as chlorine, dyes and formaldehyde, is another good choice for a safe, healthy night’s sleep.

Consider All the Senses

Architect Carol Venolia of Santa Rosa, Calif., author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988) and coauthor of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark, 2006), points out that while improving indoor air quality is a priority, homeowners interested in creating truly health-enhancing homes should consider aesthetics as well. “The kind of beauty that just makes you go ‘aah’ is really important to physical health as well as environmental health,” she says.

Natural light, for example, is not only warm and pleasing, but it’s also crucial for stimulating vitamin D and producing serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone that regulates sleep and daily body rhythms. Adding a skylight or solar tube to a dark corner or moving your breakfast table to a place where you can begin the day basking in eastern sunlight are great ways to enhance your home’s healthfulness. If you’re in a window-deprived rental or can’t afford to add natural-light sources, switch to full-spectrum light bulbs, which contain the same balance of colors and UV as natural light.

Much like the natural world that inspires it, a nurturing, health-enhancing home delights all the senses by layering texture, smell and sound in a pleasing, coherent experience. A truly healthy home, after all, is not only free of pollution and irritation, it is a refuge and a sanctuary that supports body, mind and soul.

WEB EXTRA!

A New Floor Plan

If you can make one big change in your home, look to your floors. This is where tracked-in dirt, chemicals, contaminants and pesticide residues settle. While laying wall-to-wall carpet may seem like a warm and nurturing choice, it’s actually the worst thing you can do for your home.

Even 19th-century homemakers understood the drawbacks of carpet. “Carpets in daily use cannot be kept clean … and they do much toward corrupting the air by retaining impure gases, hiding the finest, most penetrating dust in their meshes and underneath them, and by giving off particles of fine wool into the atmosphere, with the other dust, as they are swept or walked upon,” stated the housekeeping manual Household Conveniences and How to Make Them, published in 1884. And that was well before the advent of 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC), the nasty chemical responsible for today’s “new carpet smell.”

Instead of carpet, consider these beautiful, healthy alternatives.

Cork: Made from the bark of cork oak trees, cork flooring is available in a variety of colors. Use cork tiles rather than cork plank flooring, which contains a layer of fiberboard and adhesives that contain chemicals. For the healthiest finish, use carnauba wax.

Natural Linoleum: Made from linseed oil, pine resins, wood and cork powders, and natural pigments on a jute backing, true linoleum (not the vinyl flooring that became known generically as “linoleum”) is naturally antimicrobial and doesn’t shed microfibers, making it a good choice for people with allergies.

Natural Fibers: Sisal, derived from the agave plant, is one of the strongest fibers available. Coir (pronounce coy-er), made from coconut husks, and jute, made from the fibers found just below the bark of a jute plant, are also very durable. None of these fibers require chemicals for production or maintenance.

Tile: Durable and water-resistant, tile is inert and won’t offgas, although the grout used between tiles might. Have tile installed with cement-based thinset rather than mastic, which has chemicals.

Hardwood: Good old-fashioned hardwood floors have shown the test of time, and for healthy homes, they’re still the best. Make sure you refinish yours with water-based finishes rather than chemical-laden polyurethanes.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence is the editor in chief of Natural Home & Garden magazine (www.naturalhomeandgarden.com) and the author of The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty (Clarkson Potter, 2004).

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