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The Home Workshop - Making it Healthier

By HHI Staff

This article will discuss the home workshop—proper location, storage of materials, and your own personal protection. It also covers the various types of materials and products encountered in projects homeowners (and renters) might tackle.


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Even if you don’t consider yourself a do-it-yourself type, you will likely find some of the information in this article helpful. After all, sooner or later, you will probably need to do some painting or caulking, or you may want to update the cabinetry or a floor covering.


This discussion also includes testing procedures for chemically sensitive individuals so they can determine which construction and remodeling products are best tolerated.

Locations for Your Home Workshop

Ideally, a home workshop should be located in its own separate structure. Another good choice would be in a portion of an insulated, detached garage where the temperature, and perhaps the humidity, can be regulated. 


Yet, in reality, most home workshops are going to be located in basements, utility rooms, and in attached garages. Unfortunately, in these locations a home workshop can pose potential dangers to the rest of the house, and to those who occupy it. A number of products and materials typically found in home workshops can cause skin irritation, be toxic, easily catch fire—or even explode. And some materials are also quite odorous and many are very hazardous to breathe. A few really noxious products may have all of these undesirable qualities. Therefore, if your home workshop is located anywhere within your house, or in an attached garage, the potential for indoor-air contamination (and other potentially dangerous problems) can be quite high.

Safe Home-Workshop Basics

The following sections offer some general guidelines to help make your home workshop a safer and healthier environment.

Proper Product Storage and Disposal

There are several basic safety measures worth considering for any home workshop. One of these is to always read product labels carefully. Among other things, this will give you a manufacturer’s recommendation for the correct storage conditions for a particular product. As it turns out, most paints, clear finishes, adhesives, caulkings, etc. should be stored within a certain temperature range. Keeping products within this suggested range guarantees longer product life and, in some cases, it will also reduce the potential for leaks or even explosions.



Other important aspects of proper storage are good organization and security. To meet these needs, metal storage cabinets with doors are often ideal. As an added bonus, items stored in cabinets are less likely to contaminate the room air with their odors. Of course, cabinets with locking doors (or ones designed to accept a padlock) are best if there are small children around the house. It’s often a good idea to have at least two metal storage cabinets in your home workshop—one to hold odorous paints, caulkings, adhesives, stains, and finishes, and a separate one to hold sandpaper, tools, and personal protective gear.



You’ll find metal cabinets are sold at many office-supply stores and online. Those offered are available in either desk or full sizes, in industrial or office grades, and with features such as locks, wardrobe racks, and adjustable shelves.


Having heavy-duty open shelving systems can also he helpful in your home workshop. Often, local building centers and hardware stores will have a good selection of shelving.

Another home workshop storage basic is to keep only what you really think you’ll actually use again. Rid your shop of old paints and other compounds that were used for a one-time project, or containers that only have a small quantity of material left in them. Although it may seem thrifty to hold on to everything, in many cases, extended age can cause a product to degrade or deteriorate markedly. Some materials can become contaminated with mold or bacteria, or actually change in chemical composition. Then too, liquids or duct mastics that have been stored for too long may simply dry up or come out of suspension.


When you are ready to dispose of unneeded paints, etc., call your local board of heath or sanitation department. They often have established, proper, disposal procedures to follow with certain products—especially ones considered “household hazardous waste.” Many communities have drop-off locations for such hazardous materials. By the way, if you have a considerable amount of paint in one color that’s still in good condition, you might consider donating it to a local charity. These products should never be poured down a drain.

Proper Working Conditions

Proper working conditions are essential for a safe and healthy home workshop. One of the most important of these conditions is good ventilation. Therefore, when you use paint, glue, mastic, etc., open the room’s windows and exterior doors (if possible) and consider using a window fan, or a permanently installed fan, and blow odors outdoors.


A sturdy work bench is essential, too. Butcher-block tops on heavy-duty legs can take a lot of abuse, however some are bonded with urea-formaldehyde glue and pressure. If you can find a good workbench made without formaldehyde, it would be a healthier choice. For a smooth, easy-to-clean work surface, tables made of 14-gauge stainless steel with 34"-wide tops and 5' or longer lengths are useful.


Of course, proper protective gear is essential for personal safety. A chemical respirator mask, rubber gloves, neoprene gloves, ear protectors, shop coats, safety glasses, and goggles should be handy, in good condition, and always used when appropriate to do so. You may also want to wear and use a tool 'carrier' that is healthful and durable; for example, 100%-cotton-duck tool vests, jackets, and pants with extra pockets and holsters. Skillers tool bags, as well as bib- or waist-style tool aprons made from duck fabric are good choices too.


Every home workshop should have a multi-purpose fire extinguisher in good working order and easily accessible. It’s also a good idea to have a small metal canister with a tight-fitting metal lid, or a small garbage can with a lid, for oily or solvent-containing rags, paper, or other flammable materials. 


It’s also vital to have an operating smoke detector. Place the smoke detector so it isn’t directly over a location where lots of dust will be generated, because the airborne dust could affect the unit's sensitivity. Also, gently dust or vacuum the detector regularly. Change the batteries at least once a year and test the unit weekly.


Keeping your workshop clean is essential to prevent particulate debris from accumulating and recirculating into the air. To clean thoroughly, use a powerful vacuum that can pick up dirt, grit, and sawdust easily.


Another shop basic is proper lighting. This means having a good overhead light source as well as a swing-arm lamp, flashlight, and/or electric lanterns for close-up work.



One more safety measure is to keep all your cutting tools sharp. It may seem safer to use dull tools, but in practice, sharp tools slip less and cause fewer accidents.


Finally, you’ll want to have an easily accessible, well-stocked first-aid kit. Your local drugstore should have a ready-made kit in its own storage box, or you can order one online. You can also make up a kit yourself. Check your first-aid kit from time to time to see that the expiration dates on antiseptic ointments and other medications have not passed. By the way, an intercom in your shop will permit you to make an easy and immediate call for help to other family members if necessary. You may want a telephone as well to be able to make a 911 call quickly.



