Toxicity in the Home and 6 Tips For Improving Air Quality

Earthborn Paint small
Our Fields House project using low VOC content clay-based paints from Earthborn

Whilst our homes are supposed to be a safe haven, it is estimated that a large proportion of homes in the UK have poor indoor air quality. That can contribute to poor health, often referred to as ‘toxic home syndrome’.

We are exposed to airborne toxins in many areas of our daily life, but as we spend a significant portion of our time in the home, some of the choices we make when renovating or decorating our home can have a significant impact on reducing exposure to harmful vapours or gases.

In this blog we would like to give you a little bit of background into why it is important to reduce toxicity in the home and to provide you with some really good and simple tips to help reduce exposure and improve air quality in your home.

What should I be looking out for?

The main pollutants in the home are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). These are compounds that can easily become vapours or gases and therefore we inhale them through the air we breathe. Some of them smell, some of them don’t, some of them are present in materials used for construction, some of them are created biologically (think mould).

Short term exposure to toxic VOC’s can cause symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, long term exposure can cause increased risk of internal organ damage (kidneys, liver) and increased risk of cancer.

Scientific study into the effects of toxic VOC’s is very difficult, due to the time it takes for symptoms to develop and the relatively low level of chemicals. Some studies show evidence that VOC levels are higher in new homes versus older properties, which suggest modern materials are a large contribution. However, it is an area of human health that we believe is going to reveal more with time and future generations may look back and wonder what on earth we were thinking allowing such high levels in the home, much the same way that we look back on say the hygiene standards of the Victorians.

How can I reduce the presence of VOC’s in the home?

There are two key ways to do this, one is to minimise their presence in the first place by selecting materials and finishes that have low levels of VOC’s. The other way is to expel VOC’s in your home by making sure it is well ventilated.

Below are our top tips for those of you who would like to reduce the level of toxins you are exposed to in your home;

1 / Use paint with low VOC content.

Paints are a very common source of VOC’s, which is evident in the smell they release shortly after being applied. However, the harmful chemicals continue to be released for many years after application. The EU sets a maximum limit of 300 grams of VOC per litre, which is the amount contained in some of the leading paint brands, however there are some really good and readily accessible brands that produce paints with far less (and some zero) grams per litre, some examples below, with VOC content in brackets;

Little Greene Intelligent Eggshell (max 2g/L VOC) https://www.littlegreene.com/

Farrow and Ball Estate Eggshell 40% sheen (max 3g/L VOC) https://www.farrow-ball.com/

Earthborn Eco Pro Eggshell (max 0.5/L VOC) https://earthbornpaints.co.uk/

Lakeland Satin Gloss (0.0g/L VOC) https://www.lakelandpaints.co.uk/

Also, remember to look out for some paints that don’t abide by the EU maximum set.

2 / Know where you are sourcing materials from

There are many materials produced outside of the EU that don’t adhere to EU guidelines for levels of VOC content. The materials may cheaper but not worth it in the long term for your health. Some would even consider the permissible levels allowed by the EU are already too high due to the relatively recent nature of research into toxins and their harm to our health.

An excellent material that we have used before called Plyboo uses multiple layers of bamboo bonded with a soy glue rather than artificial glues, which is much better for air quality (https://www.plyboo.com/).

The-Studio-Stoke-Newington-Property-Renovation
The Studio project (George’s old house) that we built ourselves using good quality plywood from James Lathams.

 

3 / Choose natural woods where possible.

Most flat pack furniture is made of MDF, which generally contains high levels of Formaldehyde, one of the most common forms of VOC. Try minimising the amount of MDF in your home and using natural timber alternatives, or ask your builder to use MDF with low levels of Formaldehyde (all wood contains a natural amount of Formaldehyde). Medite Clear MDF and Medite Smart Ply are two examples of non-added formaldehyde timber board. Link example of mdf story.

If you are using materials with high levels of formaldehyde, it is recommended that you allow them to ‘air’ for a while before installation, or that you make sure your newly renovated space is very well ventilated for several days before occupation.

For more information read this article about a couple’s bad experience with a new MDF wardrobe https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/feb/09/mdf-furniture-toxic-fumes-formaldehyde

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Our Trevalyan House project (Ewald’s house) using Plyboo, a bamboo-based wood board that is formaldehyde-free.

4 / Don’t smoke in your home.

The leftover residue from smoking can be extremely toxic, It seeps into wall finishes and fabrics and can take decades to naturally dissipate. If you bought a house whose previous occupants were heavy smokers, the only effective way of removing the odour and the airborne toxins would be to strip the interior back to the brickwork and start again.

5 / Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated.

A large proportion off VOC’s are produced in cooking so make sure that you use your extractor fan when cooking on the hob. One of the maybe slightly more unassuming sources of pollutants in the home is the toaster, that can emit very high levels of VOC’s, which is why it is essential to make sure your kitchen is well ventilated naturally (as it is very unlikely you will put your extractor fan on when you are making toast!). This can be achieved by ensuring good background ventilation, which also helps prevent condensation and mould growth.

Naturally occurring mould, often caused by condensation, can contain the highest levels of VOC’s, over any building products or cooking and can be prevented by a good level of constant background ventilation.

This can be achieved by installing trickle ventilators, which are required by Building Regulations but can be often overlooked. They are slots, which allow a constant trickle of cold air into the home at such a low volume that you don’t need to worry about them affecting room temperature.

In addition to trickle vents, In a new kitchen extension with either sliding or bi-folding doors, we always recommend to install an additional opening window (like a roof-light) that can be left slightly open for constant background ventilation. These provide a good way of ventilating the house whilst maintaining security and not letting the rain get in.

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Our Steelframe House project, which includes an additional opening roof window in the ceiling to provide secondary ventilation when the garden doors are closed.

6 / Get back to nature.

It is very well documented that plants have extremely good natural capacity for removing harmful toxins from the air, helped in large part to extensive testing by NASA. Make sure you allow space for potted plants inside your home. Palm, bamboo, fern and rubber plants are all particularly good at absorbing toxins. Trees are also very good at improving air quality and one located near to your house can reduce pollution in the home by up to 50%!

In summary, if there are two key takeaway points from this blog, we recommend that you make sure your home is well ventilated and that you choose your building materials carefully. We are all taking more note of the ingredients that go into our food, we believe we should be doing the same with our homes!

 

If you are interested in reading into this subject matter further, a good starting place is the World Health Organization website that has a number or articles on air pollution and the health of our working and living environments (https://www.who.int/).

 

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