Baby, it’s cold outside, but we’re all warm and snug in our homes, so let it snow! The problem is that, while we’re all cozy inside, we’re breathing air which is polluted! Concern about the environment isn’t just about climate change, ozone depletion and water and energy conservation. It’s also about human health, indoors as well as outdoors.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the air pollutant levels inside our homes can be up to five times higher than levels in outdoor air! And this is true for both rural and city living.
The culprits which are polluting our indoor air are chemicals which are everywhere: in paint, carpets, upholstery, cabinets, cleaning products, clothes, even bedding. We can now choose cleaning products whose ingredients derive from nature and minimize chemical use. And it’s easy enough to choose natural fabrics for our clothes such as cotton and wool.
Today, just as we read food labels, we need to read non-food labels. But there aren’t a lot of labels to guide our choices in furnishings. A lot of what we sit on, walk on, cook on and sleep on emits unhealthy and even dangerous chemicals. Yet, there are things we can look for to help ensure that our air is cleaner.
Cabinetry & Furniture
There are two major ingredients in most cabinetry today that pollute our indoor air to unhealthy levels: urea-formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Urea-formaldehyde is a resin-based adhesive. Almost all cabinetry today is made from particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood veneers. The quality of each material varies greatly, but what they all have in common is the use of urea-formaldehyde. Particleboard and MDF are loaded with it. It’s known to cause cancer, though the incidence in humans is not well understood. But other symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde are common: watery eyes, nose irritations, burning eyes and throat, wheezing, coughing...and that’s only some of them.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemical additives in paint, stains and coatings. They are carbon-based compounds and present documented hazards to health. Exposure symptoms are similar to formaldehyde.
Recommendation: Choose cabinetry made from formaldehyde-free materials and with low-VOC, water-borne finishes. Soy, wheat straw and other agricultural-based sources for construction materials and adhesives and high quality water-borne finishes are becoming more common. As people become more aware of the health and environmental issues, they are looking for and demanding alternatives. And the price for these alternative products is coming down. You will need to ask, research and possibly pay a little more for these products.
Got kids? Got pets? Your carpet, the place where kids and pets hang out, may be emitting toxic chemicals. Carpets are most often made with synthetic, petroleum-based material which is treated with chemicals that make our lives easier —stain resistance, longer wearing, color retention—but which off-gas harmful toxins. The rubberized pads that go under them do too. Chemicals may make our lives easier, but they make living healthfully harder.
Recommendation: Choose natural fibers, like cotton, wool, jute, and sisal for carpets and felt for underlayment. Mohawk makes a line of carpet made from re-cycled materials and with no chemicals called Smart Strand, a truly healthy choice.
Synthetic fabrics have the same issues as carpet. Those chemicals designed for stain and wrinkle resistance emit gases which get in our lungs, irritate our eyes and respiratory system and do slow damage to our health.
Recommendation: The solution is much like that for carpet. Whenever possible, buy natural fibers, cotton, linen, hemp, soy, bamboo, silk or natural materials such as leather.
To think, you spent all that time vacuuming, and you’ve just put a cloud of fine dust back into the air you breathe! Dust settles back onto the furniture and in your lungs. The best solution is a central, whole house vacuum system. Short of that, choosing a vacuum with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter will capture more than 99% of these fine particles. For more information on HEPA filters for vacuum cleaners, go to
The industrial age and technology have brought us many conveniences, and chemicals have played a huge part in this evolution. We now understand that many of these chemicals are continually polluting the indoor air we breathe. These chemicals emit toxic gases, literally for years, causing invisible, and irreversible, damage to our health over time. By the time we realize it, it may be too late. We know that second-hand cigarette smoke is harmful. So are the chemicals lurking in so much of what is in our homes. Be informed, ask questions, and buy the best you can afford for the sake of your family’s health.
The author welcomes and encourages your questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.