Important note: Do as much of your shop-type work as possible in a properly outfitted workshop—or perhaps outdoors. Unless absolutely necessary, it’s best to avoid doing any project—especially if it is odorous, potentially dangerous, or just plain messy—within the living space of your home. Of course, certain repairs or remodeling will require some work be done at a specific site, such as in the kitchen. However, if you must work somewhere besides your shop, continue to follow as many safety precautions as is possible. Above all, be sure to have adequate ventilation and wear appropriate protective gear.

Personal Protective Gear

If you plan to do your own home projects, it’s essential to own, correctly maintain, properly store, and actually use good-quality personal protective gear. Good intentions are not enough. Despite the awkwardness some safety equipment adds to working (e.g., breathing through a mask or using rubber gloves), proper protection is essential.


Choose equipment actually designed for the job you’re expecting it to do. For example, a thin, inexpensive, disposable, paper dust mask might be adequate protection if you only plan to sand one piece of wood for a few minutes—but it simply can’t possibly shield you from dangerous solvent odors if you plan to use an oil-based stain.


Before doing any project, analyze what face, eye, ear, hand, respiratory, etc., protection you’ll need. Then, be certain you have the necessary equipment—and that it’s in good working order. Under no circumstances should you begin work on a project if you won’t be sufficiently protected.



Fortunately, finding protective gear is not difficult. Usually, your local hardware store or online retailer will have a fairly good selection on hand. This will likely include eye protectors (goggles, face masks, safety glasses), different types of ear protectors, and various kinds of gloves. Most stores are willing to order a specific item if it is not in stock.


Several types of disposable dust masks capable of trapping most larger dust particles are available. Others have a thin, activated-charcoal layer in them, and are designed to provide protection from not only many types of particulates but also minor airborne chemical exposures.


Masks made of neoprene (a special type of rubber that’s particularly oil and chemical resistant) with your choice of a particulate-trapping filter or an activated charcoal filter are available. Avoid latex masks if you have latex allergies.



For chemically sensitive people, wearing a 100%-cotton face mask containing an activated-charcoal insert can be very helpful. The activated charcoal can adsorb many of the bothersome gases / odors before they are inhaled. Masks made of either untreated 100%-cotton or silk, with your choice of activated-coconut-shell charcoal, activated-lignite charcoal, or activated-bituminous-charcoal inserts are available. (Different types of charcoal are offered because sensitive people sometimes react negatively to one form, but not another.) These masks are washable and refill inserts are available.


If you plan to work with an odorous material such as a paint or adhesive for more than a few minutes, you’ll want to use a good quality, cartridge-type respirator, rather than a disposable mask, because it will contain a more generous amount of activated carbon. These can be purchased locally at paint, hardware, or building-supply stores, or online. Be sure to get one tailored to the job. For example, some are designed for pesticides, others work best with particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and some are suited to capture particulates.

Home-Workshop Materials and Products

It’s important to choose safer materials and products for your workshop projects to reduce air-quality problems and other potential risks. Therefore, the following sections will discuss typical materials and products, and testing procedures, and will suggest specific less-toxic products you might want to use in your next project.

Typical Home-Workshop Materials and Products

Unfortunately, some of the typical products and materials used in home workshops are potentially harmful. Many contain petroleum-based solvents and/or other harmful VOCs that can be dangerous to breathe. In some instances, inhalation of certain VOCs can cause respiratory inflammation or even central-nervous-system damage. Some typical products are highly flammable, and others have the potential to cause skin irritation. Plus, unfortunately, a number of them are toxic.


You might think that by using only water-based products you’d avoid all such problems. However, as it turns out, most water-based latex paints contain VOCs. In addition, many contain other very odorous ingredients.


Although health problems with paints, finishes, and other coatings are somewhat familiar to many people, less is known about the risks posed by certain types of wood, wood products, and drywall compounds. In reality, some wood species release natural compounds that can be irritating to the skin and/or respiratory system. While it’s more common to be affected by newly cut wood, some sensitive individuals find oak, for example, bothersome for several months. In addition, many types of man-made wood products release relatively high levels of formaldehyde. Typical drywall compounds generally contain fungicide, antifreeze, adhesive, and other additives that can make walls intolerable for months for some chemically sensitive people.


As hard as it is to believe, the truth is that nearly all of the typical building products and materials used today have at least some health risk associated with them. Yet these products are often relatively inexpensive, easy to work with, and readily available at most local lumberyards and hardware stores. But there is little, if any, government regulation covering many of them. Unfortunately, their use has become “standard practice.”


But there are healthier, alternative products and materials available. For example, instead of using ubiquitous oak which has odorous natural tannin compounds, you could substitute a less irritating solid wood that’s currently not as popular, but nevertheless very attractive—such as maple, birch, or tulip poplar—if you happen to find oak irritating. And you could use solid boards of these same woods in place of formaldehyde-containing, man-made wood products.


You can also purchase drywall compound with few chemical additives. Unlike typical brands, it is usually well-tolerated by sensitive people—even when wet. In addition, there are a number of less-noxious paints, finishes, adhesives, and glues.


Note: For more in-depth information on potentially problematic products, and healthier alternatives, than is supplied here, you’ll want to also read The Healthy House by John Bower. Another good, but more limited source of information, is a 16-page fact sheet titled Paints, Solvents, and Wood Preservatives that you can obtain from the Washington Toxics Coalition.

Materials and Products

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether to use healthier alternative materials and products. Because very few governmental regulations currently cover most building products, the typical unhealthy types will, no doubt, continue to be the norm for many years. As a result, they’ll be the products most often stocked by local hardware stores, lumber yards, and building-supply centers. They’ll also be what most builders and contractors will be familiar with and will want to automatically use. If you want healthier materials to be used for your home projects, it’ll be up to you to take the initiative in finding and buying them.


