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Invisible Series: What's Really in Your Home

Peel back the layers of your home's interior, from the paint on the walls to the upholstery on your sofa, discovering the hidden chemical world in everyday items and learning how to foster a healthier living environment.


A Paint

WHAT'S IN IT: Mainstream paints often contain a complex blend of chemicals including formaldehyde and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene, known for the 'new paint' smell and impacting indoor air quality. Antimicrobials, solvents, and fire retardants are also present, which can significantly compromise air quality.

HEALTH IMPACTS: The off-gassing of these chemicals can lead to serious health issues. Formaldehyde is a notorious carcinogen with links to reproductive damage. VOCs may trigger respiratory issues and liver or kidney toxicity. Overused antimicrobials risk fostering resistance and endocrine disruption. Additionally, fire retardants are associated with hormonal imbalances and cancer risks.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: Choose eco-friendly alternatives with natural binders that offer high breathability. Mineral-based paints, such as those made with lime, are typically low- or zero-VOC. They use earth or mineral pigments for color, support healthy air quality and are free from environmentally harmful plastics and microbeads.

B Wood Flooring

WHAT'S IN IT: Primary chemical concerns stem from finishes and adhesives, not from the wood itself. Finishes such as shellac, lacquer and polyurethane involve a range of solvents and, combined with formaldehyde-based adhesives used in Engineered Wood Products (EWP), represent the primary sources of VOC exposure.

HEALTH IMPACTS: Exposure to solvents that evaporate from finishes can lead to headaches and dizziness and can potentially cause long-term damage to the nervous system. Inhalation of formaldehyde, classified as a carcinogen by the National Cancer Institute, can result in immediate discomfort, including eye, nose and throat irritation, respiratory difficulties, nausea and skin reactions.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: Utilize natural finishes such as beeswax, walnut oil or other plant-based oils and waxes for a non-toxic protective layer. For wood, choose FSC-certified options to ensure responsible sourcing. Solid wood avoids the need for harmful adhesives and finishes. However, if this is not viable, opt for water-based, formaldehyde-free adhesives to reduce indoor pollutants.

C Rugs and Carpeting

WHAT'S IN IT: Carpets made from synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polypropylene, are known to emit VOCs. These materials are often treated with stain-resistant and waterproofing agents that include chemicals such as Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) and PFAS. In addition, flame retardants are added to carpets which can increase chemical exposure. Antimicrobial treatments to prevent bacterial growth also come with risks. The backings, made from synthetic rubber originating from styrene and butadiene, or those containing Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) produced using vinyl chloride, along with adhesives, can also release chemicals. Carpet padding commonly consists of recycled polyurethane foam (PU), which can retain residual chemical flame retardants, adding to the toxic exposure.

HEALTH IMPACTS: VOCs emitted from synthetic materials, treatments and adhesives can lead to respiratory issues, eye irritation and hormonal imbalances. PFCs, found in stain-resistant and waterproofing treatments, are linked to cancer and birth defects. PFAS exposure is associated with kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility and thyroid issues. Flame retardants in carpets may increase cancer and immunotoxicity risks. Antimicrobial treatments can release substances like tributyltin, an endocrine disruptor harmful to humans and marine life. Styrene and butadiene can cause respiratory irritation even at low exposure levels, while vinyl chloride exposure can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes. The phthalates in PVC may result in respiratory problems and hormonal disruptions.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: To minimize health risks, avoid wall-to-wall carpeting and opt for rugs made from natural materials like wool, which is naturally flame-resistant. Jute, seagrass and sisal are excellent choices as they are untreated and free from harmful chemicals. When it comes to padding, materials such as wool or felt are preferable, and seeking out carpets and rugs with Greenguard certification can ensure lower emissions. It's best to avoid any stain, waterproofing or fire-resistant treatments for a safer indoor environment.

D Drapery/Window Treatments

WHAT'S IN IT: Many curtains are made from synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic, derived from petroleum, which are not biodegradable and have a negative environmental impact. These fabrics often release VOCs, such as formaldehyde, toluene and benzene. Additionally, azo dyes, which constitute 60-70 percent of all dyes used in textiles, can be toxic. Textiles are also commonly treated with flame retardants, raising significant health concerns.

HEALTH IMPACTS: Flame retardants are the subject of ongoing research and are linked to an increased risk of cancer and immunotoxicity, as well as a negative impact on reproductive health. The VOCs emitted from synthetic drapery materials and treatments can cause respiratory issues, eye irritation and hormone disruption.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: Opting for natural fiber curtains, such as wool, which is inherently flame-resistant, linen, which has natural antimicrobial and anti-allergenic properties, and organic cotton are safer options. Look for drapery with certifications such as OEKO-TEX or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to ensure the absence of harmful chemicals. These fabrics offer a more sustainable choice, contributing to a healthier indoor air quality.

E Wood Case Goods

WHAT'S IN IT: Non-upholstered furniture such as tables and chairs, are often made from composite wood products like MDF and particle board, which are known to emit VOCs including formaldehyde. Additionally, the chemicals in paints and varnishes used on these pieces can off-gas toxic substances, such as arsenic and a variety of solvents, into the air of your home.

HEALTH IMPACTS: Formaldehyde exposure can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation, respiratory problems, nausea and skin reactions. Prolonged contact to this carcinogen, classified by the National Cancer Institute, increases the risk of cancer and poses long-term health threats. Arsenic is linked to skin, lung and bladder cancers, while solvents that evaporate and are inhaled can cause headaches, dizziness, and eventual nervous system damage.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: Select furniture made from solid wood that is FSC-certified, ensuring it originates from responsibly managed forests. Opt for finishes made from natural oils and waxes, which are less harmful and environmentally friendly, while still providing excellent protection. When composite wood is unavoidable, choose products certified by the California Air Resources Board with low formaldehyde emissions, or those labeled No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) or Ultra-Low Emitting Formaldehyde (ULEF), to foster a healthier living space.

F Upholstery

WHAT'S IN IT: Upholstery treatments for stain resistance may contain harmful PFCs and PFAS and flame-retardant applications present additional health risks. Synthetic fibers, like polyester, along with the highly flammable polyurethane foam used in cushions, are prone to releasing VOCs such as formaldehyde into the environment. These substances are often combined with azo dyes, which are prevalent in the dye market and have their own toxicity concerns.

HEALTH IMPACTS: Exposure to the PFCs and PFAS commonly found in stain-guard treatments is linked to an increased risk of cancer and birth defects. Flame retardants applied to textiles and polyurethane foam are associated with reproductive harm, with some being potentially carcinogenic. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, can cause respiratory issues, skin irritation and allergies. Azo dyes are associated with allergic reactions.

HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES: Choose upholstery made from natural fibers like wool, which is inherently flame-resistant. Fire safety standards in California have led many manufacturers to create upholstered furniture without added flame retardants, while still complying with flammability standards. For upholstery fillings, opt for natural and biodegradable materials such as latex foam, coconut coir and sheep's wool, or traditional materials such as horsehair, hemp and jute, all free from additions of fire-retardant chemicals. Certifications from OEKO-TEX or the GOTS on textiles ensure low VOC emissions and the absence of harmful substances. Opt for washable covers over chemical treatments, which promote a cleaner and healthier home environment.