Remodeling or Building?

Don't Forget to Breathe (Easier)

Homeowner beware. Many products used to build and beautify homes have an ugly side: They produce toxins that are harmful to indoor air quality.

More and more pblic health officials, interior designers and home builders are recognizing that the air inside a home, especially a new or remodeled one, can be more polluted than outside air and can sometimes endanger the health of its occupants. One of the main culprits? Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — found in many building materials and products. Among the most common are pressed wood products; carpet; and paint, varnish and other surface finishes. Some of these products, especially when new, can release hazardous pollutants such as formaldehyde and other VOCs into the air. Asbestos or formaldehyde also can be released from old or deteriorating materials during renovations.

According to the Alaska Building Science Network, VOCs are carbon-containing chemicals that vaporize (that is, become a gas) at normal temperatures and may combine with other substances in the environment to form fine particulate matter, posing a serious health threat to humans.

Pressed wood products

Pressed or manufactured wood products made from wood chips or sawdust are widely used in home construction for flooring, sheathing, shelving and cabinets. Furniture, too, is often made of manufactured wood products. The primary concern with pressed wood products is formaldehyde, which is used in the glues that hold these materials together. Formaldehyde will "off-gas," or be released into the air, especially when a product is new. Avoid cabinets and furnishings made from particleboard that may contain formaldehyde in the glue. Or, seal the surface of a wood product, especially the edges, with low-toxicity, low-VOC sealers to reduce offensive emissions.

Manufactured wood products that are formaldehyde-free, or that have low formaldehyde emissions (such as exterior-grade products), are available.

"VOCs can be found in anything with resin or glue," says David Doolen of JADA Construction. "In the US, we have one of the lowest requirements. Some of the stuff sold here wouldn't be allowed in other countries." Oriented strand board (OSB), which emits formaldehyde, is "banned in other countries but they sell it here in the US. Other countries are way ahead of us in that aspect," he adds. "People are considering bamboo to be a really green product. Question is: What kind of glue is holding the bamboo together? A lot of that is a mystery."

Some people are highly sensitive to formaldehyde. It can be a strong irritant that causes eyes to water and, in low doses, a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat. People sensitive to formaldehyde also may experience wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rashes, headaches, loss of concentration and nausea. Higher doses can cause asthma attacks as well as damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

Formaldehyde levels in indoor air depend mainly on what is releasing it, including temperature, humidity and the air exchange rate (the amount of outdoor air entering or leaving the indoor area).

It's important, says Doolen, to focus on "having good ventilation and air tightness" in the home. Fresh air intake helps dilute and remove pollutants, and building an airtight structure keeps insulating materials — and potential pollutants — sealed away from occupants.

Paint, varnish and other surface finishes

To meet the demand for green products, most major paint companies have a line of low- and no-VOC paints. They are becoming increasingly affordable, too.

Products that are oil-, solvent- or alkyd-based release more harmful vapors than water-based products. If you are not sure about a particular product, check the label. If the instructions say to clean up with soap and water, then the product is water-based. Provide lots of extra ventilation when finishes are newly applied, or apply finishes outside the home and wait until they are dry to bring the finished product inside.

For paints, stains and floor finishes, buy just enough of the product so you won't have to store any extra. If you do end up needing to store leftover product, do so outside of your home.

Many homes built before 1978 contain lead-based paint, a highly toxic substance. Lead dust can be released into the air as the paint wears or during renovations. Before remodeling or renovating your home, have it tested for lead-based paint, and consider hiring a certified lead "abatement" contractor who can remove, seal or enclose lead-based paint with special materials. Just painting over the hazard with regular paint is not permanent removal.


New carpets can release volatile chemicals from carpet backing, padding and fibers, as well as from the finishes that give carpeting its antistatic and soil-release properties. Choose a carpet that is certified by the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI) as a low-emissions carpet.

When planning to install new carpet, ask the dealer to unroll the carpet and leave it in a well-ventilated area for at least 24 hours before it is brought into your home. Plan to install the carpet at a time of the year when you can provide extra ventilation by opening windows during installation and for several days afterward. Arrange for chemically sensitive persons to be out of the house for the first few days after the new carpet is installed.

Some homeowners are replacing carpet floors with less toxic flooring such as tile, hardwood, cork, linoleum and concrete. Wood flooring — laminate or solid — is a great alternative to carpet because it requires little adhesive. Use caution while shopping for laminate, because some do contain high concentrations of formaldehyde and other VOCs. Concrete flooring is one the safest and most environmentally friendly of the choices. (See related article on page 20.)

Alaskans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, and 60 percent of that in their homes, according to the American Lung Association of Alaska. The key is creating a home where you are comfortable and healthy. Before remodeling or building a home, be proactive in choosing the construction materials that are most benign, and are designed in a manner that enhances your health rather than compromises it.

For more information on indoor air quality, visit:;;;

Also, check Greenguard and Green Seal, two independent and impartial nonprofit testers, for lists of low- or no-VOC emitting products and materials (,

Sources: Treeforms Furniture Gallery; JADA Construction; Florcraft Carpet One; Morris Interiors; Grayling Construction; Metro Home Furnishings.