It should be noted that nearly all of the liquid alternative products are water-based rather than oil- or solvent-based. Formaldehyde, VOCs, and other potentially bothersome or harmful ingredients are usually minimized, or completely omitted. Many liquid alternative products are formulated to have less odor when applied and/or when completely dry. In addition, many such products contain fewer preservatives. Thus, their shelf life may be shorter. Alternative wood products are manufactured without the use of formaldehyde glues.



As you might expect, these alternative products and materials can sometimes be more costly than typical brands—but not always. Higher prices can be due to smaller production runs or sometimes because the ingredients or materials are of higher quality. You’ll find, too, that some alternative items require you to learn new methods of application. For example, an alternative ceramic-tile grout can require a special curing procedure.



Because alternative-product manufacturers and distributors tend to be small, and the number of dealers carrying these items is somewhat limited, you’ll often need to special-order many of them. However, this isn’t difficult. Fortunately, there are a number of fine online sources available.

Testing Home-Workshop Products and Materials

Although alternative products and materials are safer than their typical counterparts, some items may still be bothersome to you personally. After all, each of us is biologically unique, so we all tolerate different things to different degrees. With products and materials used in home-improvement projects (furniture, cabinets, walls, floors, etc.), testing is particularly important inasmuch as these projects are often large in size and relatively permanent. The expense, time, and stress to redo such a project can be great. Therefore, testing is crucial, especially for sensitive individuals.



You should be aware that different types of products will require slightly different testing procedures. Testing can also reveal more than personal tolerance. It can also help you determine how a clear finish will look, what a paint will look like when dry, whether a certain glue will adhere well, etc. Remember though, it’s important to do your testing sufficiently ahead of the time—before you actually need to use a particular product or material in your project. That way, there will be no last-minute panic or work delays, if you find you must use something else.


If you test more than one product at a time, it’s a good idea to keep the information about your testing in written form, such as in a chart. It’s also a good idea to record product prices for a cost comparison. When finished with your tests, you may want to keep the samples and written test results for later use. However, you should know that companies tend to change their products’ formulas periodically. Therefore, the data from a older test might not be valid in the future. As a result, you should always prepare a new test sample using currently available products.

Important Testing Considerations

Important: Sniff testing should be done with low toxicity products only after they’ve had time to cure. If you’re very chemically sensitive, do not sniff test any product without your physician’s permission and/or supervision. For those with asthma, sniff testing may not be a good approach at any time. Sniff testing may actually irritate respiratory systems and trigger an asthmatic attack. Even if you’re healthy, or if you have any concern about testing products, consult with your physician for his or her opinion.


If you’re an allergic individual, make sure to get specific ingredient information. If you are known to react to latex, milk, or citrus, for example, you can avoid these ingredients in the products you choose. For anyone interested in specific information about a product, contact the manufacturer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). An MSDS is required by federal regulations and should be available to you. It will list a variety of ingredients, safety precautions, and health effects. Admittedly, MSDSs can be written in scientific terms, they can sometimes be a bit overwhelming and confusing, and certain ingredients do not have to be included—such as proprietary ingredients (trade secrets), or certain “inert ingredients,” etc. So, they can be somewhat misleading. Yet, they can provide helpful information in your buying decisions.

Testing Paints and Finishes

For sensitive people, before purchasing a large quantity of a paint or other finish, it’s best to test several brands first to determine how odorous they will be when wet, what their finished sheen will be, how well they cover, and their true finished color. (Make sure to read Important Testing Considerations above before proceeding.) You’ll also want to test for any residual odor once they’re dry to determine how long (if ever) it takes for the product to become tolerable to you personally. Of course, this is especially important for chemically sensitive individuals. When a sample is completely dry, you might also want to test for how washable or scrubbable it is.


After weighing all the information from your testing, you can then confidently choose the best paint or finish for the job you need to do. And, you’ll also have a good idea of how long it will take after it’s been applied before it will be tolerable for you. However, you must keep in mind that walls cover large areas, and most testing samples are very small in comparison. Therefore, an entire room may require a longer time period to air out than a sample to be no longer bothersome.


To test a paint or clear finish, all you need do is coat a piece of aluminum foil with a prospective product and label it as to its brand name, color and/or sheen, and date of application. Then on a piece of paper, record how the finish smelled when fresh. Then set the sample aside in a dry, uncontaminated place for at least several days. After that, you can very lightly sniff the coated surface once every few days (or weeks) until you can no longer detect any smell. Once odor-free, you’ll want to place the test-sample near your pillow. If you’re able to sleep normally, the sample is probably tolerable. Of course, you’ll need to record the date of tolerability on the sample and on your chart. Finally, you can write down information on how well the finish covered, how the sheen looked, how scrubbable it was, etc.

Testing Adhesives

To test alternative water-based glues and other adhesive compounds, purchase the smallest sizes they come in. With each product, apply a small amount on a separate piece of aluminum foil, each of which has been identified by brand name and application date. On a sheet of paper, record how much each product cost and its particular odor when wet. Then, set the samples aside in a dry, uncontaminated area to cure.



The next day, very lightly sniff the samples and repeat this every few days or so, until you can no longer detect an odor with one or more of them. At that point, record the date on the foil and on your chart. If you want to be even more sure that a particular product won’t be bothersome to you, lay an odorless sample by the head of your bed. If you are able to sleep well through the night, it often means you’re going to be able to tolerate that product. As a rule, a small amount of glue often isn’t a significant concern. For example, there wouldn’t be very much glue used in a furniture project, so it may not be a significant concern compared to the amount of glue used to adhere all the floor tile in a large room.


While this testing procedure will determine your personal tolerability, it can’t be used determine how well a certain product will do its job of adhering. To do that, you’ll need to apply the glue or adhesive to a scrap or small section of what you intend to glue, then let it dry. After it has had a chance to cure, you can examine your test sample for proper adherence. Again, record your results. Although this test won’t give you long-term guarantees, it will give you a general idea of whether the product is suitable for the job or not.

Testing Lubricants

In most home situations, lubricants are used very sparingly. However, if they happen to be very odorous, they can be bothersome or intolerable to chemically sensitive persons for a very long period of time. Of course, you should realize to begin with, that many petroleum-based lubricants have an odor no matter how long they’ve been exposed to the air. For example, sewing-machine oil can have a long-term odor. However, there are other types of lubricants that you might find worth sampling.
If you want to test a lubricant, you can try the following procedure. First, purchase one or more brands and apply a small amount of each (typically less than a drop) to its own separate sheet of aluminum foil. On the foil, and also on a separate piece of paper, record the date, brand, and cost. Then, lightly sniff each sample and note the odor. You can later lightly sniff the samples over several days. If a sample seems to have little or no odor, record the date on the foil and your chart. An odorless sample should be placed near your bed’s headboard. A good night’s sleep often indicates that you’re tolerating the product reasonably well.


Keep in mind that you generally don’t need to apply very much of a lubricant to do the job. In fact, using less of the product will mean less chance of it running and discoloring or damaging something. So, always use as little as possible.


The best way to find out if a product will do a good job of lubricating is to actually use it on something. For example, if you want to find out how well it will work on your kitchen cabinets, apply it to a single hinge. After determining how well that seems to work, you can then decide if you want to go ahead and use it on all the other hinges. It might be a good idea to keep the records of your testing for tolerability and effectiveness permanently, because lubricant formulas rarely change. Therefore, what you learned could very well be useful in the future.

Testing Woods

To test your personal tolerance for a specific wood species, it’s best to get small pieces of several different types of wood. Then write the name of the species on each sample and very lightly sniff to determine its odor. Record the results on a separate sheet of paper. Next, sand all sides of each sample. Vacuum off the dust and lightly sniff again and record your observations. The odor will likely be much stronger.


Next, completely coat the sanded sample with the tolerable paint or finish you plan to eventually use on the wood. After waiting for the finish to become tolerable (your previous testing should give you an estimated date), lightly sniff the coated wood and record your findings. Then, put a second coat on all surfaces of the sample, so that it ends up getting two coats of finish. Again, wait for the finish to become tolerable, test-sniff, and record your results. This information should give you at least a basic understanding of a particular wood species’ initial odor, its odor after being sanded, its odor after one coat of a tolerable finish, and its odor after two coats. Next, take the sample that seems most acceptable and place it near your pillow. If you’re able to sleep well, it’s likely that you’ll tolerate that particular wood and finish combination.



While this testing should prove to be of great help, some variables are worth keeping in mind. For example, a small sample is not going to be nearly as potent as 150 square feet of newly laid hardwood floor. Plus, in some cases—such as with a hardwood floor—the bottom surface usually won’t be coated with a finish. So, it isn’t unusual for such a large finished project to have more of an odor than you anticipated. Fortunately, however, with age, most wood surfaces lose a great deal of their initial innate odor. Of course, additional coats of finish could be applied to help seal in a persistently bothersome wood odor if necessary.



Important note: For testing alternative particleboard or construction-grade plywood for use in interior applications, you can follow similar testing procedures to that just described with solid wood. However, these types of items will often have a strong piney smell (arising from natural terpene compounds) for some time, and construction-grade plywood will be outgassing (emitting) formaldehyde, as well. Therefore, use extreme caution if you are very chemically sensitive.

Suggestions for Alternative Materials and Products

In the following sections, you’ll find suggestions for alternative home-workshop materials and products to consider using for your next project. Most are somewhat healthier than the products typically available in paint, hardware, or building-supply stores. For more in-depth information about healthier construction and remodeling materials see The Healthy House by John Bower.


In most cases, paints have quite complex formulas made up of many different compounds, and there are many types and brands of paint available. However, only some of the more popular alternatives will actually be mentioned here by brand name. These particular paints are generally less bothersome, or they have potentially less harmful ingredients, or they are designed to be nearly odorless when dry. Some of these “safer” alternative paints only come in a limited number of off-white or pastel colors, although other brands have recently added more colors to their lines. You can certainly have colorants added to a light-colored or white paint, but colorants often contain a small amount of VOCs, depending on their composition. So, ask ahead of time, if you’re concerned.



Whenever you paint, be sure to follow the recommended application directions on the label exactly. This is especially important for chemically sensitive people because, for example, if not enough drying time is allowed between coats, it may take longer for the paint to become tolerable.


Oil-Based Vs. Water-Based Paints



Before choosing any paint, you may want to know more about the two basic types: oil- and water-based. Actually, both types have pigments (natural or synthetically derived colorants), binders (compounds that hold or bind all the ingredients together), and vehicles (the liquid base). Of course, there are usually a number of other minor ingredients in paints as well.



Depending on the particular type and brand of paint, it could also contain antifreeze, anti-skinning agents (to prevent a film from forming on the paint’s surface in an unopened can), anti-settling agents (to keep the ingredients in suspension), biocides (to prevent the paint from going bad in the can), catalysts (compounds that hasten chemical reactions without being altered themselves), curing agents, defoamers, dispersing agents (compounds that cause the ingredients to disperse uniformly throughout the paint), dryers, emulsifying agents (compounds that permit minute droplets of one liquid to remain suspended in another), extenders (compounds that increase volume or bulk), fillers (compounds that simply add solid particles), fire retardants, fungicides, preservatives, surfactants (compounds that reduce surface tension), thickeners, thixotropic agents (compounds that permit a gel to adhere to a vertical surface without running), and many other possible ingredients.



However, it’s the vehicle that’s primarily responsible for the difference between oil- and water-based paints. (Note: Oil-based paints were once made using natural oils such as linseed oil and soybean oil. However, today conventional oil paints are generally made with synthetic alkyd resins, but the term “oil-based” is still popularly used for them.) Because the oils (or alkyd resins) are very thick, they’re combined with solvents to thin them down. Not surprisingly then, it’s this oil/solvent vehicle in oil-based paints (or the water vehicle in water-based paints) that greatly determines a paint’s odor, its flammability, the cleanup requirements, its scrubbabilty—and the paint’s potential negative health effects. Because significantly more solvents are used in oil-based paints, they release more dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air than water-based paints.


