Getting Rid of Invisible Toxins in Your Home

Living Room by KGA Studio Architects

With wellness at the forefront of our daily actions and activities, I was surprised it never occurred to me to think about wellness inside my own home. Until recently, that is.  A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to become a Wellness Within Your Walls certified professional.  Wellness Within Your Walls (WWYW) is an organization with the mission of moving the needle on awareness related to creating a healthy environment in your home.  And wow, do I have so much to share with you. Today I’m going to focus on indoor air quality, why it’s an issue and what you can do to get rid of invisible toxins in your home.

The Challenge

As we push to make our buildings and homes more energy efficient, a big part of doing so is sealing them up so that we are better able to control and condition the air inside.  Think about all the money and resources you’re spending to heat or cool the air inside your home.  You wouldn’t want that air leaking out through poor quality windows and badly insulated walls, right?  That’s bad for your energy bill and the environment.  So, it makes a lot of sense to try and “tighten up” our buildings and be deliberate with how and when we circulate in fresh air.

However, as with any new venture, we’re learning that we need to be mindful of the quality of air that is now, very deliberately, sealed up inside our homes.  Have you ever walked into a friend’s house or toured a model home that has that “new home” smell?  Fresh paint on the walls, new flooring, and pristine new furniture all have a certain smell associated with them. In many cases, we’ve come to see this smell as desirable.  However, if you’ve spent a decent amount of time in such an environment, there’s a chance you got a headache, started to feel like your eyes were a little dry, or maybe your nose and throat were irritated.  This could be the result of something called Sick Building Syndrome, also referred to as Tight Box Syndrome.

Tight Box Syndrome is a term coined by Wellness Within Your Walls which refers to the occurrence described above.  Our industry has become pretty effective at creating tight seals in homes, but we didn’t quite realize the number of toxins we were trapping inside as well.  As it turns out, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are dangerous gasses that can have adverse short and long-term health effects. VOCs are found in thousands of building products, home furnishings, household cleaners and fragrances alike.  Trapping VOCs inside your indoor environment leads to poor indoor air quality and the consequences can range from fatigue and headaches, to central nervous system difficulties and damage to toxin-filtering organs, like the liver. VOCs aren’t the only offenders, other common toxins that can be hidden in the home include flame retardants, PVC, PFCs, and antimicrobial agents. Check out this guide to learn more.

The bedroom is an important place to get rid of hidden toxins in your home. If possible, choose a mattress made with at least 95 percent organic content, which could include cotton, wool or natural latex.
Most mattresses on the market are full of hidden toxins that can pollute your bedroom air and harm your body. If possible, choose a mattress made with at least 95 percent organic content, which could include cotton, wool or natural latex.

Knowledge is Power

The EPA published a report noting that, on average, Americans spend a staggering 90 percent of their time indoors where concentrations of pollutants can be anywhere from 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors.  At this point, it may seem like there’s no right answer.  You want to do the right thing by having an efficient home, but you also want to protect your family and help them grow and develop in the best possible indoor environment.  Fortunately, these conditions don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and we’re here to help you navigate.  As with anything, education is the best tool you can have in your arsenal.  So, here’s what we know. 

How do Toxins Enter Your Home?

Toxins can enter our homes in a number of different ways, and if we start to think critically about the materials and chemicals we are introducing into our environment, it becomes easier to make better choices.  Some common-sense offenders that release toxins into the home include paints and lacquers as well as cleaning supplies.  Have you experienced dizziness or headaches when painting a room in your house, or felt the need to crack open a window after scrubbing your bathroom?  This would be the short-term effects of VOCs at work.  Some lesser-known toxic culprits include composite building materials, synthetic textiles, and even home fragrances or deodorizers.  I was shocked to learn that MDF, or Medium Density Fiberboard, a material commonly used in cabinetry, contains formaldehyde that can potentially off-gas dangerous VOCs for months or even years.  Likewise, essential oils widely used in home fragrance diffusers, emit VOCs considered potentially hazardous under federal regulations.  When looking to use or purchase these types of materials, it’s important to read labels to know what the products are made of, and to research if any of those materials or chemicals are considered hazardous.

Get rid of invisible toxins in your home be avoiding items like air fresheners and scented cleaning products that are often found in bathrooms.
Avoid products with artificial fragrances such as air fresheners and laundry or cleaning products. These products can trigger allergies and often contain suspected endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates and synthetic musks.

How Do I Make Choices to Avoid Indoor Air Toxins?

These days, it’s much easier to find “Low VOC” or “low odor” paints that are safer to use in your home. The same goes for natural cleaning supplies.  If you’re bringing in new furniture or cabinetry, check to see if there’s a recommended off-gassing period for the materials. If possible, allow them to off-gas in an open-air environment that isn’t directly connected to your home.  If you’re considering building a new custom home, it’s absolutely worth talking to your architect about ways to make your indoor air quality healthier. Designing in a space where you can safely off-gas products or dry cleaning before introducing them into your home, or store harsh cleaners when not in use, is one helpful feature. Also consider talking to your builder or interior designer about choosing better, safer, and more sustainable building materials.  There are plenty of wonderful, natural materials you can choose from that lessen your risk and exposure to toxins.  These include wool, cork, hemp, linen, down, recycled natural fibers, bamboo, glass, stone, plaster, leather, and many others. At KGA we’re proud to have two Wellness Within Your Walls certified professionals who would love to help (learn more about our approach to designing for wellness).  Finding WWYW certified professionals in your area is a great start.

Get rid of invisible toxins in your home by allowing new furniture to off-gas in an open-air environment that isn't directly connected to your home.
If possible, allow new furniture to off-gas in an open-air environment that isn’t directly connected to your home.

Trying to read labels can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when it comes to products you aren’t familiar with and brands you don’t know if you can trust.  Fortunately, many organizations are trying to make this easier. The Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Home Guide is a great resource.  This site contains a ton of information and delivers it in a way that is well organized and straightforward to help you learn the do’s and don’ts, make sense of labels, and find certifications that you can actually trust.

Will Toxins in My Home Dissipate Over Time?

As items in your home off-gas, it’s important to know that they don’t necessarily just go away.  Your home is likely full of textiles that absorb toxins like carpets and area rugs, upholstered furniture, bedding, and window treatments.  So, while it may seem harmless to burn a candle knowing it’s releasing VOCs into your home by justifying that it’s only temporary, know that the soft goods in your home could be absorbing these toxins to release long after you blow out that candle.  By educating yourself on the items and habits that might be fostering toxins within your indoor environment, you can feel more confident and comfortable in making the best decisions.

Getting rid of invisible toxins in your home is an important way to improve indoor air quality. Candles can negatively impact to air quality in your home. Avoid buring them altogether if you can, or only burn them in well-ventilated areas.
Textiles can absorb air toxins from items like candles or air fresheners and continue to release them long after the original source is gone.

In short, you and your family deserve the absolute best, and that applies even more so to the environment within your walls.  Similar to staying healthy by eating right and exercising, maintaining healthy indoor air quality in your home requires on-going dedication. As homebuilding professionals, we can help with your journey by providing you with a healthy, sustainable home to start, but what you bring into your home after that is up to you.  Wellness is a journey, and I hope this information proves useful in yours.

About the Author

Shannon Ricketts joined KGA in March of 2019. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, she now calls Boulder home and can’t get enough of the Colorado lifestyle. Pretty much any time of the year you can find Shannon and her fiancé enjoying the outdoors with their rescued black lab, Shadow. Some of their favorite activities include backpacking, trail running, gardening, and winter camping. Shannon is passionate about living sustainably both in terms of reducing waste and prioritizing well-being.

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