Are Our Homes Making Us Sick?


Lynn Marie Bower became seriously ill after working on a 6-year remodeling project on her home. As a result, she learned that many of the building products sold in stores can adversely affect your health (Bower). Lynn as well as many others are discovering the ill-effects of indoor air pollution. One of the main sources of this pollution is from manufactured wood products Many of the glues used in these wood products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that evaporate or “offgas” after installation. Exposure to VOCs can irritate the eyes and nose as well as cause a whole host of respiratory problems, and is strongly suspected of causing cancer. There are safer alternatives to plywood and particle board on the market today that will help prevent the problem of hazardous gasses in the home. Engineered wood products should not be used in the construction of homes.


One of the most common VOCs in the home is formaldehyde from glue. The formaldehyde is found in the glue that is used to make wood products such as plywood, particleboard, and fiberboard. According to the State of California Air Resources Board, “These wood products are used extensively in the construction on conventional and mobile homes and are found in subfloors, cabinets, shelves, hardwood wall paneling, laminated flooring, and doors.” Some foam insulation also contains formaldehyde. Emissions of formaldehyde and other VOCs are thought to be the highest when the products are new. Because homes today are constructed to be more energy-efficient, they are more air-tight and do not allow much fresh air in or contaminated air out and this can elevate the levels of VOCs in the air. The levels of formaldehyde in mobile homes tend to be particularly high because of the extensive use of the high-emitting materials in a relatively small air space. According to the Environmental Health Center, “ The World Health Organization recommends that exposure should not exceed 0.05 ppm. The following table shows many of the sources of VOCs in the home.


Table 1


Sources of and Effects of Indoor Air Pollution


Lowry, Stella “Indoor Air Quality.” British Medical Journal. 299 Dec. 2, 1989. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host Research Databases. James A Rhodes


State College Library, Lima, OH. Jan. 20-, 2004 Http://web1.epnet.com.


The respiratory health problems associated with VOCs range from minor irritations to acute health complications. Formaldehyde can cause eyes to water, burning in the throat and eyes, nausea, skin rashes, and breathing difficulty at exposure levels above .1 parts per million. There is evidence that prolonged exposure to VOCs can cause cancer in animals and the Environmental Protection Agency listed formaldehyde as a possible cancer-causing agent for people. (Minnesota Department of Health). Your risks of adverse health effects do to indoor air pollution depends upon the amount and duration of the exposure. According to John Bower, author of Building a new healthy house, “It has been estimated that indoor air pollution results in lost productivity and health care costs in the United States of up to 100 billion dollars per year”.


There are safer alternatives available which will reduce exposure to these hazardous VOCs in the home. The first step is to identify the possible sources. As mentioned earlier, the most likely sources of formaldehyde are pressed wood products. It is best to use all natural wood products whenever possible. If using pressed wood products, avoid the products made with urea formaldehyde. There are some pressed wood products that are made with phenol resins instead of urea resins and emit fewer toxins into the air. According the Air & Waste Management Association, “When purchasing composite wood products, such as particleboard or plywood, look for products that are labeled or stamped as conforming to American National Standard Institute (ANSI) standards that specify lower formaldehyde levels.” Coating pressed wood products with polyurethane is thought to reduce emissions (The American Lung Association.). To be effective, the coating must cover all surfaces and edges of the wood. Avoiding the use of formed-in-place insulation containing formaldehyde, especially those containing urea-formaldehyde foam will also help reduce the VOCs in your home. Since the furniture used in the home is often made with pressed-wood products, replacing these with solid wood furniture will help keep your house healthy. It is also a good idea to