A matter of health: Many materials give off toxic fumes for 15 years

Kathryn Young, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, April 01, 2006

The good news? There are healthy options.

If you had to choose between a high-quality vinyl and a marmoleum floor in a similar pattern, which would it be? How about a laminate floor or solid hardwood? Or a laminate countertop versus granite or Corian?

I know that when I've had those choices before me, I've usually gone with the most affordable. But here's a new question to throw into the mix: What if you knew that some of those choices gave off toxic fumes for 15 years while the others were natural products that would protect your health?

Interior designer Linda Nolan finds that once the differences are pointed out to people, they almost always choose the healthy alternatives.

"The majority of my clients are choosing the green options," says Nolan, who is developing a name for herself as a local expert on green and healthy building design.
Her clients aren't necessarily aware of all the green options, so she makes a point of asking if they would like to use non-toxic materials or products with recycled contents.

"If you don't make something available, people won't ask," she says. "But it's now on the radar screen. It's out there and it's certainly going to be come absolutely mainstream."
Green design cares about the effect on people and the environment.

Designers aim to use energy and resources wisely, select materials with low amounts of volatile organic compounds, use mechanical air filtration, and use locally produced materials wherever possible to minimize the environmental impact of transportation.
In short, going green lessens the impact on the environment. And it protects your own health.

Rodney Wilts, who used to run The Healthiest Home and Building Supplies and is now a green building consultant, quotes a study, called The Business Case for Green Buildings and funded by Industry Canada, that found 15 to 40 per cent reduced absenteeism amongst employees in green commercial buildings. At the same time, they increased productivity by three to 40 per cent while 25 to 50 per cent was saved through improved energy efficiency and water savings.

Wilts says building green is the only responsible thing to do.

"It is pure negligence to do anything else," he says. "It is contributing to environmental problems that will take centuries to repair, some of which may never be repairable at all."
Nolan points to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that says indoor air pollution is America's No. 1 environmental health concern because it's responsible for fifty per cent of all illness. And the American Lung Association agrees that indoor air pollution is widespread.

Chemicals like urea formaldehyde, a possible carcinogen and known sensitizer, are given off by particleboard and MDF (medium density fibreboard) used for trim, countertops, shelving and cabinetry. Hardwood plywoods are also glued together with urea formaldehyde resins. Many adhesives and paints contain solvents (vapours) such as xylene and toluene, while vinyl floors and PVC windows give off vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen.

It takes a new home about 15 years to fully off-gas these pollutants.
"You are more likely to get sick from pollution in your home and office than from pollution in the air outside," says Nolan, who knows first-hand about environmental sensitivities. She and daughter Allison, now 12, developed multiple chemical sensitivities and suffered for years before discovering the problem. Nolan and husband Norm Leeming had built a series of new homes, moving into each successively and the buildup of urea formaldehyde affected them.

"We got sicker and sicker and sicker," Nolan recalls. She couldn't eat many foods or use soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. She had difficulty breathing, couldn't think straight and had to give up her work. "I lost 30 pounds. My daughter couldn't go to school."
Now, after making all the connections, they live in a 17-year-old house that has finished off-gassing, with hardwood and ceramic floors. They eat organic and Allison goes to a school that accommodates her needs.

"It's wonderful," Nolan said. "We both have our lives back."

Leeming now builds healthy homes.

The good news is that there are many green options available to replace the poisonous ones and you don't have to go too far to get them. Home Depot, for example, now carries Columbia Forest Products, which offer completely formaldehyde-free plywood, 2-by-4s, 2-by-6s and so on.

"I think this is consumer driven," Nolan says. "The manufacturers are listening. It's quite exciting."

Another local option is The Healthiest Home & Building Supplies (www.thehealthiesthome.com) on Richmond Road.

The company, founded in 2003 in response to a need for green floors, cabinets and countertops, has a booming business, with a 300 per cent increase in sales in the past three years, says partner Rebecca Best, who, along with her business partner Tosh Serafini bought the store from Wilts in the fall. They've just opened another franchise in Calgary.

All products must have a sustainable source, a positive contribution to indoor air quality, be durable and have aesthetic beauty (so they don't end up in a landfill site somewhere).
They are trying to get away from the idea that green products are ugly -- they're promoting the slogan "Go green, go gorgeous" so people don't feel they have to sacrifice quality design or aesthetics.

"It comes down to education and awareness," Best says. "It's a snowball effect. It's rolling and not stopping."

A big chunk of their business comes from two green condominium projects in Ottawa: The Currents and EcoCite.

"We do everything from the design all the way to material supply," says Best. "There's just tons of stuff happening. The commercial market is exploding." And that will have a trickle-down effect in terms of educating individuals about the advantages of going green.

But what about cost?

Sometimes it's cheaper, says Nolan. For example, stain-grade poplar trim (from fast-growing trees) is 40 per cent cheaper than oak or birch. "It doesn't have to be more expensive."

But sometimes green is more expensive. A 4-by-8 sheet of strawboard (a plywood replacement that's made of compressed straw) can be $80 versus $25 to $30 for regular plywood. And Columbia Wood Products tend to be 25 to 30 per cent more than their regular counterparts.

"But what is your health worth?" asked Nolan. "You have to look at the big picture."
Kathryn Young is an Ottawa writer. Contact her at kjyd@magma.ca.
Linda Nolan can be reached at lindanolan@sympatico.ca.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006