The Five Home Construction Materials that Pose the Highest Health Risk to You
Building a new home certainly has its up-sides: no avocado
green appliances, paisley wallpaper or, worse, hidden
mold growing in the basement. But new homes are not without
fault. Home-building materials are often toxic and getting
them brand-new makes no difference.
Although you may not smell, see or taste it, construction
materials emit various gasses and other compounds into your
home, many of which are highly toxic. This is part of the
reason why the Environmental Protection Agency says that indoor
air can be two to five times (and even up to 100 times) more
polluted than outdoor air.
Decks and playgrounds made of pressure-treated wood
can contain arsenic, pesticides and other toxins that
can be easily transferred onto your child's hands ...
and into their mouth.
This doesn't mean you should never consider building a new
home. While homes that have been lived in a few years may
actually be a little healthier since the materials have had
a chance to do some of their initial out-gassing, very old
homes can bring up a whole new set of problems (lead paint,
asbestos, mold, etc.).
Upon building a home (and making the seemingly endless decisions
that go along with it), put some consideration into the actual
materials that will be used. Often, safer, healthier and more
environmentally friendly options exist, and not necessarily
for a greater price. Following are some of the especially
toxic building materials to watch out for, along with some
alternatives to build a greener, healthier home.
Carpeting, though a soft and welcoming addition to most rooms,
can be so hazardous that we've previously devoted an entire
article to its dangers. The problem is that almost all
carpeting in the United States (of the wall-to-wall variety)
is made of synthetic materials, which outgas toxins into your
home. Just a sampling of the hazardous materials in carpeting
Petroleum byproducts and synthetics (polypropylene, nylon,
Soil and stain repellents
Vinyl or latex
Some of these "ingredients" have been linked to
cancer, while others may cause hallucinations, nerve damage,
respiratory problems, thyroid damage and damage to the immune
system and brain development.
2. Engineered Wood Products
Engineered wood is made by gluing together layers of fragmented
wood. It may be used for cabinets, furniture, wall paneling,
kitchen counters and more, but the adhesives and bonding agents
it contains emit pollutants, including formaldehyde,
into the air.
Using natural, solid wood for furniture, cabinets and other
indoor wood products can eliminate this problem. There are
also engineered wood products out there that contain no, or
reduced levels of, chemicals.
3. Oil-Based Paint, Wood Finishes and Paint Strippers
Oil-based paints and stains contain potentially 300 toxic
chemicals and 150 carcinogens, according to a John Hopkins
University study. Among them are alkyl resin, kerosene, lead,
lithopone, mercury, methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone,
mineral spirits, toluene, trichoroethane and xylene.
Engineered wood cabinets, countertops and furniture
can emit formaldehyde into the air, while oil-based
paints contain a myriad of toxic chemicals.
Paint strippers, which are required to remove oil-based paint
(and to clean brushes, etc.), also contain toxic and highly
volatile chemicals such as methylene chloride, toluene, acetone
Vapors from oil-based paints and strippers accumulate in
the air while painting, and can irritate the eyes, skin and
A much safer alternative is to look for latex water-based
paints or low-volatility paints, which have fewer toxic solvents.
Water-based paint strippers are also available, and though
they can still cause eye and skin irritation, they are less
toxic than oil-based strippers.
4. Pressure-Treated Wood and Wood Preservatives
Wood preservatives are used to protect wood from fungi, bacteria
and parasites. It can either be applied to the wood's surface
or injected into the wood, in which case it's called pressure-treated
wood. Wood preservatives include toxic pesticides, creosote,
arsenic and more.
Most treated wood used for residential homes (decks, playgrounds,
etc.) contain a mixture of copper, chromium, and arsenic called
chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. Studies have found that
the chemicals leach into the ground and transfer to the skin
from everyday contact.
This is particularly dangerous for children, who may play
on a treated-wood playground or deck, then put their hands
(which may be contaminated with arsenic or other chemicals)
in their mouth. Sawdust and smoke from burning treated wood
is also toxic if inhaled.
There are many alternatives to highly toxic pressure-treated
wood. Sometimes, wood preservatives are not necessary, as
wood can keep quite well if well-ventilated and kept away
from soil (in some cases a water repellant or sealer may be
needed). You can also choose hardier woods that are naturally
weather-resistant, which include cedar, redwood and cypress.
Finally, if you must use treated wood, certain varieties
contain less toxic chemicals than others (for instance, you
can buy pressure-treated wood that's arsenic-free).
Most people are aware of the dangers of asbestos in insulation,
but even standard fiberglass insulation can be dangerous.
Bits of fiberglass can be toxic if inhaled (some have compared
their dangers to those of asbestos), and many varieties also
contain formaldehyde that can be released into the air.
You can purchase safer types of insulation from green building
suppliers, such as cotton insulation or insulation made from
recycled paper that is formaldehyde-free and can be installed
without having to use a respirator.
Green Building Resources
There are many builders and construction supply companies
out there that only carry non-toxic, sustainable building
materials. Here are a few to check out:
Secret Way to Add Value to Your Home: It's Easy, Relatively
Inexpensive & Beautiful!
Toxic Fumes from Six Everyday Products that You Most Want