In our continuing series on healthy houses, we have been showing all those wonderful modernist homes from the thirties that were designed to bring in natural light and fresh air. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was supposed to be the ultimate healthy house; Paul Overy writes that it was raised up on piloti "to provide an actual separation between the corrupted and poisoned earth of the city and the pure fresh air and sunlight of the atmosphere above it." It had a sink in the front hall to wash up as soon as you get in, lots of windows and hard, easy to clean surfaces. But things have changed since then; we cannot all afford to live in open fields with fresh air, and we have to conserve energy, which puts a limit on the amount of fresh air we can have. The outside air in cities can be dirtier than the inside air. So what are the things that everyone can do today, in the houses they have?
1. Go natural and low VOC
Many cleaners in our kitchens and bathrooms are full of Volatile Organic Compounds that are dangerous in the short term and long. Personal car products, cleaners, nail polishes all have VOCs. Those plug-in air fresheners are VOC pumping machines and shouldn’t be allowed in your home. Have a look at the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the stuff you buy; it tells you what is in it and how to use it safely. For instance, for Febreeze air freshener, it says “Ensure adequate ventilation”- who does that?
Here is a long list of things you should keep out of your house, a list of non-toxic, zero waste alternatives, and the TreeHugger guide on how to green your cleaning routine.
2. Stop mold before it starts
Mold grows when it has moisture and food. In older houses with poor insulation, moisture can condense on the exterior walls and feast on the paper surface of drywall. So check around plumbing fixtures for leaks, around windows for condensation, and keep the humidity level down in winter. Make sure your bathroom and kitchen exhausts have clean filters and work properly. And if that is not enough:
3. Install a heat recovery ventilator
Years ago everybody had humidifiers in winter; houses were so leaky that they were basically filled with outside air that had very little moisture in it. Now that houses are built more tightly, moisture can build up in winter. A heat recovery ventilator takes the heat out of the air being exhausted and transfers it to incoming air, so that you get controlled volumes of fresh air without paying to heat it. It can be installed near your furnace if you have conventional ductwork, or can be a separate unit if you are in an apartment or have hydronic heating. There are some wonderful small new units available, like the Zehnder Comfoair shown in the image above.
4. Keep formaldehyde out of your house
Yes, we know formaldehyde is perfectly natural. But has been known for centuries, the dose makes the poison. Formaldehyde is often found in the glues that hold particle board and building products together, but they do outgas eventually. But if you are buying new furniture and are hitting the IKEA store, check to ensure that the stuff that you buy is formaldehyde free. Better still, buy vintage furniture (so trendy right now anyway)- it is usually made of solid wood, and if there were glues used, any VOCs or formaldehyde outgassed long ago.
More on formaldehyde:
Fiberglass finally formaldehyde free
Big Steps In Building: Ban Formaldehyde
High Formaldehyde Levels Found In Baby Furniture
Formaldehyde Added To Official List of Known Carcinogens; Now Lets Ban It In Building Materials
5. Get foam free furniture and avoid flame retardants
The saga of how we got so many flame retardants in our furniture and fabrics is long and convoluted, but back in the seventies, when a lot more people smoked than they do now and there were a lot more house fires, brominated flame retardants were added by the ton, specifically designed to resist a smouldering cigarette. But as the Consumer Federation of California notes, “Studies on environmental health have associated the use of these toxics with adverse health effects in both humans and animals, including hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and fetal and child development.”
Another good reason to go vintage, and to get a good vacuum cleaner; it comes out of the furniture and sticks to dust. Read more in Can your couch give you cancer?
6. Go minimalist
It was a real surprise, while researching our series on the healthy home, to find the reason behind the design of modernist tubular furniture: it was designed to be be washable, light and easy to move to get at those dust bunnies lurking underneath. Mies van der Rohe wrote about his tubular chairs:
It therefore promotes comfortable, practical living. It facilitates the cleaning of rooms and avoids inaccessible dusty corners. It offers no hiding place for dust and insects and therefore there is no furniture that meets modern sanitary demands better than tubular-steel furniture.
Minimalists also usually do not have carpets, but instead have easy to clean wood hard floors.
7. Add some indoor plants
Not only do they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, but they remove toxic chemicals from the air. Melissa writes that “both plant leaves and roots are utilized in removing trace levels of toxic vapors from inside tightly sealed buildings. Low levels of chemicals such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can be removed from indoor environments by plant leaves alone.” She also provides us with a helpful list of 5 houseplants for removing indoor air pollution.
8. Go Japanese and take off your shoes
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, showed that people bring lawn pesticides into their homes on their shoes. These pesticide-laden shoes were a major source of pesticide exposures, especially for young children who spend a lot of time on the floor and who put dirty fingers, dust, and toys in their mouths. Somewhat surprising was that the study showed that indoor shoe-wearing was a larger source of children’s pesticide exposures than eating non-organic fruits and vegetables.
9. Forget the candles
It seems so romantic, and they are so popular, but Helen Suh MacIntosh reminds us to be careful:
In addition to leaving a nice smell, scented candles can also leave black soot and other pollutants (such as formaldehyde and acrolein) inside your home. The soot (especially) can deposit onto your walls, ceilings, and other indoor surfaces, leaving these surfaces looking dirty and dingy.
10. Live better electrically
This is a tough one, that has taken me some time to come around to, particularly because I have not followed it myself and use gas for cooking, hot water and heat, while living in a place where no coal is burned to make electricity. However
in the long term, (we have no long term on this) we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and in the short term, burning gas to cook releases a lot of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:
Gas burners were estimated to add 25–33% to the week-averaged indoor NO2 concentrations during summer and 35–39% in winter. The variability between seasons likely reflected the fact that air ventilation is lower in winter. For CO, gas stoves were estimated to contribute 30% and 21% to the indoor air concentration in summer and winter, respectively.
Exhaust fans help, but not that much. It used to be said that cooking with gas was faster and preferred by the pros, but induction is catching up fast.
Next: Starting from scratch? How to build a healthy house.