Avoid toxic building products in your home

Angie’s List member Peter Sullivan of Los Altos, Calif., knows only too well that health hazards aren’t always in plain sight. He suffered mercury poisoning 10 years ago from an unknown source, but believes it may have come from mercury emitted by a local cement plant, amalgam fillings in his teeth, or even from eating sushi.

Sullivan has since made a vow to pay more attention to potential toxins around him and hired biologist Alex Stadtner of highly rated Healthy Building Science in San Francisco to test for indoor pollution during a home remodel. “I didn’t realize how many building products were coming through the walls,” he says. “There was lead in the pipes and formaldehyde off-gassing from the wood. It was just shocking.”

A recently published EPA report links heavy metals, insulation fibers and fireproofing materials to allergies, asthma and childhood development issues. However, Laureen Burton, EPA chemist and toxicologist, says everyone reacts differently. “It depends on factors such as sensitivity of the individual, type of product, concentration of emissions and the amount of exposure,” she says. “Long-term effects can include respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.”

Green-minded architects, builders and remodelers can identify toxic materials in the home, and provide strategies to reduce indoor pollution by improving ventilation. In fact, almost 50 percent of providers who took an online Angie’s List poll say they strive to use less toxic materials, and that same percentage say their clients request nontoxic products.

Experts say toxic products in your home might include paints and sealants which release chemicals; wall and crawl space insulation containing fibers that may cause cancer; heavy metals found in roofs and piping that can damage the central nervous system; and PVC found in shower curtains and vinyl flooring that may trigger breathing problems. “Chemicals get airborne and worsen respiratory symptoms,” says Dr. Alex Martinez of highly rated Lake Austin Asthma and Allergy Associates in Austin, Texas.

Many strategies to reduce indoor pollution come from the U.S. Green Building Council, which provides guidance to contractors through its green building program LEED. Scot Horst, USGBC senior vice president, says the LEED rating system — already the gold standard for green building — will get tougher this year. Proposed changes include credits awarded to contractors for using proper ventilation, air filters, radon-resistant construction and using environmentally preferable products. “It’s a stricter standard and it’s raising the bar,” says Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen president and former LEED chair.

PVC problems

That means providers may pay more attention to a common product called PVC. It contains a group of chemicals that make plastics more flexible and durable. It’s found in ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, carpet backing, plumbing pipes, window treatments and wiring. A Healthy Building Network report reveals it may damage immune systems and cause cancer. Stadtner says PVC piping can easily be switched out with PEX or polypropylene.

“Vinyl flooring is one of the worst [PVC products],” adds AJ Stones of highly rated AJ Stones of Master Green Remodeler near Pittsburgh. “It’s toxic stuff.” However, you can reduce your exposure. Jake Stewart, owner of highly rated Stewart Family Floors in Cape Coral, Fla., says more customers are requesting green products. He uses low emitting ones whenever he can. “Bamboo is a good one,” Stewart says. “Cork is another.”

Pick alternatives

However, while it’s wise to be aware that these materials can cause harm, experts advise against removing them if you’re not already planning to do a home improvement project. “Remodeling involves new materials and for sensitive occupants [that] may be more problematic than existing materials that have already off-gassed,” Stadtner says.

Bill Walsh, founder of consumer advocate group Healthy Building Network, says when you’re remodeling or building to ask about non-toxic options. Formaldehyde, for example, is a common chemical found in many materials including fiberglass insulation, plywood paneling, paints, coatings and solvents. When it off-gases, research shows it can irritate eyes, cause allergic reactions and trigger asthma. “It’s hidden in wood products made from particle board,” says Walsh, who notes there are formaldehyde-free products on the market. “Paint manufacturers also offer true zero-VOC products,” says Wade Ferris, owner of Simply Beautiful Remodeling near Minneapolis. “Wood finishes can be harder to find, but there are natural alternatives: Boiled linseed, for example.”

Angie’s List member Lori Sims of Sarasota, Fla., had a wood floor installed and the smell of an oil stain was so bad, they had to leave the home. “We loaded up our cat and all slept in a hotel,” she says. “It got better each day, but we spent a lot of time outside while the floor cured.”

Clearing the air

Dr. Dick Jackson, chair of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, says one of the best ways to combat VOCs is proper ventilation. Nate Kipnis, LEED Accredited Professional with highly rated Kipnis Architecture and Planning of Evanston, Ill., works on large-scale projects beginning at $250,000, and agrees the mechanical systems of the home are important: “Houses are getting tighter and if you don’t have a plan for ventilation, you’re going to have unbelievable trouble.”

Dave Harris of highly rated Air Rite Service in Lakewood, Ohio, says many of their clients who have allergies use portable air cleaners. The cleaners, he says, can remove chemical pollutants like formaldehyde and VOCs from the air. “Air cleaners have been proven to remove 99 percent of particulates and can make allergies and asthma better,” Martinez says.

Good ventilation can also combat radon, which has been shown to cause lung cancer. Stone products — like granite countertops — may emit trace amounts. The EPA says radon originating in soil is more of a public health risk and any radon in countertops is likely to be diluted in kitchen and bathrooms, which have more ventilation. However, concerned homeowners can switch them out for synthetic stone ones or use a sealant.

Irritating insulators

Providers say popular insulators — fiberglass or foam used in walls, crawl spaces and attics — can also cause health issues. “Fiberglass insulation is still the most common form used,” Stadtner says. Studies show it contains formaldehyde and inhalable glass wool fibers that may damage lung function or cause cancer. Contractors say to choose an alternative. “You can get formaldehyde-free fiberglass and the price is comparable,” Stadtner says. Cellulose is another option. It’s eco-friendly, a non-irritant and costs about the same price as fiberglass.

Angie’s List member Michael Smetak of Shakopee, Minn., called many contractors before settling on Simply Beautiful to help him strip hazardous home materials. “Our main concern was insulation,” Smetak says. “Our son is sensitive. His immune system is weak.” Smetak chose denim insulation and says his son’s allergies have improved.

Where to start

Before starting a project, experts recommend checking the Material Safety Data Sheets to see if a product is toxic. These data sheets, created by a chemical regulatory information services agency, give detailed information about a product, including any associated environmental hazards. A contractor can provide them or you can find them online. However, like Stadtner, Malin cautions against tearing up old materials on a whim. “Don’t go ripping stuff out,” he says. He warns extensive remodeling kicks up dust and particles which can trigger allergies.

For people experiencing severe sensitivities, however, or looking at new construction, the key to finding healthier materials involves research. “It doesn’t have to be a high-end project to be green,” Kipnis says. “There’s a small cost difference for alternatives like paints with low or no-VOCs.” For big projects, find a green provider. “It’s important to have a green building professional look at the type of product that’s right for the project,” Kipnis says.

Hiring an environmental inspector can also be beneficial. “In California, our costs are around $595,” Stadtner says. “We’re comparable to New York. Elsewhere, it’s between $350 and $650.” For Sullivan, the cost was worth it: “The most helpful thing was having [Stadtner] manage a ‘red list’ of toxic materials we wanted to avoid.”

The Angie’s List member ultimately decided to make healthy changes, including bamboo flooring and non-VOC paints. “All finishes ... passed a rigorous screening process for chemicals,” Sullivan says. Next, they changed out fiberglass insulation for denim jean insulation, and improved air quality by sealing the house, encapsulating the crawl space and installing a radon barrier. “I was surprised to notice that my eyes were less red and itchy, and the air smelled cleaner,” he says. “I’ve started feeling so much better.”

— with additional reporting by Brittany Paris

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