How to Choose Green Building Materials for a Healthy Home

The Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Home Guide helps builders choose materials that will give consumers a safe, chemical-free home.

Common building or remodeling supplies—like flooring, plumbing, insulation or drywall—can contain toxic chemicals that can present potential health hazards. Homeowners are becoming more aware of what it means to live in a healthy home, and will pay more for a home that doesn’t make them sick. Designers also say that healthy living is driving interior design trends, especially in the kitchen according to recent Houzz surveys.

Chemical pollutants can build up in the indoor air we breathe, released from things like building products, carpet, paint, and other products you wouldn’t expect chemicals to be hiding. That’s why it’s more important than ever for builders to choose products and building materials that are clean and chemical-free, and improve the indoor air quality of the home.

The Environmental Working Group today released the Healthy Living Home Guide which takes a deep dive into the building materials that create a home. Here, BUILDER takes a look at some of the top tips from the EWG and the do’s and don’ts of choosing products for each category.

Drywall

Drywall and joint compounds can pollute the air with health-harming contaminants like mercury and sulfur, which can not only cause health issues like trouble breathing and headaches, but also corrode wiring and appliances, says the EWG. The EWG suggests avoiding drywall made from synthetic gypsum, which is made from coal waste and can be contaminated with mercury that may be released into the air. Choosing a drywall product that was made in the U.S. in 2016 or later will ensure that it meets U.S. regulations for low sulfur emissions, and Greenguard-certified drywall products have been tested and certified for low emission of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The EWG also recommends using low-VOC and biocide-, formaldehyde-, and acetaldehyde-free joint compounds for installation.

Flooring

Controversies such as the Lumber Liquidators case that claimed the company’s wood flooring material contained high amounts of formaldehyde have caused homeowners to pay close attention to flooring product options. For the healthiest home, the EWG recommends using sold surface flooring instead of carpet, laminate, or vinyl flooring, as those can contain toxic chemicals in the glues and resins used to fuse wood layers together and can be treated with chemical biocides or fungicides. FSC-certified wood; recycled/reclaimed wood with a water-based, Green Seal 11-certified finish; natural linoleum; or ceramic, porcelain, and glass tiles are all clean options. For installation, using low-VOC glue, nail-down, or click/interlocking installation techniques are healthier than glues that could contain formaldehyde.

Insulation

Insulation is one of the most important parts of the home, especially for homeowners that focus on energy efficiency. Insulation comes in several forms: batts, rolls, blown in, rigid boards or spray foam. Some products may contain chemical flame retardants like those found in rigid foam; formaldehyde, which can still sometimes be present in fiberglass and mineral wool though most has been phased out; and VOCs found in polyurethane spray foam insulation that can also be harmful to workers during installation. The EWG suggests using Greenguard-certified insulation materials with low VOCs and rigid insulation that do not contain flame retardants, such as mineral wool, perlite, cellular glass or cork board.

Carpet

The EWG actually recommends installing wood flooring with a low-VOC finish or tile with a low-VOC sealant instead of carpet, which is usually made from synthetic materials like nylon and polypropylene that can lead to respiratory symptoms and eye irritation. The carpet backing, chemical treatments for stain and waterproofing, padding, and glues can emit harmful VOCs and have chemical consequences of their own. If you do choose carpet, consider wool carpet or Green Label Plus or Greenguard-certified carpets as a healthy alternative. Wool carpets and wool or felt padding are made from natural, renewable fibers so they’re chemical free and sustainable. For installation, look for low-VOC adhesives or hook fastener systems that require no adhesives at all.

Caulks, Sealants, and Adhesives

According to the EWG’s research, caulks, sealants, and adhesives are often made with solvents that emit VOCs, or contain formaldehyde, BPA, or phthalates. The Healthy Home Guide says you should look for products that are Greenguard Gold certified, have a low-VOC concentration of no more than 50 grams per liter for interior applications, and are water-based latex caulks and sealants whenever possible as they’re the least toxic. For wet or damp areas, like sinks or tubs, use a solvent-free silicone caulk, and choose a polyether-based sealant for exterior uses. You should also avoid products with added biocides for mold and mildew and caulks and sealants with mineral spirits, petroleum distillates, ethylene glycol, MEK, toluene, xylene, and acetone in high doses.

Plumbing and Pipes

Lead in pipes has long been a concern with plumbing materials, but the plastic pipes replacing metal ones may contain harmful effects of their own. PVC and PEX piping can leach chemicals into drinking water and cause health problems. The EWG says copper pipes are a long-lasting option that won’t add chemicals and toxins to drinking water. For a more affordable option, polypropylene pipes, are less expensive than copper and are less likely to leach chemicals into water than other types of plastic piping. Make sure to use joint materials that contain less than 0.20 percent lead.

Decking

Decking products can be treated with harmful chemicals like arsenic and copper compounds that are used as a preservative and insecticide in pressure-treated wood. The EWG suggests you look for untreated and naturally rot-resistant wood that is Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, certified or sustainably harvested. Recycled plastic decking that is mostly comprised of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) or LDPE (low-density polyethylene), reclaimed, untreated wood, and aluminum decking are all recommended options. Heat-treated lumber does not use chemical preservatives, but the EWG says the heat and steam required for production is energy intensive. You should also use low-VOC stains and waterproofing treatments.

Paint

Some paints emit harmful chemicals that can cause a range of health-related issues, from dizziness and headaches to liver or nervous system damage, says the EWG. Some paints have a high concentration of VOCs, so you should opt for a low- or no-VOC, water-based latex paint with less than 50 grams per liter of VOCs for flat paint and no more than 100 grams per liter for non-flat paint. You can also look for a Green Seal-11 certified paint, which regulates harmful chemicals such as nonylphenol ethoxylates, mercury, lead and carcinogens. It also prohibits use of biocide preservatives that can release formaldehyde into the air, as many paints can have antifungal, antimicrobial, or other additives. Milk paints can also be a healthier alternative to water-based latex or oil-based paints.

Wood Stains and Finishes

Wood stains can be made with harmful petroleum- and chemical-based solvents, according to the EWG. Water-based stains often contain fewer VOCs and are a healthy alternative to fishes with carcinogenic solvents, heavy metals, certain phthalates, and hazardous air pollutants like ethylene glycol and formaldehyde. the EWG reccommends avoiding varnish, acrylic or urethane, for indoor applications.

Lauren Shanesy(*) / Builder Online

(*) Lauren is a Senior Associate Editor for Hanley Wood’s residential construction group. She holds two bachelor’s degrees in English Writing and Communications from Clemson University.