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Less-Toxic Home Repair & Construction Materials

tips on choosing building materials with fewer toxic chemicals

Flooring

Avoid vinyl flooring, and choose solid wood, bamboo, cork, or linoleum instead. vinyl flooring
If you decide to install carpet, choose natural materials (such as wool) and take care to avoid stain-resistant finishes.
Watch out for PVC/vinyl and PBDEs in carpet padding and backing, and pesticides used to repel insects and mold.
Try to vacuum carpet once a week because it can harbor pollutants and potential allergens.
If you are refinishing or installing flooring, choose less-toxic finishes and adhesives to reduce exposure to volatile solvents that pollute indoor air.

A source of healthier flooring, finishes, and other building products is the Environmental Home Center in Seattle.

Paints and stains

Choose low-VOC or zero-VOC latex paints, stains, and primers instead of oil-based products.
Avoid paints containing mercury compounds, which were used in the past as fungicides and are still used in some paints as pigments. Ask manufacturers for Material Safety Data Sheets to inspect ingredients. If you already own paint containing mercury or lead (lead-based paint was common until 1978), dispose of it at a household hazardous waste collection site and select a safer alternative. To find the collection site nearest you in Washington, call 1-800-RECYCLE or see http://1800recycle.wa.gov/.
Avoid stains that contain wood-preservative chemicals, which are considered pesticides. You can identify these pesticide products by looking at the label, which will distinguish between active and inert ingredients (the active ingredients are the wood-preservative chemicals).

For more information see the Washington Toxics Coalition fact sheet: Paints and Wood Preservatives: Protecting Your Wood and Your Health

Wall coverings

Avoid coverings made of vinyl, and choose paint, paper-based wallpaper, or wood paneling instead.

Windows and window coverings

Choose wood, metal, or fiberglass windows instead of vinyl.
Avoid vinyl roller shades, and choose metal or wood blinds instead of vinyl blinds. If you own old vinyl miniblinds that are not labeled as lead-free, test them for lead and replace if necessary. (Vinyl miniblinds sold today must be certified as lead-free, but are still not a healthy choice.)
Clean window coverings often to reduce accumulations of dust and potential allergens, and avoid curtain and window weights made of lead.

Adhesives, caulks, and grout

Choose low-VOC products, and avoid products that contain a group of chemicals known as phthalates. Individual phthalate chemicals that are used in adhesives, caulks and grout are dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP).

Manufactured wood products such as particleboard, fiberboard, and plywood

If possible, choose products that do not contain formaldehyde-based glues. Phenol-formaldehyde glues release less formaldehyde then urea-formaldehyde glues, and products containing less-toxic glues are available. You can apply sealants to exposed surfaces to reduce the release of formaldehyde, but the healthiest option is solid wood.

Thermostats

Choose digital thermostats, which are mercury-free.

Shower curtainsvinyl shower curtain

Avoid vinyl, and choose curtains made of natural fibers, polyester, or nylon.

Plumbing

Avoid PVC piping, especially for pipes carrying drinking water.
Safer alternatives include polyethylene and copper.
Lead pipes, fixtures, and solder were common before 1986, but even today, legally ‘lead-free’ plumbing may contain up to 8% lead. Brass and chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures can leach significant amounts of lead, especially into hot water.
Don’t use hot tap water for drinking or cooking, and flush pipes before using (run water until it becomes as cold as it will get).

Resources for More Information

To locate less-toxic sealants, finishes, and other building materials, consult the Environmental Home Center.

Washington Toxics Coalition FastFacts (FAQs): PVC and Other Plastics

Healthy Building Network: Formaldehyde and Wood

Another good resource is The Healthy House (4th edition) by John Bower, published by the Healthy House Institute.