Consumers need to ask more questions about the relative toxicity of products
Far from being safe havens, our homes have historically proved themselves to be decorating deathtraps. The Victorians adored vivid — and arsenic-rich — wallpaper, while lead-based paint and asbestos weren’t given the heave-ho until the Nineties, and their legacy lingers on.
The healthy homes movement is gathering momentum. People are taking charge of their health, from food to Fitbits, and want their homes to enhance their well-being, too.
Stricter building regulations around energy efficiency have had a knock-on effect on health. Air-tight homes without adequate ventilation can cause damp and trap the chemicals from building and decorating products. Unhealthy buildings trigger and exacerbate respiratory problems, cardiovascular illnesses and allergies, putting children and those with pre-existing conditions most at risk.
While some individual products such as paint are regulated for their toxicity, it’s the long-term, cumulative effect of exposure to low levels of chemicals in the home that is often misunderstood.
“We allow paint ingredients that are known to be harmful because, if they are in small enough quantities, it’s thought that it won’t matter,” says Edward Bulmer, whose natural paint range is solvent and toxin-free. “My fear is that chemicals are in so many products now, it is creating a burden that some people can’t process.”
Bulmer lists his ingredients on the tin — a transparency rare in the paint industry — and would like to see others stop using ingredients such as glycol ethers (linked to allergies and asthma) and phthalates (linked to hormonal disruption). Other healthier paint brands i nclude Lakeland and Earthborn.
There are a few European and US accreditation schemes for low-toxin products for the home, but no British-based one. There are also plenty of low-toxin products that aren’t certified — Bulmer says that the price of testing is prohibitive for a small business, even though his paint would pass with flying colours.
Health charities can be useful sources of information: Allergy UK’s Seal of Approval is given to products such as bedding that have been tested for their ability to reduce allergens, or their reduced chemical content.
Beyond that, it’s up to consumers to ask questions about the rel- ative toxicity of products. Generally speaking, the less processed something is, the better; for example, choose solid wood flooring over engineered or laminated products, whose glues give off higher levels of f ormaldehyde. Cork and linoleum are good options f or flooring ; tiles and glass are inert, although tile adhesive is another matter.
Self-builders are taking the lead when it comes to healthier housing, just as they did with energy efficiency a generation ago. German prefabricated housing is particularly hot on the subject: homes by WeberHaus are medically certified as “healthy housing” for their excellent indoor air quality thanks to formaldehyde-free glues, and for features such as pollen filtration in ventilation systems.
Baufritz’s homes are made without polyurethane foams, chemical insulation materials and other toxic adhesives, and fixtures and fittings are emissions-tested. The housebuilder also supplies a list of furniture suppliers whose offerings will be low in toxins.
The mechanical ventilation systems that are a must in these airtight homes give the biggest health boost, according to homeowners, ridding houses of humidity while filtering outdoor pollution.
WeberHaus customer Hilary Potter describes her Cambridgeshire home as “smelling clean — you come back from holiday and it doesn’t feel like it’s been shut up for a week”. Pam Bowles, who owns a Baufritz property, describes the atmosphere as “like being outside, inside. It never gets stuffy.”
Bowles says that the phrase “healthy home” drew mirth from her local planners in Kent, but as an allergy sufferer who has seen dramatic improvement to her hay fever, she’s having the last laugh. “I can’t even remember the last time I had a headache,” she says.
The wider building industry is catching up. BRE’s Home Quality Mark is awarded to superior newbuilds based on three criteria: running costs, environmental footprint and health, with the latter covering acoustics and daylight as well as indoor air quality.
Air quality can also be improved by monitors such as made by Foobot and Awair, which alert home owners when indoor pollution increases — after the use of a certain cleaning product, for example.
Another way to clean the indoor air is to add a few houseplants. According to Nasa’s Clean Air Study, some of the best include ivy, ferns, pothos and peace lilies. And … breathe.
People are taking charge of their health, from food to Fitbits, and want their homes to enhance their well-being, too.