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The Five Home Construction Materials that Pose the Highest Health Risk to You

Building a new home certainly has its up-sides: no avocado green appliances, paisley wallpaper or, worse, hidden mold growing in the basement. But new homes are not without fault. Home-building materials are often toxic and getting them brand-new makes no difference.

Although you may not smell, see or taste it, construction materials emit various gasses and other compounds into your home, many of which are highly toxic. This is part of the reason why the Environmental Protection Agency says that indoor air can be two to five times (and even up to 100 times) more polluted than outdoor air.

deck wood

Decks and playgrounds made of pressure-treated wood can contain arsenic, pesticides and other toxins that can be easily transferred onto your child's hands ... and into their mouth.

This doesn't mean you should never consider building a new home. While homes that have been lived in a few years may actually be a little healthier since the materials have had a chance to do some of their initial out-gassing, very old homes can bring up a whole new set of problems (lead paint, asbestos, mold, etc.).

Upon building a home (and making the seemingly endless decisions that go along with it), put some consideration into the actual materials that will be used. Often, safer, healthier and more environmentally friendly options exist, and not necessarily for a greater price. Following are some of the especially toxic building materials to watch out for, along with some alternatives to build a greener, healthier home.

1. Carpeting

Carpeting, though a soft and welcoming addition to most rooms, can be so hazardous that we've previously devoted an entire article to its dangers. The problem is that almost all carpeting in the United States (of the wall-to-wall variety) is made of synthetic materials, which outgas toxins into your home. Just a sampling of the hazardous materials in carpeting include:

  • Petroleum byproducts and synthetics (polypropylene, nylon, acrylic)

  • Soil and stain repellents

  • Vinyl or latex

  • PVC

  • Urethane

  • Antistatic sprays

  • Artificial dyes

  • Antimicrobial treatments

Some of these "ingredients" have been linked to cancer, while others may cause hallucinations, nerve damage, respiratory problems, thyroid damage and damage to the immune system and brain development.

2. Engineered Wood Products

Engineered wood is made by gluing together layers of fragmented wood. It may be used for cabinets, furniture, wall paneling, kitchen counters and more, but the adhesives and bonding agents it contains emit pollutants, including formaldehyde, into the air.

Using natural, solid wood for furniture, cabinets and other indoor wood products can eliminate this problem. There are also engineered wood products out there that contain no, or reduced levels of, chemicals.

3. Oil-Based Paint, Wood Finishes and Paint Strippers

Oil-based paints and stains contain potentially 300 toxic chemicals and 150 carcinogens, according to a John Hopkins University study. Among them are alkyl resin, kerosene, lead, lithopone, mercury, methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, mineral spirits, toluene, trichoroethane and xylene.

wood cabinets

Engineered wood cabinets, countertops and furniture can emit formaldehyde into the air, while oil-based paints contain a myriad of toxic chemicals.

Paint strippers, which are required to remove oil-based paint (and to clean brushes, etc.), also contain toxic and highly volatile chemicals such as methylene chloride, toluene, acetone and methanol.

Vapors from oil-based paints and strippers accumulate in the air while painting, and can irritate the eyes, skin and lungs.

A much safer alternative is to look for latex water-based paints or low-volatility paints, which have fewer toxic solvents. Water-based paint strippers are also available, and though they can still cause eye and skin irritation, they are less toxic than oil-based strippers.

4. Pressure-Treated Wood and Wood Preservatives

Wood preservatives are used to protect wood from fungi, bacteria and parasites. It can either be applied to the wood's surface or injected into the wood, in which case it's called pressure-treated wood. Wood preservatives include toxic pesticides, creosote, arsenic and more.

Most treated wood used for residential homes (decks, playgrounds, etc.) contain a mixture of copper, chromium, and arsenic called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. Studies have found that the chemicals leach into the ground and transfer to the skin from everyday contact.

This is particularly dangerous for children, who may play on a treated-wood playground or deck, then put their hands (which may be contaminated with arsenic or other chemicals) in their mouth. Sawdust and smoke from burning treated wood is also toxic if inhaled.

There are many alternatives to highly toxic pressure-treated wood. Sometimes, wood preservatives are not necessary, as wood can keep quite well if well-ventilated and kept away from soil (in some cases a water repellant or sealer may be needed). You can also choose hardier woods that are naturally weather-resistant, which include cedar, redwood and cypress.

Finally, if you must use treated wood, certain varieties contain less toxic chemicals than others (for instance, you can buy pressure-treated wood that's arsenic-free).

5. Insulation

Most people are aware of the dangers of asbestos in insulation, but even standard fiberglass insulation can be dangerous. Bits of fiberglass can be toxic if inhaled (some have compared their dangers to those of asbestos), and many varieties also contain formaldehyde that can be released into the air.

You can purchase safer types of insulation from green building suppliers, such as cotton insulation or insulation made from recycled paper that is formaldehyde-free and can be installed without having to use a respirator.

Green Building Resources

There are many builders and construction supply companies out there that only carry non-toxic, sustainable building materials. Here are a few to check out:

Recommended Reading

The Secret Way to Add Value to Your Home: It's Easy, Relatively Inexpensive & Beautiful!

Dangerous Toxic Fumes from Six Everyday Products that You Most Want to Avoid


Washington Toxics Coalition

U.S. Green Building Council

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