Thursday, August 4, 2011

Building Materials - Building A Healthier Home

My husband and I have some experience renovating our home. In a previous post, I described the disaster that occurred when an unscrupulous contractor caused a water leak leading to my learning, way too much, about mold remediation. What I didn’t realize, years ago, when we did our remodel, is that many of the construction materials our contractors used were simply unhealthy and, in some cases, actually toxic. Ignorance was only bliss until I discovered the health risks posed by these common building materials. Being completely clueless that there were any healthier options, I did not know that I had a choice. Now I do know, and I hope that this post helps you to make wiser choices than I did.


Cost isn’t just about dollars:

When building or remodeling, it is important to take a number of factors into consideration. For most of us, the financial cost of building or remodeling trumps almost all the other factors. However, the true cost of construction should also be measured against the safety, efficiency, and future costs associated with the materials used. While it may seem less expensive to use a cheap product, if you are exposed to toxic chemicals leeching from it every day, then was it really worth saving a few dollars upfront and risk the potential for illness and health costs later? Let’s assume you answered “no” and go from there.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) -- the nose knows:

VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) stink (literally). The resulting vapor created when chemicals in a material are released into the air and form a kind of gas (possibly toxic, though always “volatile”) is deemed a VOC. You can actually smell most of these compounds and you may be familiar with their odor from such varied things as “new car smell”, dog poop, flowers, mold, cigarette smoke, and fresh paint, to name a very select few. Not all VOCs are from man made products, but some of the most dangerous and toxic to human health are.

The first rule of thumb in selecting new building materials is that they should be free of “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). Perhaps the most notorious of these chemicals are those that can off-gas formaldehyde, a carcinogen. At minimum, the materials you choose should not introduce any toxic chemicals or VOCs into your home environment. The great news is that there are plenty of options that not only achieve this goal, but that also actually help to remove VOCs and other toxic chemicals from your home.

Fiberglass insulation contains several
different types of carcinogens.
Typical Insulation:

Fiberglass sheets (called batts) are the typical building insulation material used today. These are unrolled into walls (between wall studs) or attics and you are probably familiar with this material. It is usually pink or yellowish colored and looks fun to play with... but make sure you don’t! Fiberglass (insulation) is made with tiny glass fibers (hence the name fiber-glass) mixed together with a binding material (usually a resin). If you touch the fiberglass directly, it can cause serious itching and skin irritation for up to a few days.

The glass fibers that make up fiberglass are considered to be possible carcinogens by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In addition, the resins used in the production of fiberglass contain about 5% resin binder that is capable of off-gassing formaldehyde fumes into the air, for years.

A better choice:

Blown cellulose insulation is non-toxic, abundant, produces no VOCs, and offers superior insulation characteristics.

Cellulose is 100% natural and is produced by almost all plants (and most algae) as the walls of their cells. Most (75-85%) of the cellulose used for blown insulation comes from recycled newsprint or other paper products. As well as being almost entirely recycled to begin with, 100% of the blown insulation is recyclable. Since this insulation comes from a plant source (newsprint comes from wood), using it in your home also helps to sequester CO2 from the environment, adding to the environmental benefits.

With fiberglass insulation, no matter how hard you try, it is virtually impossible to avoid gaps that let air move in and out of your home. There are spaces between the batts (or rolls) and where holes must be cut for utilities (water pipes, drains, electrical outlets) entering or exiting the house. These gaps can’t help but provide air a way to leak which, obviously, decreases the effectiveness of any insulation. Blown cellulose insulation, on the other hand, is sprayed directly into place, completely avoiding gaps, thus improving its insulating ability.

Another benefit of blown cellulose is that it is 2-3 times denser than typical fiberglass. This creates even a better barrier against air leaks, but also offers 50-70% better fire resistance for your home and an inbuilt 90% noise reduction. In most cases, the addition of this dense insulation can even increase the strength and rigidity of walls (a nice feature if you are planning to live there a while). Finally, blown cellulose insulation helps resist mold, insects, rodents, and even fire because it is treated with boric acid (Borax). Boric acid is not generally considered toxic (about as toxic as table salt) and is commonly used as a laundry additive to help get your clothes cleaner.

