While the economics of living in a tight, well insulated, house are important, I believe that there is another factor that stands above all others, wellness. It’s an idea that’s hard to nail down. A healthy house means different things to different people. Some might think of solid stair rails, others would mention non-slip floors, or child proof electric outlets. Health and comfort are difficult, maybe impossible, to quantify.
Indoor air quality, or IAQ, is a primary concern. Practically everything in a modern house can be a source of pollution. For example, particle board, engineered wood flooring, adhesives and caulking, paint and wood stains, are all products which often contain formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, benzene and alcohol.
Chlorinated tap water releases chloroform. Carpet releases alcohol and other chemical vapor. Nail polish remover contributes acetone. Household cleaners often contain ammonia. And let’s not forget the nerve agents that we use to control bugs.
Burning natural gas for heating or cooking is one of the largest and most dangerous sources of indoor pollution. Research has linked natural gas cooking to asthma and other respiratory ailments.
None of this was a problem prior to the second world war. Houses leaked. The air quality inside was the same as the air quality outside. Back then, our economy was just starting to become industrialized. Unless you lived next to a factory, coal mine or steel mill, the overall air quality was likely quite good. Health problems resulting from pollution were not yet a national epidemic.
Our industrial age means that the interior of our homes are full of synthetic materials. The fact that houses leaked, probably prevented concentrations of interior pollutants from being recognized as dangerous. With the benefit of hindsight, we now realize, some damage was being done. The human health risks accumulate over time. By the time a respiratory ailment is diagnosed, it’s impossible to find a cause. Just look at how long asbestos was in common use before we realized how dangerous it was.
Now we know how to build a new house, or renovate an older home, and make it tight, and well insulated. The envelope and mechanical systems are a necessary prerequisite for keeping bad stuff from outside getting inside. But building a complete home that’s both healthy and comfortable also requires preventing all those nasty chemicals produced by modern building materials from accumulating and polluting our interior space.
The Really Basic Healthy House checklist.
The first and most critical thing you can do it to avoid bringing pollutants inside your home. Read labels. Educate yourself. Paints, floor or grout sealant, the finish on those kitchen cabinets, those are all potential hazards. Never store toxic or volatile chemicals, cleaning products, or solvents inside the envelope of conditioned space. A lot of home products that smell nice, are not nice for your body. In one study, a plug-in air freshener was found to emit 20 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including seven regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws. But these chemicals were not included on the label — only the word “fragrance” is required to be listed. But the actual composition of the fragrance is considered a “trade secret.” While it’s impossible to eliminate every possible contaminant, better choices can be made.
Don’t use unvented combustion sources. Fireplaces, heaters, stoves and furnaces all must be properly vented to the outside. In a tight house this can be much more dangerous than is immediately apparent. It’s OK to have a romantic dinner by candlelight, but beyond that, think carefully about where the combustion products are going, and where the makeup air is coming from. A tight house must have carbon monoxide alarms. Check battery backups and test on a regular schedule. This point can’t be stressed enough.
- Insure the mechanical ventilation (ERV / HRV) is performing as designed. Make sure there are no leaks and the unit is providing adequate air changes per hour for the space and number of occupants. Make sure the best possible filters are used and cleaned on a regular basis. Remember that if the power is out, your ventilation is not working, open a few windows.Knowledge is power, have your indoor air tested. There are home test kits for formaldehyde, many VOCs, particulates and mold. They’re not cheap, but the better ones include sending samples to a proper lab. At least you will know your base levels.
It’s unfortunate that we have to go though all this effort and expense to insure our own home is a Healthy House. We live in a post industrial world full of factory manufactured products, every one of which is made to be as profitable as possible. The recent ‘Lumber Liquidators’ settlement is a case in point. No settlement will make up for damage to your health.