Is your house killing you? Why some people think paint, carpets and furniture could be poisonous

Published in City A.M., October 2019

Think back to the last time you redecorated a room. Did you paint a wall? Lay a new carpet? Buy a shelving unit with a Swedish-sounding name? According to some housebuilders, architects and designers, all of these things could be making you ill.

They say that many common types of paint, carpets, flooring, kitchen and bathroom surfaces, and MDF furniture – essentially everything in our homes – contain chemicals that can be damaging to health. As a result there is a small but growing drive to detoxify new homes, and clean up existing ones. But are our homes really bad for us – or is this just hypochondria’s latest frontier?

The substances in question are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and are also found in cigarettes, solvents and cleaning products. The one you’ve probably heard of is formaldehyde, and others include benzene and bisphenol A. While they’re not going to poison you on contact, some believe that long periods of exposure can cause respiratory problems and skin diseases, as well as other, potentially more serious illnesses.

Top 50 architect Perkins and Will has created an open-source website called Transparency which contains a ‘precautionary list’ of materials that contain ‘questionable’ substances, in the hope that architects will start to question the materials they use. The number of substances on the list is currently 56, and the architect’s clients will be informed if any of them are to be used in their projects.

Joseph Homes' No1 Millbrook Park
Joseph Homes’ No1 Millbrook Park, where the developer has tried to reduce chemicals in the building process

“Our hope is that this will influence manufacturers to reformulate products for reduced toxicity” reads the website. “By changing one product, together with our partners in the design and construction process, we believe that we are participating in an effort to change the world.”

The website cites a US government study claiming substances in homes can “interfere with hormone regulation and physical development… lead to neurological problems, a weakened immune system, and more.”

But if the danger is real, why aren’t more people talking about it? Well, it’s almost impossible to prove – and for this reason, little evidence is being collected to even try to prove it.

Lack of evidence

“Isolating the cause of illnesses is very difficult. Is it from their home or pollution out on the streets?” says Peter Newton, architectural director at Barton Willmore and associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, who has been researching the hidden chemicals in our homes for more than a decade.

The figures out there tend to be from healthy air campaign groups, and it’s not always clear how they reached them. My Health, My Home says 15.3 million UK homes are at risk of ‘toxic home syndrome’ – when a combination of pollutants, allergens and chemicals mean respiratory and skin diseases “can occur more frequently.” Another such group, Clean Air Day, estimates that 45 per cent of homes exceed “healthy” levels of VOCs.

You know that fresh paint smell? It’s really not good for you

Most housebuilders aren’t paying much attention, but that hasn’t stopped Joseph Homes, which is currently building about 200 homes around London. Its managing director, Michael Bryn-Jones, says the company plans to be “VOC-free” within five years.

“You know that fresh paint smell? It’s actually really not good for you,” he says. “We are looking at the materials we put into homes and the chemical components of them, and asking, are these things we would ordinarily want to be around?”

He says people who buy Joseph homes don’t usually ask about it of their own accord, but they like the VOC-free approach when it’s explained to them. Having fewer scary-sounding chemicals in your family home isn’t a difficult sell – but is there really a serious danger to people’s health? Bryn-Jones says it’s at least “a debate we should be having”.

There is a new market for chemical-free versions of building materials, such as this sound insulation by EO Acoustic which is made out of conifer needles.

Another early mover is Facit Homes, which fits all its homes with a filter where “stale” air is extracted to remove, among other things, “chemicals released from furniture and carpets” and replaces soft furnishings with cement, wood, ceramic tiles and synthetic blinds.

“As concerns grow over air quality and pollution outside the home, particularly in cities, customers are increasingly keen to ensure the air they breathe inside their home is clean and safe,” says director Rhys Denbigh.

The idea of stripping your home of unwanted chemical nasties seems like it should tie in neatly with the current vogue for ‘wellness’ and being eco-conscious. But in reality, the two don’t sit well together. The way to make a home ‘green’ is to make it extremely airtight, so there is as little leakage of energy as possible. But doing that also traps in pollutants, allergens and chemicals.

If you’ve got an eco-friendly home, chemicals are likely to stay in there far longer

“If you’ve got VOCs in [an eco-friendly] home, they are likely to stay in there for longer,” says Newton. “So you have to think about what you put in your house far more.” He adds that in Germany, where lots of homes are built under the strictly-defined green standard, Passivhaus, “you don’t really find people building furniture out of MDF.”

Cleaner by design

Cleaning up the air inside our homes has also caught the imagination of the design industry. For example, at this year’s Global Grad Show in Dubai, which showcases the work of emerging designers across the world, Paulina Kwiatkowska of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw will present a series of sculptures that are displayed as pieces of art, but also cleanse and regulate the air and humidity in a room.

“People are only now realising that the air inside our homes is dirtier and more toxic than out on the streets,” says its curator Eleanor Watson of The Design Museum in London. “And designers are trying to come up with a solution for that that is also aesthetically pleasing.”

One of the air-cleansing sculptures

At the Grand Designs showcase in Birmingham earlier this month, designers AIVAN presented Chip[s] Board: a natural MDF alternative made from potato peel, bamboo, wood and hops which doesn’t contain formaldehyde and is also biodegradable. Atticus Durnell presented That’s Caffeine; a glittering plastic substitute made out of recycled coffee which can be used on kitchen and bathroom surfaces to avoid using petrol-based resin, which also contains VOCs; and EO Acoustic presented sound insulation made out of conifer needles. There more widely available offerings, too – last year Dyson launched a “purifying fan heater” that claims to “remove gases including NO2 formaldehyde and benzene,” yours for £549.

Cost is another barrier to cutting unwanted chemicals from the places we live. With VOC-free alternatives to paint and MDF often being more costly, ‘healthier’ homes might only be for those who can afford it. Ben Adams, founder of Ben Adams Architects, says that while his clients are increasingly interested in achieving “the kind of air cleanliness we see in hospitals,” it is “usually a case of striking a balance between clean air and a sensible budget.” But he adds that people can start by trying to avoid using plastics when decorating their homes, instead using timber, steel, aluminium or leather.

Even if these theories are right, people are going to need a lot more convincing before they believe they can get ill from the stuff that they’ve been putting in their houses for years.

“At the moment, you have to do the work as the consumer,” says Newton. “If you’re deciding between one type of flooring and another, cost is the biggest determinant – and it will remain that way until there is [more evidence] about the risks.”

For now, it’s unlikely many people will be giving that lick of paint a second thought.

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