Overall, blown cellulose insulation simply “blows away” the competition. Not only does it completely bypass the serious problems with fiberglass insulation (with respect to both your health and the environment), but it also improves upon almost every other important characteristic of insulation products, in general.

Companies like GreenFiber offer blown insulation made from recycled cellulose.


Whether hanging pictures, posters, or other art, or simply leaning against a wall, drywall is quite literally all around you. Choosing the healthiest options just makes sense.

Problems with typical drywall:

Almost all drywall products are made of gypsum, and are relatively inert. However, if you have ever had a mold problem, you know that drywall can be your worst nightmare. When drywall gets wet, the potential for mold growth goes way up, especially in bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas where water is likely to splash. But even without obvious water damage, geographic areas prone to higher humidity (>55-60% or so) can lead to mold developing on your drywall. Because of this problem, some drywall products contain mold inhibitors specifically for use in these moisture prone locations.

A better choice:

Our research has found a product that doesn’t just try to prevent mold, but also aims to actively remove VOCs and other pollution from the air and to render them chemically inert. The AirRenew Gypsum Wall Board by Certainteed actually removes (and permanently sequesters) VOCs from the air for up to 75 years. In addition to this remarkable property, this brand also scores the highest possible scores on mold and moisture resistance.

Resilience to mold and VOC removal characteristics aside, the AirRenew boards are 100% recyclable, contain 100% recycled paper (back and front), and are made using 96% recycled gypsum. Furthermore, the sulfur containing waste gas that normally spews from coal fired power plants is trapped and processed into the gypsum in these boads, reducing both the pollution output from this type of power plant and the overall energy needed to make the wall board.

One note to consider when using this product, is that it is essential that air be allowed to circulate through to the drywall in order for its air cleaning ability to work effectively. Therefore, it is important to ensure is that you use only water based acrylic paint, primer, or breathable (textured) wallpaper to cover this type of drywall.


Interior Paint:

Paint is one of the heaviest contributors to VOCs (especially formaldehyde) in the home. If you’ve ever painted in a not so well ventilated space, you’re probably quite familiar with the symptoms of exposure to VOCs (eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, etc.). Given that this paint is going to be on the walls of your home for some time, isn’t it important to safeguard your family and prevent exposing them to toxic chemicals?

There are low and zero VOC paint options readily available in most hardware stores. Also, many paint products offer the ability to mix chemical mold-resistance directly into the paint. Mold resistance is a very important feature for paint in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and anywhere else that is likely to experience water use or high humidity (steam) conditions.

Exterior Paint:

Paints containing titanium dioxide will help clean the air of VOCs and other pollution (nitrogen oxides) when exposed to UV light. In addition to cleaning the air around your home of common forms of pollution, you can also contribute to a cleaner environment overall. As more people begin to use products like this, the effect increases.


Typical flooring:

Most flooring is laminated or glued with urea-formaldehyde that, unsurprisingly, off-gasses formaldehyde. Plywood, Fiberboard, shims (used to level sub-floors), and other aggregate woods (often used in flooring products) are almost universally glued together with materials that off-gas formaldehyde. Even some solid wood products also suffer from this problem making them potentially hazardous to your health.

Healthier options:

When shopping for floors make sure that the manufacturer does not use any urea-formaldehyde in the production of their flooring products. Fortunately, as the dangers of formaldehyde exposure are becoming more clear, more manufacturers are moving to safer chemicals such as aluminum oxide to coat and protect flooring. Floors made with aluminum oxide appear to be much safer (from a health perspective) and, interestingly, are also MORE scratch and damage resistant. What a beneficial side effect.

Bamboo composite flooring is more
durable than traditional hardwood floors.
Another excellent option to consider is bamboo composite flooring. As you are probably aware, bamboo grows extremely fast, and is easy to grow in most climates. Bamboo flooring shows remarkable promise as a replacement for traditional wood flooring because not only is it less expensive to produce, but also more ecologically sustainable than traditional wood flooring. In addition, it is also harder, making it scratch resistant and long lasting. 

