Is Your House Making You Sick?

By Kristin Kane with additional reporting by Lynn Ginsburg and Nora Simmons

Home will always be sweet, but it may not always be as safe as you’d expect. Levels of some common toxins—which can measure two to five times higher under your roof than outdoors—could be triggering a host of health problems for your family. Take these simple steps to make your home a truly safe (and healthy) haven.

Candles: In addition to emitting lung-damaging soot when burned, paraffin wax (a petroleum product) produces benzene, a known carcinogen linked to leukemia. And despite the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2003 ban on lead wicks, some imported candles have tested positive recently for lead emissions.
Quick Fix: Choose soy or natural beeswax candles with cotton wicks.

Paint: Rife with many of the same volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—dangerous chemicals that become gases at room temperature—found in carpeting, paint can also contain ethylene glycol, a toxic petroleum-based solvent that studies show damages sperm health, concentration, and motility (ability to get around).
Quick Fix: Most emissions occur as paint dries, so keep the windows open and fans running—both while painting and for a few days after you’re done. Buy no- or low-VOC paints or natural paints made from materials such as clay or milk. Water-based (latex) paints tend to emit fewer chemicals and vapors than oil-based (alkyd) types. Try AFM Safecoat Zero VOC paint, which is made without ethylene glycol.

Carpets: “Synthetic carpeting as well as the padding and adhesives used to lay it down are worrisome sources of off-gassing,” says Claudia S. Miller, MD, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Studies have tied VOCs to nausea and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches and trouble concentrating. Carpets also emit polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs), which research has linked to thyroid dysfunction, liver disease, and cancer. Small children and pets face a much higher risk from these chemicals than adults.
Quick Fix: Vacuum often to reduce PBDE-carrying dust. Pick natural flooring materials that use low-VOC finishes and sealants as well as water-based rather than solvent-based glues. Choose an area rug that can do without padding or adhesive, and air it out for a few days before bringing it inside.

Furniture: Most fabric furniture receives a stain-proof coating of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) as well as PBDE flame retardants in the manufacturing process. The urea-
formaldehyde glues used to bond pressed-wood products (like plywood and particle board) can take years to finish off-gassing. Formaldehyde poses the same health risks as other VOCs, with the additional concern that it is a known carcinogen.
Quick Fix: Buy sofas and chairs directly from the manufacturer so you can opt out of chemical treatments, and seek out companies that make low-emission products. Choose natural hardwoods or bamboo rather than pressed materials. Off-gassing diminishes over time, so pieces older than five years should cause less concern. Treat wood furniture with a vapor-barrier sealant to lock in noxious gases, and use solvent-free glue and water-based, low-VOC finishes.

Plastics: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—found in everything from shower curtains to plastic water bottles—has garnered a lot of attention recently and for good reason. Phthalates (used to make plastic more flexible), organotins (endocrine-disrupters used as heat stabilizers), and VOCs found in PVC plastic can cause serious health problems like eye, nose, and throat irritation, difficulty breathing, vomiting, shortened pregnancy, and sperm damage. Recent research shows that the heat and moisture of a shower increase the release of airborne toxins from your shower curtain.
Quick Fix: Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric or 100 percent PVC-free plastic one, or install sliding glass doors. Instead of plastic blinds, choose window coverings made of natural materials like organic cotton, wood, or bamboo