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Four household polluters & how to fix indoor air pollution problems

Four household polluters that you can do something about


Our indoor air is significantly more polluted than outdoor air and this is even true in most big cities. The bad news is that since we spend by far most of our days (about 90%) indoors, where the pollution is 5 to 7 times worse than the outdoor air, that’s a lot of pollution. The good news is that indoor pollution is the easiest for you to do something about.

In, Your Home is Polluted: Why indoor air pollution is such a problem I talk more about indoor air pollution, the health risks, and the major culprits which include cleaning products, outside pollutants being tracked in, mould and mildew, the byproducts of combustion (think attached garage), and building materials and furnishings. In this article, I am looking at the big polluters that you can most easily do something about: your furniture and your finishes. (But don’t miss other articles in this series, because once you green up your indoor air why pollute it with bad cleaning products for instance?)

1. Your furniture: shelves, book cases, & cabinets

Furniture is the most significant source of formaldehyde exposure in your home. In your living room that means to eye the bookcases, cabinets, sidetables, desks, and even your couch with suspicion. In your bedroom that means the same as well as your bed and in a child’s room cribs and change tables are the big culprits.   The problematic chemicals–especially volatile organic compounts aka VOCs–may be hiding out in the material itself (particularly in composite materials such as pressed wood or particle board), in the glues that hold it together, and in the finishes.

Neither the Canadian nor the U.S. government regulates your household furnishing for VOCs, including formaldehyde, despite increasing scientific data about their long-term health effects, including formaldehyde’s known link to human cancers. Similarly, the national limits on heavy metals (which can be found in paints and finishes) in furniture, especially for children, aren’t stringent enough according to many experts. The good news about formaldehyde is that while it is extremely dangerous for human health, it does decrease over time, that’s the nature of VOCs which are, umm, extremely volatile. So if you buy a ten-year old fake wood bookcase from the thrift store, you will be saving yourself money and toxic exposure.

2. Your couch, bed, and chairs

Polyurethane foam makes up the majority of mattresses and couches and is made from petroleum. It typically contains and off-gases various industrial solvents, such as toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde. Polyurethane foam is highly combustible and so it is almost always treated with a chemical flame retardant. Many of these chemical flame retardants don’t stay in the mattress, couch, or change table pad. Like a wild toddler, they are hard to contain, and end up in household dust. They continue to be released throughout the life of the material. Thus, mattresses don’t get safer over time. In fact, some studies suggest that mattresses and couches get significantly yuckier as they age, because they can also accumulate dust mites, bacteria, and mould. Chemical flame retardants are known neurotoxins linked to decreases in IQ and neurological damage and they have been found to be their very highest in North American bodies because we put chemical flame retardants on so many things: especially mattresses and couches.

3. Carpets, window coverings, and floors

A simpler room, without a lot of added textiles and carpets, is likely to be greener. Carpets can off-gas like paints, with the added complication of the toxic glues (more formaldehyde!) used to hold them in place. And carpets, like couches and beds, collect allergens such as dust mites, mildew, and mould over time. They can also be a repository for PBDEs, bacteria, and heavy metals tracked from outside on shoes, stroller wheels, or feet.

Textiles such as permanent-press curtains and the glue used on wallcoverings are reported to be the next most significant source of formaldehyde in the average home after furniture. Curtains are also commonly treated with those nasty flame retardants. Window coverings such as blinds may be made with PVC that can break down over its lifetime and release phthalates into the dust and air of a home. If you can’t make do with your old window coverings, there are a number of greener,

4. Finishes, paints, and wall paper

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that paints and finishes are one of the top culprits in polluting our indoor air and can continue to off-gas for years after application. The health effects of VOCs,  range from headaches and eye irritation to damage to the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system, and cancer (with prolonged exposure).

Luckily, it is now possible to get No-VOC paints for your home. Even No-VOCs paints can have some VOCs, but they have far less than typical paint, which means they smell better and they are far better for your health. Most You can also get paints that are so natural they are nearly edible, these include milk and mineral paints. Learn more about finding healthier paints. 

Similarly, typical wallpaper is a health mess with vinyl, VOC-laden glues, and even mould and mildew possibilities. Luckily, there are some new options that use recycled paper instead of PVC aka vinyl as its base, that are painted with No-VOC paints, and applied with no-VOC glues.



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