EcoTimber offers many styles and types of wood flooring, from bamboo to traditional hardwoods. EcoTimber is committed to never using VOCs or urea-formaldehyde (which off gasses formaldehyde) in any of their flooring products, but instead using aluminum oxide. Several varieties of their flooring is made using recycled “scrap” wood that would normally be burned or thrown away (releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere). In addition to their recycling efforts, they only use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood grown using sustainable practices and using no pesticides. This commitment to the health and safety of consumers and the environment is important and EcoTimber sets the bar high.


Typical lighting:

Incandescent light bulbs are inefficient, loud, hot, and so inexpensive that most people haven’t much cared to replace the aging technology. Recently, campaigns for energy efficiency have targeted incandescent bulbs as a major energy hog compared to the alternatives available. This is true, but some of the alternatives aren’t as clean as people would have you believe.

Fluorescent tubes or CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) carry some pretty significant risks. CFLs contain mercury, so when they break, you are faced with not only cleaning up the broken glass but also coming into contact with one of the most toxic heavy metals in existence. Touching or breathing mercury is highly toxic and definitely hazardous to your health. In my opinion, you should do everything you can to keep anything containing mercury, including CFLs, out of your home and away from yourself and your family.

Fluorescent lighting also creates UV light, which can damage your skin and potentially contribute to cancer. For more information on the damaging effects of UV light, you can read our sunscreen article.

A better option:

Light emitting diodes (LEDs) show up on almost every electronic device that’s made today. Most of them are so small, you probably don’t even notice them. They blink in (almost) every color of the rainbow and show up on devices as varied as TV remote controls and car dashboards. As LED manufacturing processes matured, higher power and better efficiency LEDs came to market allowing for their use in more portable applications like flashlights, which last 10-100x longer than traditional flashlights both in battery life and bulb life. It’s not too much of a leap to go from flashlights to permanent lighting fixtures.

LED lighting is extremely resilient and shockproof. The “bulbs” (made of epoxy and an embedded semiconductor wafer) won’t shatter like incandescent or fluorescent bulbs or tubes and there is no filament to break or “burn out”. But, best of all, LEDs do NOT contain mercury. LEDs are also, by far, the most energy efficient lighting products available and typically last 7-10 years or longer.

Have you ever heard a distinct buzzing or humming from your lights? Do you get headaches from fluorescent lighting “flicker”? LEDs eschew those problems, as they are semiconductor based. There is no need for a ballast or specialized dimmers as in fluorescent lighting, as LEDs are solid state electronics. Most of the time, when you dim traditional incandescent lights, they create an annoying metallic hum (caused by the filament vibrating) and the color of the light is altered (because the filament cools down when dimmed). LEDs create light that is more “pure” in the sense that they create light of a certain wavelength that doesn’t change color, just lowers in intensity when dimmed.

As LED lighting continues to drop in price and manufacturers increase volume, it will become more widely available. You can already find LED replacement bulbs in stores like Home Depot. Several companies have announced that soon, they will be offering 100W equivalent LED bulbs.


You might not expect that outdoor tiles could improve the health of people around them, but Ceracasa’s Bionictile porcelain tiles were developed to do just that. They are made of a special formulation of porcelain (containing titanium dioxide) that reacts with sunlight (specifically the UV component) to neutralize pollution and improve air quality. Bionictile has been shown to reduce HNO3 and NOx, commonly referred to as nitric acid and nitrogen oxides, respectively. Both chemicals are precursors to “smog”, especially in big cities. This technology, if adopted on a large scale, could go a long way toward eliminating smog and cleaning the air of major cities.


I hope that by learning about these innovative options you can now build or renovate your home knowing that you are keeping yourself and your family safe and healthy. Furthermore, when you build or remodel you may want to ask your contractors if they are familiar with these options. If they are not, it offers you an opportunity to educate them and let them know that you care about these issues. Hopefully this will encourage them to educate themselves about these products so that they may offer them to other clients. There are many of us who care about these issues but who, like I was, may be completely ignorant to the healthier choices now available. Most contractors are unlikely to change their habits unless they hear a clear message from potential clients that this is important to them, so please spread the word.

Finally, I encourage you to support some or all of these innovative companies even if it just means investing in LEDs when you need new light bulbs. Unlike most manufacturers of building products, these companies are actively working towards a safer and healthier world. Let’s give them every chance to succeed because with their success other companies will ultimately follow helping to remove toxic building materials from the marketplace.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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