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Is your green home killing you?
Airtight homes can trap toxic chemicals inside


August 2015

Last December, nonprofit group Global Community Monitor filed a lawsuit against Lumber Liquidators, claiming the company was selling Chinese-made laminate flooring with illegally high levels of formaldehyde. The toxic chemical is linked to numerous health problems, including respiratory illnesses and cancer. In some cases, the suit claims, the levels were as much as 13 times greater than the California legal limit.

The trial may take years to resolve, but it is already affecting the way new homes are being built and putting green home building in a new light. It turns out, green building may be good for the environment, but it is not necessarily healthy for its occupants.

As homes become more airtight and energy efficient, they can also easily trap in toxic chemicals, promote the growth of mold and cause other health risks. Scott Humber, chief executive officer of Lakeside Development Company, explains, "About 15 years ago, the term ‘sick house’ became a concern of people building new homes. This was a result of the building industry building super-insulated and ultra-tight homes as a means of saving on energy costs. The problem is that as the homes became more energy efficient — and since more products are not natural — the chemicals used to produce them begins to off-gas into the home and linger there."

Andrew Pace, founder and owner of the Green Design Center, a company that helps its clients design, remodel and build homes that are both green and healthy, agrees that energy efficient building has had some unintended consequences. "People are now living in homes that can’t get fresh air. There are over 90,000 chemicals used in the production of consumer goods, and only 3 percent have been tested for their toxicity to humans. It’s no wonder why the rate of allergies and asthma is skyrocketing and people have sleep problems and digestive issues."

Part of the problem is that a lot of people assume green means healthy. "It doesn’t, but most consumers and even many professionals don’t know the difference," says Pace. "The building industry has been concentrating on green building from the point of view of energy efficiency and global environmental concerns. Nowhere in that discussion has human health been interjected."

Things are now beginning to change. The construction industry has seen the need to certify homes not only for their greenness (LEED), but for their healthiness as well. Just last year, the International WELL Building Institute, a public benefit corporation, launched the WELL Building Standard, the world’s first building standard that focuses exclusively on human health. WELL sets performance requirements in seven categories relevant to occupant health in the built environment — air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Like LEED, WELL certification is awarded at one of three levels: silver, gold and platinum.

Apart from becoming WELL certified, what can you do if you are remodeling or building a new home? Humber points to some simple ways to make a home healthier. "In a very tight home, air can be refreshed by mechanical means. The best way is through a whole house heat recovery air exchanger, which brings in fresh exterior air and exhausts stale interior air while recovering most of the energy. A cheaper solution is running bath exhaust fans at multiple times during the day, which can be done with a programmable timer. It does not recover the energy before exhausting the inside air, but the cost of installation is far less," he says.

Korinne Haeffel, executive director of the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance, says the key is to find trained, certified professionals for any building project and to become an educated consumer. "Start at the beginning by choosing the right property. The location of the home is just as important to health as its interior. Building in people-centric communities with parks, bicycle lanes and amenities within walking distance will encourage healthy lifestyles as well," she says.

Pace says the best thing anyone can do is disassociate green from healthy. "The two are vastly different. Very few consumer goods that are labeled as green are actually healthier for the user than their non-green counterparts. When a product manufacturer or retailer tells you that their product is green, ask why and how."


This story ran in the August 2015 issue of: