by Angela Cummings, reviewed by Sophia Ruan Gushée
Back in the early 2000’s, the criteria I used when shopping for a home was this: it had to be cute, in a good neighborhood, and in a manageable price range. All the important criteria widely used in a home search!
I had not considered the materials used or toxic building materials that might have been installed.
Unfortunately, that oversight was significant.
After moving into our new home, I developed a medical condition that (years later) was directly linked to the materials used to construct my 5-year-old home.
While some interior building materials are removable, there are a few things that are tougher to remove or will cost more money to change.
When buying a home consider finding a home with fewer chemicals, or plan to replace certain components with less-toxic materials.
Choosing a Home with Fewer Toxins
When viewing the home consider the toxicity of the home as is, and the cost of replacing toxic building materials with non toxic building materials in order to create a healthier home for you and your family! Here are 7 items to look for when choosing a home that is new-to-you:
- Age of Home
Newly built homes are one of the largest sources of toxic building materials off-gassing chemicals such as VOCs and SVOCs. Why is that? Everything is new—from the framing and insulation to interior finishes and furnishings—and products are off-gassing at a maximum amount. Consider choosing a home that was built 10-20 years ago or more, and that hasn’t been recently remodeled.
- Time Since Remodel
Standard materials such as new flooring, paint, wood trim and doors, cabinets and shower modules off-gas at higher amounts. Opt for homes that have not been newly remodeled, or those that have been remodeled with non toxic materials, particularly in areas that would be expensive to re-remodel!
- Type of Flooring
One of the contributors to indoor air pollution is flooring. Floor coverings made from vinyl, carpet, or laminate wood are the biggest culprits. All three types of flooring are well known for off-gassing chemicals used to make the product itself, add flexibility and cushion (vinyl flexibility, carpet foam), and hold them together (composite wood binders, carpet backing glues). Look for flooring made from 100% ceramic tile, or 100% solid hardwood.
If you strike it lucky, they’ll be old-school solid hardwood flooring under carpeting! In that case, you might only need to refinish the floor with zero-VOC stain and finish instead of replacing the entire flooring. Ceramic tile is widely accepted as one of the healthiest types of materials. When buying a home with ceramic tile, check with the homeowner to be sure it’s 100% ceramic tile. If there are no grout lines in the flooring, the product is not 100% ceramic tile and is very likely made with vinyl or plastic.
- Fresh Paint
Covering every wall and ceiling in the home, paint is a significant contributor to indoor air quality. Newly painted walls off-gas high amounts of VOCs (and other harmful chemicals). Sometimes the new paint can be detected through smell (the famous ‘new paint smell’), but chemicals in the air linger around far after the smell has gone. While paint is an easy-to-fix aspect of a home, keep in mind that you’ll have the additional cost of re-painting with zero-VOC paint in order to improve air quality in the home before moving in.
- Wallpapered Walls
Wallpaper was popular in the 1980’s but still is seen in homes today. Ironically, paper is not typically the primary material in wallpaper. Vinyl is. (1) In addition to the wallpaper itself, the adhesives used to hang the wallpaper often contains chemicals. When buying a home look for a home that does not have large amounts of wallpaper, or has an amount of wallpaper that you’re willing to remove. Wallpaper that has been in place for decades is more likely to peel off easier than newly installed wallpaper and may end up costing less time and labor to replace.
- Shower Module
Plastic shower modules are popular in remodeling, as one of the less-expensive options. However, the plastics and resins used off-gas chemicals at a normal temperature. Plus, they off-gas even more in high temperature and high humidity environments. The exact environment often created by a steaming hot shower. Look for showers and bathtub surrounds made from 100% ceramic tile. Be sure the grout or caulk between tiles is secure before buying a home. If it’s not, add that to your list of ‘to be fixed’ when you purchase the home in order to minimize mold and water damage. This allows you to use zero- or low-VOC grout or caulk during repairs.
Older cabinets are often the best option when looking for a home to purchase. Cabinets are a high-cost item to replace and often made from plywood or composite woods. Even cabinets made with formaldehyde-free plywood today contain other chemicals found in plywood adhesives that may be harmful to health. Consider choosing a home with older cabinets and simply replacing the existing shelving with solid hardwood shelves, and refinishing existing cabinets with a zero- or low-VOC paint or finish. Or, if the cabinets are in shape, leave them as they are! If the cabinets have already been refinished by the current homeowner, ask if they used a zero- or low-VOC finish.
The younger version of me searched for the perfect home, but had not considered the impact that interior finishes could have on my health. It was a mistake that cost me in many ways for years to come. When looking for your new home, include “low chemical” to your list of criteria. Take into consideration the age of the home and when it was last remodeled. Preferably, no new materials have been installed for several years.
Pay attention to the type of windows, flooring, wall covering and finish, shower and tub structure and cabinets in the home. If items need replacing due to age or newness (too many chemicals are still off-gassing), consider the cost of replacing those items with healthier alternatives after the home is purchased, before you make an offer on the home. A little additional legwork up front to avoid high-chemical interior finishes can be helpful later on.
Read more about Angela's story here: "Sick House Syndrome: 3 Strategies for a home that may be making you sick"
(1) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 3 and 4