Your home may not be quite the sanctuary you imagine. Many common building materials contain substances that can harm our skin and lungs – solvents in paints, chemicals in treated timber, glues in particle boards and carpets. In this factsheet you will find information about some of the materials in this toxic cocktail, plus alternative products to consider when you build or renovate.
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.
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For further information, contact an eco-design advisor– a source of free, independent advice on how to include sustainable features in your building or renovation project www.ecodesignadvisor.org.nz
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Other useful links:
- smarter Homes (www.smarterhomes.org.nz)
- Sustainable building authority Level (www.level.org.nz)
- Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (www.eeca.govt.nz)
- Building Research Association of New Zealand (www.branz.co.nz)
- Building and Housing, MBIE (www.dbh.govt.nz)