After Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, many of us start craving signs of spring. An appealing way to invite spring into your home early is spring cleaning – with a twist! Use the weeks before the Spring Equinox (March 20) to try a few makeover tips and create a more sustainable home.
Shocking but true: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that your indoor air can be anywhere from 10 to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air! You’ve probably heard of Sick Building Syndrome, radon, and asbestos. These are just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately.
The synthetic industrial chemicals used to manufacture our furniture, cabinets, paints, carpets, fabrics, and even the cleaning products we’ve come to rely on are not just an environmental hazard created in the manufacturing process. They harbor a personal health hazard when we bring them into our homes: they break down over time, releasing microscopic particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals into the indoor environment, where they are trapped and become concentrated.
An increasing number of reputable studies released by the EPA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine and others, link VOCs and chemicals released into our homes to a spectrum of serious health conditions, from cancer to respiratory, cardiovascular, and hormonal disorders.
Home Sweet Home, Not So Sweet?
Traffic pollution, pesticides, off-gassing (from breaking down) synthetics, plywood, fiberglass, kitchen cabinets, popular cleaning products, even the latex paint on your walls are culprits. The good news is that there are many options to help you reduce the levels of toxic chemicals in your home. Look for the latest standard when buying new home furnishings – OEKO-TEX certification assures that consumer products are free of harmful substances and prohibited chemicals at every stage of production, protecting workers, the environment, and consumers.
Whether you simply add an air-cleaning plant or plan a complete renovation, now is the perfect time to reduce clutter, recycle or donate items you haven’t looked at in over a year, and think of your home in a brand new light.
Start with Light
The lights you live with have a significant impact on mood, vitamin D production, and general health. Consider making maximum use of natural sunlight in your home. Sunrise turns on your wake-up hormones, southern light keeps your home warm, and the western sunset tells your body to start cooling down for sleep. Of course, those of us with small apartments or blocked windows can be a little more creative, including full-spectrum lighting and dimmer switches.
The most sustainable option is the latest LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs and fixtures – now available in a wide range of designs and light quality. LEDs provide enormous energy savings and are supposed to last for decades. These are not the glaring bright first-generation LEDs you might have seen a few years ago, and prices have come down a lot. CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) lighting, an earlier energy-saving option, is not the best option: it contains mercury and must be recycled by specific facilities.
See “Light Bulb Moment” for an overview of everything you every wanted to know about energy-efficient lighting, but keep in mind that prices for LED bulbs have come down significantly since this article was written.
Color Your World
Sometimes just a simple coat of paint can transform a room. Unfortunately ordinary commercial paint is another primary source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the home. Fortunately we’ve seen tremendous progress in natural, earth- and plant-sourced paint with little toxic off-gassing. Even designers profiled in Architectural Digest are now using eco-friendly paints.
Green Planet Paints – “So safe and natural you can bathe in it!” – use plants and minerals for zero VOCs, preservatives, and biocides. Earthborn Paints in the UK are an equally non-toxic innovation. For over 20 years, The Natural Paint Company in New Zealand (featured in the Houzz app) has been creating paints and floor finishes from plant oils, waxes, tree resins, clay and other entirely natural ingredients.
Upside Down and Inside Out
When I was a little army brat, I practiced redesigning our home every time we moved by lying on the floor and imagining the ceiling as the blueprint for my new home. Fortunately, we now have clever apps for actual 3-D and autocad renderings of new looks for your home’s footprint. Visualize the possibilities with Homestyler or the popular Houzz app for Android or iOS. Search “eco-friendly” and you can find recommendations for everything from low-flush ceramic toilets to recycled porch swings.
Porch swings, hammocks, and rocking chairs are ideal for relaxation. Wherever you live, are you maximizing your outdoor space, be it deck, lanai, balcony, porch, veranda or front stoop? With a portable camp chair and stool, you’ve added a luxurious sunroom to your home.
NASA’s “Oxygen Bomb” Houseplants
Not up for painting or for buying a wool carpet this year? Here’s a wonderful discovery: recently, “Collective Evolution” reported on NASA’s Clean Air Study of common houseplants that remove airborne toxins, ranging from formaldehyde and benzene to mold spores and carbon monoxide. You’ve probably seen Spider Plants and Rubber Plants on office desks; they’re working hard to clear the air. Other powerful air cleaners include Azaleas, English Ivy, Bamboo Palm, Chinese Evergreen, Pelargonium, Snake Plant, and the traditionally helpful Aloe Vera. Great choice for low-light conditions: bring home a Peace Lily, enjoy the beauty, and breathe easy!
by Lisa Davidson
Next Up: Look for sustainable flooring options, environmentally friendly furniture, energy-efficient appliances, and non-toxic cleansers – in Parts Two and Three.