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Use safe building materials to avoid respiratory problems

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Safe Building Materials to Avoid Respiratory Distress

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk:
I'm going to be remodeling and was wondering: Are there floorings or wall coverings available that won't aggravate my child's respiratory problems?
-- Mary, Lake Zurich, IL

For those with chemical sensitivities, the home is sometimes anything but a refuge. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) 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 the 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 non-toxic adhesives as 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-repellents, relying instead upon 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 (PVC), which generates several known carcinogens, including dioxin, during its production. One green alternative is Sherwin-Williams' non-vinyl 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, using water-based inks completely free of heavy metals.

In the paints category, there are now many non-toxic or low-VOC offerings, including AFM Safecoat, Livos, BioShield, Yolo and Olivetti. stocks many of these, and mainstream paint dealers may carry eco-friendly paints from more familiar names, like Benjamin Moore or 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 or Air Krete are also popular with green builders, as they are effective, inexpensive and easy to apply. Some of these products are available at Home Depot, but small green building supply retailers can be researched at

Additional Home Environment Information


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Updated May 4, 2007

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