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."
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
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.
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.
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."