It’s also interesting to know that the oil/solvent (or alkyd-resin/solvent) vehicles in oil-based paints don’t dry through evaporation. Instead, they cure through a chemical oxidation reaction process. Once oil paints have cured, they’re very durable. On the other hand, paints using water as their vehicle dry primarily through evaporation. Unfortunately, water-based paints are often less durable (sometimes, quite a bit less) than their oil-based counterparts. However, the shinier the sheen, generally the more washable a water-based paint is.


Taking into account all the pluses and minuses, it shouldn’t be surprising that water-based products (paints, as well clear finishes, stains, etc.) are often recommended by most, though not all, health-conscious people, over counterparts containing high levels of solvents. That’s why you’ll find that many of the alternative paints, clear finishes, and stains in the sections below are water-based. (Important note: Even alternative water-based products still require some time after they’ve been applied to become tolerable for most chemically-sensitive individuals.)

Latex Paint Considerations

For several decades now, the most common type of indoor house paint used in America has probably been water-based latex. Latex is a natural or synthetic rubber product used as a paint binder. Most brands of latex paint can provide good coverage, but as a rule, they aren’t as scrubbable as, say, oil-based paints. Overall, latex-binder paints have been popular for their low cost, their ease of application, and their easy cleanup.



Despite their pluses, it appears that latex paints may be becoming a thing of the past. This may be because certain paint formulators feel that other binders produce better paints—or are simply less costly. Another impetus may be the dramatic increase and concern over latex allergies. (These allergies have often been a consequence of the AIDs epidemic, which requires the daily use of latex gloves in medical and dental settings, some of which have been of poor quality.) Whatever the reason or reasons, formulations using natural latex binders are being replaced, in many cases, with thermoplastic acrylic-resin binders.



So, in reality, “true latex” paints are not all that common. Despite this, the term “latex paint” in modern usage has generically come to mean any water-based paint—whether it contains latex or not. So, if you’re allergic to latex rubber, there are probably far more “latex-paint” options available than you may have first suspected.

National-Brand Alternative Lines

Although most national-brand, water-based interior paints contain far smaller quantities of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than oil-based paints, there are still some VOCs in their formulas. Typical water-based paints also have ingredients such as preservatives and other additives that may be bothersome for certain sensitive individuals. However, some major paint manufacturers have developed their own alternative paint lines that many sensitive people are finding to be quite acceptable. While these paints still usually have preservatives, they now have only very a tiny quantity of VOCs—or none at all.



Using a major paint company’s low- or zero-VOC paint line has many advantages. The most obvious one is convenience, for you can often find them locally. Therefore, you don’t have to place an order for your paint, pay to have it shipped, or wait for its arrival. And, if you run short, you can simply go to local retailer and get more of what you need. Another consideration is cost. Because these companies have much higher production runs, the cost of their products can often be less than for specially made paints. Finally, if you hire someone to do the painting for you, he or she will likely be familiar with the brand of paint, if not the particular line, you’ve chosen. As a rule, contractors prefer working with materials and products they’ve used before. That way, they know what to expect of the paint (coverage, ease of application, etc.) and can better estimate a completion time, and their costs.



One of these national-brand alternative lines you might try is Glidden ProMaster Series latex-binder paints. These paints contain no VOCs and are low in odor. ProMaster paints include MP 7610 flat, MP 9310 eggshell, and MP 7810 semi-gloss. These all come in standard white. Although you can have a colorant added, the colorant will have a small amount of VOCs in its formula—however, it’s usually not much. Glidden ProMaster paints should be available at your local Glidden stores and dealers. (Note: These may not be a good choice for latex-allergic persons.)



Another national-brand alternative line you might consider is ICI. The ICI Lifemaster 2000 paints have an acrylic binder, no VOCs, and are low in odor. The LM 9200 flat, LM 9300 eggshell, and 9300 semi-gloss all come in white and many popular colors with custom colors available. The Lifemaster 2000 line can be purchased at ICI stores and dealers nationwide. By the way, other national and regional companies have also begun making low or zero-VOC paints, such as Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams. So, check your favorite paint store to see if they, too, have something in stock.


It should be said that despite all the pluses associated with national-brand alternative lines, they’re still not what some discriminating individuals want to use. So, those who require, or simply desire, interior paints created to be more inherently tolerable and/or made of natural ingredients, will need to consider paints listed in the sections that follow. Above all, don’t do what some sensitive people have done: stir a pound of baking soda into each gallon of paint. Although this may reduce bothersome paint odors somewhat, it does have major drawbacks. For example, the added baking soda can affect the paint’s durability, texture, or color. In fact, this procedure should only be attempted (if ever) with very light colors. At any rate, no paint manufacturer recommends adding baking soda to their products. So, if the paint surface ends up unsatisfactory in any way, they’ll take no responsibility.

Alternative Synthetic-Formula Paints

While the alternative lines from major paint companies may meet the needs of most people very satisfactorily, they aren’t for everyone. Fortunately, there are a number of smaller companies that have chosen to make and market interior paints to meet the expectations of an even more discerning public.



Some of these manufacturers have developed synthetic-formula paints that were originally created for the chemically sensitive. While each company in this group has its own unique formulations, it must be said that these paints are somewhat similar to the paints mentioned in the National-Brand Alternative Lines section above. Importantly, however, what they have done is gone one step further by creating paints that are even lower in odor.



Yet, you should understand that each of these small paint manufacturers has its own definition of “very low odor.” Therefore, some paints have formulations that generate minimal odors during application and drying, such as certain low- or zero-VOC paints. But other paints don’t achieve their “very low odor” status until they’ve become thoroughly dried. So, try to understand exactly what “very low odor” means for the particular paint brand you’re thinking about buying. If you need to contact the manufacturer for more information, do so. (Note: Virtually all wall paints will have at least some odor when wet, even very-low-odor brands.)



