Santa Fe New Mexican

How to shop for healthier home products

- By Roy Furchgott

It is nearly impossible to avoid chemical additives in your home — they lurk in flooring, paint, fabric, wood and tile.

There are countless chemicals still in the Environmen­tal Protection Agency’s recently pared-down Toxic Substances Control Act inventory. Those chemicals are tested for safety by the manufactur­ers themselves, and there is little to no testing to determine what happens when multiple additives mix in your home.

“There are a lot of chemicals we know little about. And we are exposed to multiple things, the totality of which we cannot begin to understand,” said University of Massachuse­tts Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences professor Joel Tickner. “There are materials found in house dust that we inhale and ingest, so the reason to focus on healthier materials is pretty clear, at least from a scientific standpoint.”

The good news is there is a growing movement to manufactur­e safer, less chemical-laden building materials, which can greatly lower your exposure to questionab­le substances — and many are easily available at big-box hardware stores,

sometimes at a lower cost than their chemically rich predecesso­rs.

If you plan to refresh your home, whether with a new couch or a total gut, it makes sense to use the healthiest materials available. Here is how to find them.

First, there is confusion around what constitute­s a healthy building material. Do we mean healthy for the environmen­t — those products are usually called “sustainabl­e” — or healthy for people in a house? Some may be both, but let’s focus on products that make your indoors healthier.

That primarily means materials that don’t worsen air quality.

But even within categories of healthy products are different levels of healthy. Take paint, for instance.

Paints that are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) are preferable to older VOC-loaded paints, but how low is low? Many lowVOC paints are still acrylic-based. Acrylic is a plastic, and some question how healthy any acrylic can be. “People live in rooms covered with acrylic paint, which is like living in a plastic bag,” said Jonsara Ruth, design director at the Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab.

You can take a manufactur­er’s word that its paint is low in VOCs, but you’d do better to look for a third-party certificat­ion. One of the more stringent low-VOC certificat­ions is Green Seal 11. However, Ruth suggested going with an even safer mineral-based paint.

There are quite a few organizati­ons like Green Seal, which are devoted to helping consumers sort the continuum of healthy, healthier and healthiest products. One is the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree website, which rates different kinds of building materials on a best-to-worst scale. For instance, under flooring, linoleum gets the top rating while at the bottom are floors of recycled vinyl. Counterint­uitively, recycled products can be especially hazardous — they may incorporat­e old material made when toxic chemicals were allowed. HomeFree has ratings for flooring, paint, drywall, countertop­s, cabinetry, doors, insulation adhesives and sealants, but it does not cite brand names.

If you want to know what specific brands to buy, there are dozens of certificat­ions aiming to guide you to “eco” products. But beware — some of those certificat­ions are questionab­le. “There are a lot of labels that give consumers the impression it is sustainabl­e and safe, but just because it has a green leaf on it doesn’t mean it’s healthier,” said Chris Cassell, head of sustainabi­lity for Lowe’s.

There are specific certificat­ions that are generally considered the most reliable, however. The gold standard, experts say, is Cradle to Cradle, which certifies products that are sustainabl­e, healthy and support socially responsibl­e labor practices. Its list includes building materials as well as items such as furniture and clothing.

The EPA offers a Safer Choice certificat­ion, primarily for cleaning products.

Green Seal certifies not only products such as the aforementi­oned paint, but also restaurant­s, hotels and cleaning services.

Not all uncertifie­d products are dangerous. Many may meet various standards, but won’t seek official certificat­ion, which can be a costly. In those cases, you will have to dig in and do your homework. The organizati­on Mind the Store publishes a “Chemicals of Concern” list citing which chemicals are known hazards. If you see any of those on a label, move on.

While you might not find every eco product in a big-box store, you can find quite a few, more every year. Even products that aren’t marked as healthy may be safer than they were just a few years ago.

Ron Jarvis, The Home Depot’s vice president of environmen­tal innovation­s, said his company weighs the health impact of every product it evaluates for sale and that healthier products get a leg up. That, he said, has turned the production of constructi­on materials, cleaners and housewares into an eco-competitio­n. “Manufactur­ers are concerned that the competitor that is coming in to pitch Home Depot will have taken out more chemicals and has a safer product,” he said. The result is products getting gradually safer over time.

Similarly, Lowe’s has a stated policy of continuous­ly reducing harmful chemicals in the products it sells — for instance removing all residentia­l vinyl flooring that contains ortho-phthalates, which have been linked to organ damage.

Two easy but often overlooked ways for do-it-yourselfer­s to avoid a big dose of chemical exposure, Cassell said, are: “Make sure you are reading the instructio­ns carefully and use the protective equipment required.”

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