GreenSpace: Breathe easy by avoiding chemicals in home items

You don't have to live near a leaking Superfund site to be exposed to industrial chemicals.

Is your house off-gassing?


That's what happens when chemical substances evaporate and get into the indoor air.

Some sources are obvious. When you smell wet paint, that's off-gassing of its volatile organic compounds.

Other sources are much subtler - indiscernible waftings that go on day after day, night after night. They include flame retardants from furniture, formaldehyde from pressed wood products, perfluorinated compounds from stain-resistant carpeting, and phthalates in PVC used for flooring, ceiling tiles, electrical-cord insulation, and more.

We're breathing them in. Or they're winding up in dust particles, and then on our hands and into our mouths.

Some of these chemicals are carcinogens. Other health effects include developmental delays and exacerbation of respiratory problems.

As industry often points out, mere presence of a toxin isn't necessarily cause for alarm, although many environmental and health officials find it troubling. The question is, how much of any one substance, or any combination of them, will actually hurt us?

While science works on that, a new ethic focused on safer products is emerging in the building industry.

"Materials matter" was one big message last week, when the nation's annual conference on sustainability in the building industry, Greenbuild, came to the Convention Center.

A day-long session Tuesday was dedicated to materials and human health, so I checked it out.

Ken Geiser, a professor of work environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, pointed out why our indoor air is so important: Most of us spend 90 percent of our time indoors.

He cited a 2005 study that assessed the chemicals indoors by analyzing the dust in 70 homes. It found 35 chemicals, more than half of them from building materials.

"These chemicals that are in our building materials show up in the air, in the dust, and also show up in us," he said. National studies have detected many chemicals in people's blood and urine.

Now, scientists are trying to better understand how safer materials can enhance our health, productivity, and perhaps even creativity.

Another participant was Jay Bolus, an expert in sustainable materials for the Virginia firm, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which focuses on better materials.

He recommended four chemicals to avoid.

Flame retardants are in many upholstered furnishings, even those made specifically for children. Although some formulations are being phased out or have been banned in some areas, most furniture still contains them.

Phthalates are in flexible PVC and other plastics used for flooring, siding, windows, door frames, plumbing, and wiring. It's the plasticizer that keeps on giving. "You know it's not off-gassing when it gets really brittle," Bolus said. "And then you replace it."

Formaldehyde is present in plywood, particleboard, and fiberboard. It achieved infamy when people living in relief housing after Hurricane Katrina said they were being sickened by it.

Perfluorinated compounds, often used for nonstick pans, also are used to make carpeting, textiles, and wall coverings stain-resistant.

Finding out what is in a product can be difficult. The first step is to simply ask.

"Consumers don't realize how much power they have," Bolus said. "I have no qualms going into a furniture store and asking where it comes from."

Also, rather than asking about a specific chemical - the sales clerk may say it's not in the product as a matter of course - ask more broadly, "What's in it?"

As for finding alternatives, they're starting to show up on the shelves of many big-box stores. Simple Google searches - type in "formaldehyde-free plywood," for instance - can be productive, he said.

Green building websites are becoming more plentiful and helpful. They include,, and a certification program Bolus' company helped create at

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ( also certifies paints, flooring, and other products as more suitable for the 60 million people in the United States with asthma and allergies, who are likely to be affected by airborne chemicals.

Environmental groups suggest that if you're worried about products already in your home - and its dust - use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and damp-dust rather than dry-dust to pick up more.

While safer products are not as readily available, finding them is worth the effort, Bolus said. "Make informed decisions. Don't just make decisions based on cost and aesthetics."


"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.

215-854-5147 @sbauers