It should also be mentioned that many alternative synthetic paints have low- or zero-biocide formulas as well. This is a real departure form national brands that simply add biocides to all their paints. Keep in mind that paints without (or with minimal quantities of) ingredients designed to kill mold, bacteria, etc. should not be stored for a very long period of time. That’s because they can go bad in the can. In addition, they should probably not be used in damp areas such as bathrooms.



One very good, very-low-odor alternative paint you might want to try is Microsol (Best Paint Co., Inc.). Microsol latex-binder paints come in 2000 (semi-gloss), 2120 (satin low gloss), 2020 (flat), and 2030 (low sheen). Also available are a PVA 50 Primer/Sealer (latex binder), Best Floor Paint (acrylic binder), and Best Moisture Guard (acrylic binder). All these paints can be ordered directly from the manufacturer. These paints have “superior scrubbability,” “give off no VOCs,” and are “non-toxic.” They also have a 15-year warrantee for performance and appearance from date of purchase. Best paints are often well tolerated by chemically sensitive people, but they may not be suitable for those with latex allergies.


Enviro-Safe Paint (Chem-Safe Products Co.), which uses 100% acrylic resin as a binder, is another brand particularly well tolerated by chemically sensitive persons. These paints have no VOCs or toxic preservatives. A flat, satin, and semi-gloss are available in a range of popular colors, with custom colors optional. Also in the Enviro-Safe line is a primer paint. You can order Enviro-Safe Paint directly from the manufacturer.


Murco Wall Products, Inc. has also created paints that many chemically sensitive people have used. Murco Great Flat Wall Paint GF-1000 (with a synthetic latex binder) and Murco High Gloss Latex Enamel LE 1000 (with a combination latex/acrylic binder) have been created without slow-releasing compounds and so they will release no airborne fungicides. (The fungicides apparently remain permanently bound up in the dried paint.) The shelf life of Murco paints is controlled by the pH and “in-can preservatives” only. Murco latex paints come in 9 stock colors plus light tint bases. All can be ordered from the maker. (Note: These may not be a good choice for those with latex allergies.)



Acro Paint (Miller Paint Co.), which is available directly from the manufacturer, is a line of solvent-free, low-VOC, water-based interior paints. Miller adds no biocides to any of their paints. The only biocides present are those in the bulk ingredients the company purchases from its suppliers. Acro #6450 LB Flat and Acro # 2850 LB semi-gloss have acrylic binders, while #1450 LB Satin uses a vinyl/acrylic binder. All Acrco paints come in white and a range of soft pastels.



Another low-odor brand of alternative paint you may be interested in using is AFM Safecoat Zero-VOC Paint (AFM). Safecoat is a water-based product described by its manufacturer as being made with a “multi-polymer system, including acrylic.” This company also has developed low-odor, water-based primers (Primer Undercoat, Transitional Primer, Wallboard HPV, MetalCoat Metal Primer), several enamel formulations including a Cabinet & Trim Enamel, and a paint for concrete surfaces (CemBond Masonry Paint).


A few water-based alternative acrylic paints have actually been specially designed as sealants.

Alternative Natural-Formula Paints

Interestingly, various forms of milk paint and casein (a milk-protein derivative) paint have been used for hundreds of years. That’s because they’re fairly durable. Today, powdered casein paints have become popular as natural-ingredient wall paints.


There are many persons who consider powdered casein paints to be the best ecological choice. However, there are drawbacks to consider. First, because most are in a powdered form, they require the extra step of adding water and thorough mixing. Because they generally contain no biocides to inhibit mold growth, they can’t be stored as a liquid for very long, or used in damp areas. In addition, casein paint might be intolerable for someone with milk allergies because walls painted with casein paints can have a faint milky odor for some time.


Besides powdered casein paints, the other all-natural paints that are available are alternative German-formulation liquid paints. These were developed as a consequence of the influential “natural house” movement known as Baubiologie (a German word meaning building biology).


Some of the ingredients have changed over the years. However, a few have used (or still use) turpentine (derived from softwood trees such as pine) and citrus solvents (derived from oranges, citrons, etc.)—substances implicated in a condition known as painter’s rash. Therefore, in certain cases, some of the bothersome natural ingredients have been replaced by less-bothersome petroleum-derived compounds. It should be mentioned that these German-formulation alternative liquid paints often have a strong natural odor when wet, although they do air out in time. Also, be aware that some brands are low- or zero-biocide, which may make them inappropriate for use in high humidity areas of your home. So, check with your dealer for specific ingredients before purchasing.

Homemade Paints

If you’re the adventurous type, you may want to make your own paint. However, you’ll certainly want to experiment, test, and sample ahead of time to get a good indication of what you’ve created. Directions to make paint as well as the raw materials to do so are sold by some online retailers. Ingredients offered are dry casein powder, mica, powdered clays, earth pigments, chalk, and borax. Also sold are natural oils, plant resins, essential oils, and more.



Remember, you’ll not get any product-specific specifications, guarantees, or warranties when you make your own paint. If your paint has no preservatives, it will have a very short shelf life. If it has no fungicides, it may not be appropriate for damp areas.

Clear Finishes

Alternative clear finishes come in a variety of formulas. Most of are water-based. Some are designed to be applied to raw wood while some are for use on other types of surfaces. Naturally, it’s important to choose the finish most suitable, durable, and tolerable for the job.


As has been stressed throughout this Web site, sensitive people should test any product first before using it. This is especially a good idea if you plan to use a clear finish on a large area, such as a floor. 

Water-Based Polyurethane

Polyurethane finishes use polyurethane resin as a binder. However, because this particular resin is expensive, its often mixed with other synthetic binders such as acrylic resins. In most cases, polyurethane finishes are clear (some have stains or solid pigments added) and they work well at protecting wood surfaces.



