There are healthy alternatives to every part of the building process, so before choosing any product, ask to see the material safety data sheet. One thing particularly to look out for are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found in structural components, cladding, textiles and furniture. Examples are solvents in paint and wallpaper and upholstery foam, treatments to prevent timber rotting and carpet glues to hold fibres, backing and underlay together. Volatile organic compounds give off breathable chemical vapours that can be found in high concentrations indoors, contaminating the air. A serious and common example in New Zealand is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It may be present in the shiny finish on your floor, in the engineered timber used to make kitchen cabinets, the glue holding your wallpaper to the wall, the cladding in your couch. It leaches from the raw edges of composite wood particle products such as particle board, MDF and plywood used in cabinets, furniture and joinery.
Fortunately, most volatile organic compounds are most noticeable and at their highest concentrations immediately after a house has been built or renovated. That “new” smell some people find so attractive is in fact a chemical concoction best avoided. It may seem a lot to ask, but consider holding off moving into your new or renovated home for a few weeks (a month to be on the safe side) to let the concentrations of volatile organic compounds subside. Some people produce reactions such as respiratory problems, headaches, tiredness, coughing sneezing, dizziness and eye, nose, throat and skin irritations. Reactions may be instant or cumulative.
Inhaling even small amounts of carbon monoxide can produce many of these symptoms. And the source of carbon monoxide? The cars we park in garages attached to the house. A simple solution is to ensure the door between the garage and the rest of the house is well sealed. Better still, have two doors between the garage and the body of the house.
Look for logos
Always look for environmental benchmarks or ratings such as Forest Steward Council, sustainably treated timber marks or the Environmental Choice logo when buying products. The choices you make affect your health and that of your family as well as having an impact on the environment.