Often the last thing we think about when decorating our homes is our physical health when it should be the first. What good is a beautiful room if the materials used to build, decorate, and care for it make us sick? When we think about our homes we think of protection and shelter, but the materials we use to decorate and the products we use to clean make the air quality in our homes more polluted than the air outside. Our homes should be a sanctuary, yet often our homes are just as stressful on our bodies as the outer world. In order to be a true refuge, it’s important that our homes support our physical health.
We’ve all becoming increasingly aware of the numerous chemicals in our environment. That’s why so many of us wash our fruits and vegetables, buy organic foods, and drink bottled water. But in addition to the food we eat and the water we drink, we also need to pay close attention to the materials that we use to build, decorate, and clean our homes. Many materials used to decorate, including certain types of paint, finishes, carpeting, fabrics, and particleboard, contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene and benzene. These chemicals are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), that through a process called “off-gassing,” release fumes into the air. Fortunately, there are healthy alternatives.
Here are a few tips about how to decorate with healthier materials:
Paint: Paints can give off toxic fumes known as VOCs. These chemicals can remain in the air even after the paint is dry. Solutions: 1) Use Low- or No-VOC paints, which are a healthier, less toxic option. 2) You can also use natural paints, such as milk paint or natural lime paint.
Wallpaper: Wallpaper is made of vinyl which releases unhealthy chemicals – often even worse are the adhesives and glues used to put them up. Additionally, if you live in a humid climate, mold can get trapped the wallpaper. Solutions: 1) Look for vinyl-free wallpapers and non-toxic adhesives. 2) Skip the wallpaper and use a Low- or No-Voc paint, create a pattern with stencils or draw a mural on the wall.
Carpets: Conventional carpets are made from synthetic materials and have often been stain-proofed and glued down – all these factors together mean they are off-gassing toxic chemicals. In addition carpet cleaners are often toxic. Finally, carpets are also a great place for allergens like dust, mold, pet dander etc… to build up. Solutions: 1) Instead of carpets, opt for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) hardwood floors, bamboo or cork floors, which are sustainable materials. Always finish with a non-toxic finish. 2) Use natural fiber area rugs. Try jute, hemp, coir, silk, wool, cotton, etc., some of these carpets may still be sprayed with pesticides, but will contain less chemicals… you can also look for vintage wool or silk rugs which may have not be sprayed or been made using synthetic chemicals treatments. 3) Finally, look for rug pads made from natural rubber or wool, and avoid synthetic foams and rubber.
Furniture: Many furniture manufacturers use MDF, plywood, and particleboard and foam with flame retardants. These materials contain chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and can give off toxic fumes for years. Solutions: 1) Look for furniture made of solid wood, wicker, or rattan and finished with a non-toxic finish. 2) Buy products without water-and-stain repellents, which contain harmful chemicals. 3) Avoid furnishings with polyurethane foam, a product that usually contain flame retardants called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers). As foam ages, it breaks down and releases PBDEs into the air. 4) Also look for furniture made with organic or untreated fabrics and PBDE-free foam. 5) If you want ‘green’ furniture you can buy furniture made from FSC certified wood, which guarantees the wood is from a responsibly harvested forest – or reclaimed wood. 6) You can also recycle by buying used furniture or antiques which has a healthy bonus—most likely a majority of the chemicals in older furniture and finish have already off-gassed. However, be aware that older painted furniture could be covered in lead paint.
Fabrics: Twentieth century inventions like ‘permanent press’, ‘wrinkle free’, ‘stain resistant’, and ‘flame resistant’ all rely on fabrics that have been heavily treated with chemicals. Solutions: 1) Look for natural materials like linen, wool, hemp, bamboo, silk, and organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, soil fumigants, and fertilizers. Fabrics made from organic cotton are not treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process either. 2) Even if you don’t buy organic fabric, you can still choose materials that are untreated to eliminate many chemicals.
Cleaning Products: Household cleaning products are one of the causes of indoor air pollution. Many household cleaning products contain toxic chemicals such as ammonia and phenol. To avoid exposing yourself to these hazardous pollutants, look for non-toxic, environmentally safe household cleaning products or make your own. Solutions: 1) For windows mix 1/4 cup vinegar with 2 cups water in a spray bottle. Shake before use. 2) For wood surfaces and floors mix 1/4 cup vinegar to a gallon of water with a few drops of lemon essential oil. 3) For scouring powder sprinkle baking soda on surface and scrub with a damp sponge.