Healthy choices for home improvement

by Jeanne Huber, Environmental Home Center

This article was originally published in August 2001

Consumers who rejoice at finding a wider selection of organic produce over the past few years now have another change to celebrate: a growing array of home-improvement products that promote healthy living and help ensure a healthy planet.

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These products may take some searching out, but they provide fresh options for families who are building a deck, outfitting a kitchen, repainting a room or tackling other projects this summer. Consumers who ask for these products help make them more widely available.

For example, if you’re building a deck, a fence or any other wood project, you can seek out lumber from a healthy forest managed for sustainable production, wildlife, water supplies and recreation — not just short-term profit. The best way to do this is to look for the insignia of the Forest Stewardship Council, the nonprofit organization leading forest protection worldwide. The logo is green with a squiggly tree and the initials “FSC.” Home Depot, Lowe’s, Lumberman’s and many other companies have pledged to carry this wood, but it still isn’t commonly stocked. Ask for it.

Fence or deck projects often put wood in contact with soil or concrete. To avoid rot or insect attack, homeowners often buy “pressure-treated” lumber — wood that’s been injected with arsenic and chromium, a heavy metal. The amount of arsenic is far from trivial. A deck just eight by 10 feet contains more than 1.3 pounds of this highly potent poison. The alternative is to ask for wood pressure-treated with a copper formula known as ACQ (for ammoniacal copper quartenary). It’s free of arsenic and chromium, yet just as effective in keeping away rot and insects. The initial cost is slightly higher, with much greater benefits in the future.

Indoors, many families save flooring projects for summertime. There are many environmentally sound choices, including true linoleum, cork, bamboo, sustainably harvested hardwood and carpeting made of plant fibers or wool. Many of these are more durable (and beautiful) than standard flooring.

True linoleum, for example, is made from linseed oil, jute and other natural, rapidly replenished ingredients. Linoleum looks great for 40 years or more because the color goes all the way through, making it a good alternative to short-lived vinyl. Cork flooring is another unusual option; it’s made from wine cork production waste. Cork floors are soft and warm underfoot, yet so durable that they have lasted in busy places such as courthouses for a half-century or more.

Many summer projects conclude with a fresh coat of paint or other finish. There are choices to be made here as well. Although water-based, “low VOC” coatings are all the rage, It pays to look beyond these words on a label. VOC stands for “volatile organic compounds” — technically meaning materials that contain carbon and evaporate at room temperature. But low-VOC paints may contain other toxins, such as ammonia. To find a paint that’s low-VOC and low-toxic, ask the store for the “MSDS” (Manufacturers’ Safety Data Sheet). All hazardous, non-proprietary ingredients must be disclosed.

Visit our website at for details on the products mentioned in this story, and many other solutions for healthy homes and building materials that are friendly to the planet.

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