Building healthy houses

Start with avoiding plastics and chemicals

Posted 10/18/23

We are living in an age in which, despite ever-growing advances in preventive health care, we see increasing incidents of early childhood asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and autism. 

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Building healthy houses

Start with avoiding plastics and chemicals


We are living in an age in which, despite ever-growing advances in preventive health care, we see increasing incidents of early childhood asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and autism. 

We are also living in an age, according to the EPA, where Americans are, on average, spending 90 percent of their time indoors where, ironically, the air quality is two to five times more polluted than outdoors. 

The most common chemical additives found in the built environment are polyvinyl chlorides, antimicrobials, phthalates, formaldehyde, bisphenolA (BPA) and perfluorinated compounds. 

Where are they found?

Outside the home

Vinyl siding is pervasive in the building world as a cladding material. It is “cheap,” quick to install, “never” needs maintenance and comes in a variety of colors, lap sizes and textures. Because it is inexpensive (from a first-dollar perspective), vinyl as a cladding choice is often the material of choice when the low bid gets the job. (This is definitely not a cheap solution when you consider the health implications.)

Moving on: the sheathing is the material applied to the exterior walls to give lateral stability to the home. Prior to the development of sheet goods—Homasote and 4-foot-by-8-foot panels of engineered wood—milled boards were placed on a diagonal bias to the framing members (studs for the walls and joists for the floors). 

The post-WWII building boom gave way to the use of Homasote boards for speed of construction and was soon overshadowed by the use of plywood. Plywood soon met its cheap competitor, oriented strand board (OSB). 

The commonality of the two was the use of formaldehyde-based adhesives to bond the materials together. 

The next layer, insulation, continued the trend of loading our homes with unhealthy materials. With the building boom of the ‘50s, not much thought was given to insulating the exterior wall cavity and roof. 

Cellulose, a recycled, shredded newsprint, was pretty benign, and was blown into the walls and attics of existing homes. (This is what insulated my childhood home, because my dad grew up during the Depression and did not like to waste things, especially energy).

Cellulose was outpaced by fiberglass—a blown glass insulation—which was bound into layered sheets with formaldehyde-based adhesives.

In the ‘70s, spray foam reared its poisonous head and made entry into the insulation market. Spray foam is liquid plastic, petrochemical-based, with a propellant (blowing agent) that has a high global warming potential (GWP). 

Today, spray foam manufacturers claim to have a blowing agent with a GWP of 0. The basis of the insulation, though, is still petrochemical-based liquid plastic.

Inside the home

Interior finishes such as plaster and lathe were replaced by wallboards like Gold Bond sheet goods. These needed to be painted, and lead-based paints were introduced for both interior and exterior applications. 

When we learned of the health hazard of lead-based oil paints, latex or water-based paints were introduced. These were not so harmful at first, but “better living through chemistry” introduced polymers to make the paint flow better and to “naturally” flatten itself. Phthalates helped make the paints spread evenly. That new paint smell (the off-gassing of the chemistry of the paint) was not a healthy scent, but we were taught that it was. 

To make the painted wall easy to clean, fluorinated compounds were added.

To assist us with trying to eradicate germs, antimicrobials were added to the mix.

Wood floors with wool area rugs gave way to wall-to-wall carpets made of nylon, olefin and other synthetic, petrochemical-based fibers. Fluorinated compounds were applied to resist staining, and flame retardants were added to reduce the possibility of fire, which was due to the robust flammability of synthetic oil-based fibers. 

This pattern was copied in furniture coverings, bedding and children’s pajamas.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, countertops that were once stainless or enameled steel gave way to modern plastics such as formica and cultured stone. The linoleum floor covering was challenged by sheet vinyl and sheet vinyl has been challenged by “luxury” vinyl flooring materials. Because linoleum (made from linseed oil) was naturally antimicrobial, it did not harbor mold or other organic growth. It cleaned nicely with soap and water and did not need a coat of wax to look good.

In a nutshell, as we look at the cumulative exposure to multiple chemicals introduced to our built environment, we see the devastation of our health.

 Admittedly, this is a daunting field to explore but well worth the effort.

Remember the “first dollar”? More often than not, going cheap on that first-dollar expenditure by choosing inappropriate materials leads to higher expenditures in the future in both health problems and energy use. If the builder/designer/specifier had to bear that cost 30 years out, they would find that choosing the healthiest building materials would be their best return on your investment.

Stephen Stuart holds certificates in Healthy Materials and Sustainable Building and Healthy and Sustainable Affordable Housing from Parsons Healthy Materials Lab.

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