Healthy Homes

Healthy Homes

We touched on the basics of a healthy home on our Green Building page. But to make a home healthy it helps to understand what makes a home unhealthy. There are three ways things in your home can harm you: you can eat them, you can breathe them or you can touch them. Let's look at each briefly so you can start to think about your project... and your current home!

Things you eat

Babies crawl on floors and get their hands dirty. Babies put their hands in their mouths. That's how lead paint dust or chips get eaten in old homes. So you want to minimize the number of bad things that can get eaten in and around our home. Tohn Environmental Strategies of Wayland did an interesting study. They took samples of the "stuff" on the floors of a one-year old home. They found lead, DDT, and other contaminants! The builder didn't use lead paint and DDT was banned years ago... so how did the contaminants get into the house? Here's a clue: the concentrations of the contaminants was highest near the door and decreased with samples farther into the house. The contaminants were tracked in on shoes. Our homes are part of the broader environment we inhabit and many, if not most, contaminants in our homes come from outside our homes.

Some strategies to address this include:

  • Include a place to remove and store shoes in your design or include a walk-off mat that cleans your shoes when you enter your home to address the situation highlighted above
  • Test the soil around the home for contaminants. Former agricultural properties, especially orchards, can have high concentrations of persistent pesticides such as DDT. Areas around old homes that have been scraped and repainted many times through the years often have high concentrations of lead. Remedial steps depend on the type and concentration of contaminant but can include swapping out topsoil
  • Be aware of what you bring into the home. For instance, what chemicals are in the cleaning products you or your cleaning company use?

Things you breathe

Most everyone remembers the formaldehyde in the materials used to make the trailers supplied to people affected by Hurricane Katrina. That's a good example of a building material that wasn't "healthy" (another story about formaldehyde used in the finishing process of clothing can be found at http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2329). If you are building a home with a quality builder and selecting good materials, you shouldn't have trouble with formaldehyde or other known contaminants. And if your home is thoroughly flushed with fresh air before you move in, "experts" say you should be fine. But there are other contaminants to consider. Radon for instance, is not good. If you want to learn more about why it is not good, read up at http://www.epa.gov/radon/. So what should you do to reduce the amount of bad things you breathe in your home? Here are some suggestions:

  • Install a radon collection system in your home and test for radon to know whether or not you need to run the system. It is a lot less expensive to install an effective radon collection system as you build the home than it is to come back and install it later.
  • Build a tight home with a good ventilation system (we discussed this on the Green Building page, but it is worth repeating). Ventilations systems can provide multiple benefits: if you've inadvertently brought a contaminant into your home, ventilation systems dilute the concentration; ventilation systems manage humidity in the home and therefore can prevent conditions for mold and mildew growth from developing. Likewise, tight homes come with their own benefits: tight homes don't allow air to infiltrate through uncontrolled and dirty cracks and crevices.
  • Select low VOC finishes for your home. This includes paint, floor finishes, and tile and stone sealers. While the VOCs will ultimately be flushed from your home by the ventilation system, they can simply be avoided by making certain up front selections
  • Avoid bringing contaminants into your home. Furniture and carpets are two items that often contain chemical contaminants that emit into the home environment. Like VOC's, these can be flushed from the home. However, if you lie on a mattress or sit on your sofa, you are placing yourself much closer to the source of the contaminant for a long period of time. Other sources of airborne contaminants include: cleaning supplies, paints and adhesives (store these in your garage), dry-cleaned clothes, and air fresheners or scented candles

Things you touch

This is typically the least relevant item in the healthy home discussion. While there may be things that can harm the people building your home during construction (e.g., sawdust, un-cured foam insulation, fiberglass insulation), you shouldn't be exposed to any of these items once you move in (and a good builder protects the workers during construction through a robust training and safety program). However, if you have a specific allergy to a wood or fabric or finish, avoid using the material in your home.