However, there are both oil- and water-based polyurethane clear finishes. Of the two, the oil-based types should be avoided. This is because their solvents are very strong-smelling and potentially harmful when the finish is being applied and while it’s curing. While oil-based polyurethanes are admittedly very durable finishes, some very chemically-sensitive persons have found that, even many months after application—long after they should have been cured—they’re still bothersome.


Fortunately, the relatively new water-based polyurethane finishes can be used instead of the oil-based versions. These products tend to dry quickly and generally have little or no residual odor after less than a week. As a result, many very chemically sensitive individuals find that water-based polyurethane finishes are quite tolerable. Other advantages to using these particular products include the fact that they’re commonly stocked in local stores, and they are lower in cost than many other types of alternative, clear finishes. Their big drawback is their wearablity. Some brands warn that they’re “not for use in heavy traffic areas.” Therefore, before purchasing any water-based polyurethane product, read labels carefully to know what you’re getting before you apply it. You should also consider what sheen (light reflectablity) you want. Most brands are made with either a satin or gloss finish, and some have other sheens available.



There are several national brands of clear, water-based polyurethane you might want to try. Olympic Water Based Polyurethane (PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc.) is one that can be used as a wood-floor finish, but only for light-traffic floors.


An alternative product that may work for you is AFM Safecoat Polyureseal BP (AFM). This BP product is said to have “exceptional durability and abrasion resistance” for residential wood floors and is even recommended for “high-use gyms and warehouses.” It contains no acrylic or formaldehyde and has a very low VOC content.

Acrylic Finishes and Sealants

Clear acrylic finishes create a hard, durable, low-odor coating primarily on woods. Yet, when they’re wet and during their drying period, some formulations are somewhat more odorous than the water-based polyurethane finishes. This is true despite their being water-based products. Chemically sensitive individuals often report that some clear acrylic finishes take up to two months before they are tolerable to them. After that, they often become nearly odorless.



One you might try is AFM Safecoat Acrylacq (AFM). This is a lower-odor, clear, acrylic finish for furniture. (Also available is AFM Safecoat Lock-In Sanding Sealer which is formulated to raise wood grain for sanding prior to applying a finish coating.) To seal unglazed, porous clay tiles, concrete, and stone, you might try AFM SafeCoat Paver Seal .003 (which is a presealer) or AFM Safecoat MexeSeal.


In addition, AFM manufactures AFM Safecoat Hard Seal which is said to “form a continuous membrane when applied properly” which “is particularly effective at sealing in pollution or outgassing of toxic chemical compounds from surfaces.” It’s specifically recommended “for use as a sealer for vinyl, porous tile, concrete, plastic, and unfinished (e.g. plywood) cabinetry.” Furthermore, it’s said to leave a glossy finish after several coats have built up. The company notes, however, to “always test for adhesion prior to use” and not to use it where there will be “heavy moisture.” Besides Hard Seal, you could opt for AFM Safecoat Safe Seal. This clear acrylic-formula finish was created primarily to seal in the formaldehyde outgassing (emissions) from particleboard and plywood. (Note: Many sensitive people find that such sealers help, but not enough to make a bothersome material tolerable. In other words, sealants tend to be imperfect.) AFM Safecoat Safe Seal is also said to add water repellence to concrete and other porous surfaces, but will not add sheen.

Shellac and Shellac Sealants

Shellac is an ancient finish, being first developed in the Far East. It uses purified lac resin (a secretion deposited on tree branches by female lac insects) as its binding agent. Lac—and therefore, shellac—varies in color from pale, translucent yellow to dark orange, depending on the variety of tree the lac insects live on. As it turns out, shellac produces a fairly tough finish that is commonly used to coat wood. However, white discolorations can manifest themselves rather quickly if water gets on a shellacked surface.



It’s important to understand that shellac is neither a water-based, nor an oil-based, product. Instead, it uses alcohol as its vehicle. Therefore, denatured alcohol is necessary for cleaning up. (Denatured alcohol is a common thinner made simply of alcohol altered in such a manner as to make it undrinkable.) Because of the alcohol content in shellac, it’s quite flammable. It’s also extremely odorous when wet. Fortunately, the alcohol evaporates very quickly, and when the finish is completely dry, shellacked items are often tolerable to many sensitive individuals. However, some people have noted that, sometimes, a noticeable, and bothersome, “shellacky” odor will persist.
Most people consider shellac to be a completely pure and natural finish. However, most brands today contain a few additives—sometimes synthetic ones. When you’re ready to purchase shellac, you’ll find that there are usually several conventional shellac brands to choose from in your local building center, hardware, or paint store.


Note: It’s important to test more than one brand of shellac (if possible) to see how they look, and how well you tolerate them.

Penetrating-Oil Finishes

Some individuals may want to try a natural penetrating-oil finish on their wood items. A penetrating-oil finish doesn’t leave a thin, hard coating on wood surfaces, but instead it penetrates into a piece and saturates the very fibers of the wood itself. Therefore, if the wood’s surface ever becomes scratched or abraded, you can simply apply more oil to the damaged area and it will blend in without the need for stripping and refinishing.



However, there is a downside. Many of the oils used as wood finishes are fairly odorous when applied. And, they can remain quite odorous for a considerable amount of time afterwards as well. In fact, their smells could continue to be bothersome for up to several months—or longer. Of course, this depends on the specific oil, wood, and your personal tolerance but, in general, oil finishes are not well tolerated by chemically-sensitive people.



Two of the more popular natural penetrating oils are tung oil (derived from the nuts of tung-oil trees) and linseed oil (derived from flax seeds). Of these, tung oil is not recommended. This is because it’s been implicated in suppressing immune system functions, as well as reactivating chronic Epstein-Barr virus infections. However, there are certainly other oils available. (Note: Oil finishes using orange oils are not recommended for citrus-allergic people.)


