Breathe easy with better materials at home

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

People in the United States today spend up to 90 percent of their time inside homes and offices, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And increasingly those areas may be filled with products that contain chemicals that can be hazardous to our health.

“A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities,” says an EPA report on indoor air quality. “For many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.”

There’s good news, however. While it may be impossible to rid our living environments of all harmful chemicals, making informed and smart choices can help you reduce them.

“Indoor air pollution is one risk that you can do something about,” the EPA report continues. The other good news is that the home building and decor industry is waking up to increased consumer concern and offering more “clean and green” options, from organic sheets at Target and less toxic cleaners on grocery store shelves to natural wallcoverings and recycled and sustainably harvested solid wood furniture.

Rising awareness

Robin Wilson, an author and interior designer based in New York, has long been a leader in the field. “Clean Design: Wellness for Your Lifestyle” (Greenleaf, $22.95) was written for allergy and asthma sufferers but includes eco-friendly tips for anyone who wants to live in a less-toxic environment.

“The core principle of Clean Design is to limit external toxins, dirt and chemicals in your home,” she writes.

Local designer Jill Schumacher of Birmingham’s Rariden Schumacher Mio is a practitioner in her own home and says she’s definitely seen an increase in both awareness and products. Her firm participated in a “Green Home” project a decade ago, designing a room with renewable, sustainable materials and fabrics as well as bamboo flooring, natural woods and recycled materials. Trendsetting at the time, the idea has become more mainstream, she says.

“Manufacturers are becoming better environmental partners and in turn the consumer is becoming savvier,” she says. “There is definitely an uptick in awareness and product.” In her own home, she opts for natural mohair and cotton, repurposed older pieces and organic natural cleaners, offering the same options to interested clients.

Materials matter

Older homes can contain lead and asbestos, but even newer homes can contain health hazards. Formaldehyde, often found in construction materials such as cabinets, carpets and padding and in some home products, is a suspected carcinogen.

When renovating or redecorating, consider “going natural” and opting for wood or tile floors (recycled FLOR tiles are another good options, according to Robin Wilson), seeking out furniture filled with cotton, polyester or wool instead of polyurethane foam and choosing other eco and health-friendly materials such as Cambria countertops (naturally free of radon) and raffia and cork wallcoverings by Phillip Jeffries (Cambria is available through EW Kitchens and Gardner Builders at the Michigan Design Center.) Jeffries, in fact, is one of the companies that works with the Arbor Day Foundation; a tree is planted for every order placed.

The National Institutes of Health also recommend limiting exposure to a class of chemicals known as “hormone disruptors,” including phthalates (used to make some plastics, cleaners and fragrances), PFCs “perfluorinated chemicals” (often used to make products more resistant to stains, grease and water) and flame retardants (found in some foam, upholstery, mattresses, carpets, curtains and fabric blinds).

Finer furnishings

Popular retailers and catalog companies such as Pottery Barn, Viva Terra, Garnet Hill and West Elm are responding to demand and have introduced more green and chemical-free options than ever before. Even mass market retailers such as IKEA, Bed Bath and Beyond (which carries some of Robin Wilson Home’s line) and Target have begun to offer more eco-friendly options. Target, in fact, recently became the first U.S. retailer to introduce a chemical strategy that addresses the entire chain, including both operations and products they sell. Goals include achieving ingredient transparency by 2020 and removing all PFCs by 2022.

Another way to improve your indoor air quality is to choose solid wood or, when you can’t, to look for furniture or cabinetry that uses plywood or particleboard that complies with the emission standards set by the California Air Resources Board. The website run by the Sustainable Furnishings Council ( also offers information designed to help you make the healthiest choice possible.

“It’s all about education,” Ann Arbor designer Krista Nye Nicholas of Cloth & Kind says. “When people know better, they expect better.” She recommends Cisco Brothers, a furniture line sold both in their showroom and shop. “Many of their products are made from renewable resources or reclaimed materials. They also offer an option called “Inside Green” products made from FSC-certified woods, organic latex and organic fabrics.” And, she adds, they’re “inherently flame retardant without using any chemicals whatsoever.”

Nicholas also recommends Hickory Chair, a company known for its hand-crafted products and sustainable focus, and finally, considering antiques and vintage items. They’re the “ultimate in greener and cleaner. ... We consider them the gold standard in luxury recycling, not to mention the gorgeous patina that these pieces inherently lend to any space,” she says.

Time to replace your mattress? Mattresses are among the types of furniture that have come under fire for their use of flame-retardant chemicals, formaldehyde off-gassing and VOCs from polyurethane foams and petro chemical-based materials, says Ted Metas, who recently relocated his business, Earthscape Home, to the Michigan Design Center to offer interested consumers more organic options. “Our focus is to make sure that what we offer doesn’t contain toxins that could be inhaled or absorbed through the skin,” he explains. “In this sense we believe that we offer the healthiest environment for sleep possible.”

Avoid VOCS

Limiting or avoiding VOCs — volatile organic compounds emitted by paints, aerosol sprays, dry-cleaned clothing, detergents, air fresheners and other household staples — can also help you improve your indoor air quality.

Many paint manufacturers have reduced the VOCs in their formulas and some, including Benjamin Moore’s Natura line, now offer VOC-free options. “This is the latest step in our long history and commitment to manufacturing green paints that are safer for you and the environment,” says Chris Connelly of Benjamin Moore.

VOCs can also be found in many household cleaners, which has prompted a rise in options such as Mrs. Meyers, Seventh Generation, Method and Simple Green made with less chemicals; Kroger even has its own line of “Simple Truth” cleaners.

Choosing chemical-free cleaners and household furnishings isn’t just better for you — it’s ultimately a smart choice for the planet, too, says Karen Troutt, the Indianapolis-based founder and CEO of Gaia Natural Cleaners. “I knew I could develop a line of cleaners that every mom would feel good about using,” she explains. “As parents, our priority are our children and ultimately, the environment we leave behind when we’re gone. We need to do our best for them.”

Healthier Homes

Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your indoor air quality.

» Open windows for better ventilation.

» Dust often and use HEPA filters when you vacuum.

» Grandma Knew Best: Skip the industrial strength cleaners in favor of old-fashioned options like vinegar or baking soda or look for chemical-free cleaners.

» Buy plants. Spider plants, peace lilies and aloe vera can neutralize formaldehyde and other household chemicals.

» Mix in vintage and antique items to limit the chemical “off-gassing” that can be found in some new furniture.

» When buying new, seek out solid wood furniture