Photo by Phillip Stewart
Did you ever wonder if what we bring into our homes could be increasing our risk of cancer, developmental issues in our children, or asthma? How could a lovely PVC shower curtain or new stain resistant couch cause any problems? Or perhaps that new shade of yellow paint that smelled for a couple of days after you painted the wall?
Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way, through my children. When you have children that have learning disabilities, ADD, asthma, eczema, and JV Diabetes, you start to examine your own life and ask what have you done wrong. I started to question as they grew older, if any of the products that I used in our home caused any of their problems?
Over a decade ago, I started digging into this chemical nightmare. According to the Center for Health, Justice, and the Environment (CHJE),
“Increasingly, children are being found to be hyperactive, slow to learn, and disruptive in school. The number of children in special education programs classified with learning disabilities increased 191% from 1977 to 1994.ii Asthma is a leading reason for school absenteeism and the number one chronic childhood illness. iii One in a hundred American children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).iv 8,000 American children are diagnosed each year with cancer,.v and dust, and in human urine, blood and breast milk.xi”[source]
The outcome? Seven years ago, we started building a house with nontoxic or low toxic materials. The learning curve was huge, but it made me realize how many chemicals make up a home. Not just the building products but also the contents in it. Some good. Some not so good.
According to the fact sheet, “Toxic Chemicals in Building Products,” there are three problematic categories of chemical compounds in building products: volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals. In addition, health and environmental concerns have been raised by the use of PVC. Dioxins are created during the manufacturing process, when accidentally burned, or intentionally during disposal.
Where are these chemicals found and how can we stop the toxic building madness?
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is found in flooring, ceiling tiles coatings, carpet backing, pipes, conduits, siding, window treatments, furniture, wall and corner guards, wiring and cable sheathing, wall covering and upholstery.[Source] For a laundry list of PVC laden products, see here.
PVC contains harmful phthalates and dioxins. ( Phthalates will be discussed below.) Dioxins in PVC build up in our bodies and could remain there for years. In fact, the CHEJ states many chemicals used and released by PVC may be linked to breast cancer, decreased fertility, inability to carry pregnancy to term, decreased sperm levels as well as asthma in our children.
How to rid PVC from your life? See CHEJ’s alternative guide. (In order to download the guide, you must sign up for their e-bulletins. ) Also, for further resources, see HealthyBuilding.net’s alternative PVC guide for the health care industry, which includes many items used in a home setting.
Simply put, don’t buy #3 plastics, shy away from the vinyl window treatments and shower curtains , and use the guides above to find alternatives to vinyl building products and home furnishings. I know that many of these products are easier to care for and have longevity, but is your health worth it?
I will be honest. There is PVC in my house. I was not able to find non-PVC waste lines for my plumbing; however, my water pipes are cooper. Nor, was I able to timely find non-PVC coated electrical wiring in my house. If you are renovating, repairing, or building new, I have given you to the tools to correct my mistakes.
The VOC smell?
You know the new furniture or freshly painted smell? What you are smelling is volatile organic compounds. According to HealthyBuilding.net’s Toxic Chemical report noted above,
“Some VOCs have been associated with short-term acute sick building syndrome symptoms, as well as other longer-term chronic health effects, such as damage to the liver, kidney and nervous systems, and increased cancer risk.”
Examples of problematic VOCs are formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene, acetaldehyde, and isocyanates, which can be found in furniture, paint, stains, and other common building products.
Formaldehyde is a potential caronogenic. It is found in cabinets, flooring, furniture, insulation, curtains, glues, and many other products. However, there are many formaldehyde-free products available today such as formaldehyde free insulations (John Manville, as an example), formaldehyde free plywood (Columbia Forest products), and even formaldehyde free FSC certified bamboo flooring (Smith Fong’s Plyboo) I bet you did not know that your bamboo flooring could have formaldehyde in it. The resin (glue) contains the formaldehyde.
For a list of alternatives, see products that have received GreenSpec, Green Seal, and Greenguard approvals. Note, that some of Greenguards’ approved products contain PVC since the Company only tests indoor air quality. In addition, buy carpets that are CRI green label/green label plus approved for indoor air quality. Note, many of these carpets listed could have a petrochemical based backing. I opted for rugs to be made out of wool with a jute back in lieu of wall to wall carpet. The rationale behind this decision was that if one of my children developed an allergy to wool, I could simply remove the rug.
Could your dust bunnies harbor toxic chemicals?
Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are released slowly from materials and are likely to transfer to human or attach to dust. [Source] In the report, Sick of Dust: Chemicals in Common Products A Needless Health Risk in Our Home, it was found from dust samplings that our homes contained PBDEs (flame retardants), phthalates, organotin compounds, alkylphenols, and perfluorinated organics chemicals (PFO/PFOA). For more details, see here.
These chemicals are suspected hormone disruptors, toxic to the immune system and/or potentially carcinogenic. Scary stuff. However, the Environmental Working Group provides the following tips to remove the dust:
- Vacuum frequently with a HEPA vacuum cleaner. (See Green Guide’s vacuum cleaner guide.)
- Wet mop uncarpeted floors
- Buy wood furniture or furniture stuffed with down, cotton, polyester or cotton since it is unlikely that it contains flame retardants. (I just want to add ask the manufacturer of the furniture if the furniture contains flame retardants whether on the fabric or the cushions. Additionally, ask if the fabric has been sprayed to make it stain resistant If so, it has coated with a PFOA chemical.)
- Wipe dust with a microfiber or wet cotton rag to hold the dust. (For those wishing to not use microfiber since it is made from petrochemicals, consider using SKOY cloths, made of cellulose and cotton.)
- Equip your heating system with a high quality filter and change them frequently. (I have an electrostatic filter.)
- Simply take off your shoes when you walk into the house, which reduces your exposure to outside toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
- For more EWG tips see here. (In addition, the Green Guide has some additional tips. See here.)
So, you are thinking how am I going to find furniture that does not contain formaldehyde and/or flame retardants. Look for wood furniture made out of FSC-certifed woods, no or low voc stains and finishes. Upholstered furniture without stain resistant fabric, which is made from renewable sources (USDA, SKAL, or perferably GOTS certified fabric), and natural latex cushions. See my category on fabric here for many greenier options. I hesitate to say green since not all of them are 100% green.
A good starting point for furniture is the Sustainable Furniture Council. However, many of the companies listed vary in their green practices, so you will have to do some investigative work.
In addition, FYI, some manufacturers tout their soy based cushions, which are part soy and mostly petroleum base and contain flame retardants (nonhalegeon based flame retardants.) Call me a skeptic, but I don’t have a lot of faith in the chemical industry when it comes to flame retardants. I don’t want to hear in ten years that there is another problem with flame retardants. Remember, the manufacturing and distribution of PCBs flame retardants, the predecessor to PBDEs, has been banned due to health concerns. Two strikes at bat as far as I am concerned.
Such heavy metals as arsenic, antimony,cadmium, chromium, copper, cobalt, lead, mercury and zinc, have raised concerns for human and aquatic toxicity. During the extraction, production, and disposal of heavy metals, toxic chemicals have been released into the environment, notably our waterways.
Lead and mercury are neurotoxicants; whereas cadmium, hexavalent chromium (used in stainless steel and chrome production), and antimony trioxide (synergist in flame retardants for textiles) are carcinogens. [Source] Note, antimony is a catalyst to making PET (recycled polyester and plastic water bottles.)
Heavy metals are used as stabilizers in the production of PVC. In addition, heavy metals can be found in roofing, solder, radiation shielding, and in dyes for paints and textiles. [Source] See here for a more detailed list of where to find heavy metals in your home.
“Metals are notable for their wide environmental dispersion from such activity; their tendency to accumulate in select tissues of the human body; and their overall potential to be toxic even at relatively minor levels of exposure. Some metals, such as copper and iron, are essential to life and play irreplaceable roles in, for example, the functioning of critical enzyme systems. Other metals are xenobiotics, i.e., they have no useful role in human physiology (and most other living organisms) and, even worse, as in the case of lead and mercury, may be toxic even at trace levels of exposure. Even those metals that are essential, however, have the potential to turn harmful at very high levels of exposure, a reflection of a very basic tenet of toxicology–“the dose makes the poison.”
Bottom line. Ask when you buy if your products contain heavy metals.
Although this article is brief in the discussion of toxicity of building product, this should give you a start of what to look for when you bring new products into your home. Please feel free to add to this post other chemicals that people should be aware of when they shop for household or building products.
This article is part of the Green Moms Carnival being hosted by Lori at Groovy Green Livin regarding reducing toxic products in our household. Check out what all the other green moms have to say about this timely issue. It will be eye opening I can assure you.
- Used Upholstered Furniture and Flame Retardants
- Volatile Organic Compounds: Harmful in Our Home. Learn to Choose Better.
- Sleep On Latex: A Healthier Mattress to Sleep Better
- Green Nontoxic Remodeling Ideas for Common Home Upgrades
- The Coalition for Chemical Safety, Front for Status Quo Toxic Chemicals