Of all the oils, probably the most commonly used one is linseed. Linseed oil, which is naturally anti-bacterial, is available in two varieties: raw and boiled. While raw linseed oil will not dry properly when applied to wood, boiled linseed oil will. In the past, many manufacturers simply heated raw linseed oil to give it drying properties but, today, most “boiled” linseed oil has not been heat-processed at all. Instead, manufacturers add toxic heavy-metal additives, such as lead acetate or cobalt manganese, to aid in drying. Fortunately, there are types of boiled linseed oil still being made without these types of additives.


One final note, if you find you need to use a penetrating oil finish on salad bowls or kitchen-knife handles, consider using virgin olive oil. Olive oil is not only nontoxic, it’s also resistant to becoming rancid.

Wax Finishes

Waxes such as carnuba wax (derived from the plant waxes found on certain palm leaves) and beeswax (derived from honeycombs) are sometimes used to create clear, natural finishes on wood. Like penetrating oils, waxes provide protection that can be easily repaired if a scratched area should develop. This is because they penetrate and saturate wood rather than form a thin brittle layer that lies on the surface. For some people, natural waxes can be good wood-finishing choices.



However, it’s important to know that many natural waxes are somewhat hard in consistency. Therefore, these pure waxes are heated or mixed with denatured alcohol, turpentine, or another volatile solvent to make them more workable. Of course, solvents could make a wax application intolerable to many chemically sensitive individuals. However, it should be noted that, once the added solvent has completely evaporated, the finish could be quite acceptable for these very same people. Of more concern are packaged wax formulations which may have paint thinners or similar solvents added, as well as other odorous ingredients such as oils and resins. Therefore, make sure to check the ingredients of any wax product before purchasing it, if such ingredients could be a problem for you. Remember: Testing is important, especially if you’re chemically sensitive.


A long-time, popular wax choice is beeswax. Beeswax tends to have a somewhat flowery odor. Although some people may find this attractive, others may find it bothersome. You can generally purchase pure beeswax from local beekeepers. To find a beekeeper, check your local classified telephone directory.


Carnuba wax (a tree wax) is also popular for finishing wood. Often, you’ll be able to find carnuba wax in your local hardware store.

Water Glass

Water glass is a term applied to certain water-soluble sodium silicate compounds. Interestingly, these compounds have a similar chemical composition to ordinary window glass. As it turns out, water-glass solutions used as finishes are transparent and virtually odor-free. This is also true when they’re wet. Not surprisingly, these are commonly very tolerable products for sensitive individuals.



Water glass was once a popular product. However, since World War II, synthetic sealants have nearly replaced it. But water glass is still sometimes used as an effective grout and concrete sealer. As it turns out, when water glass comes into contact with the calcium (and certain other substances) in these materials, a chemical reaction takes place. The result is the creation of a hard, clear, crystalline surface that’s very durable. Water glass can also be used to protect your ceramic-tile grout joints by applying it carefully to the dry grout joints—not the tile—with a small artist’s paint brush.



Water glass should not be applied to a concrete floor—if you ever plan to apply ceramic tile to it later. This is because the sealed surface would be nonporous. As a result, it would prevent the adhesion of the ceramic-tile mortar. Another consideration to keep in mind is not to use too much water glass when you’re applying it. A little goes a long way, and applying too much could result in a film that might peel off.


Many woods look interesting and attractive just as they are. And by leaving them natural, you’ll avoid using at least one potentially bothersome product—wood stain. However, if you decide you really want to use a stain anyway, following is some basic information about stains that you may find useful.



Wood stains are generally available in either oil-based or water-based formulas. Oil-based types often produce richer, deeper tones than their water-based counterparts. Unfortunately, they’re also usually somewhat more odorous. They also require paint thinner or turpentine for cleanup.


While water-based stains generally don’t appear as rich-looking, they do have other distinct advantages. For example, they contain fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and they don’t need noxious solvents for cleanup. As a result, although water-based stains are not odor-free, they’re less bothersome than their oil-based counterparts.



If you want to use a water-based stain, it’s best to test several brands for appearance and personal tolerance. Of course, tolerance testing is always essential for chemically sensitive persons. By the way, it is best to stain a sample piece of wood, as well as apply two coats of clear finish, then test for tolerability. This is important because the clear finish will often seal in any minor odors from the stain. But you won’t know for sure until you’ve actually tested the sample.

Paint Strippers

Virtually all paint strippers in the past were extremely noxious products. This is because they were solvent-based and contained powerful, dangerous chemicals (such as methylene chloride) that were harmful if inhaled or came in contact with your skin. Many were also flammable.



While many of the old nasty strippers are still around, there are now a few water-based paint strippers available. The active stripping agent is usually an organic ester (a certain class of carbon compounds). These can dissolve most paints just like the solvent-based strippers, but they tend to require more time to do so. And, it must be admitted, sometimes they aren’t always as effective.



Wood that’s been stripped with a water-based product generally requires an application of a neutralizing solution. This is necessary to counter the caustic action of the organic esters. However, this can be easily done by simply sponging on a vinegar-and-water solution. For the correct dilution, follow the label directions for the product you’re using.



To find a water-based stripper, check your local paint store, hardware store, or building center. One popular brand usually stocked is Safest Stripper Paint and Varnish Remover (3M Construction & Home Improvement Products Div.). This product uses dimethyl esters as its active ingredients.


In the sections that follow, all types of adhesive products are discussed—everything from tapes to caulkings. Some of these products are quite benign. However, others will require, at a minimum, good ventilation. As always, it’s important to carefully read and follow the label directions for the best results. For most people it’s wise to test a prospective adhesive first for both tolerance and effectiveness before using it on a large project.


Clear plastic tapes are probably the most common household adhesive product. Although tapes are often made of petrochemically derived transparent film coated on one side with glue, they’re usually relatively low in odor. Although clear plastic tapes are extremely popular, if you’d prefer a more natural material, cellophane tapes are still available.



Cellophane tapes are made from a transparent film derived from plant cellulose. Although it’s a natural material and virtually odorless, cellophane (and, therefore, cellophane tape) has the drawback of yellowing and degrading with age. As you probably already know, both plastic and cellophane tapes are sold in many drugstores, discount stores, and office-supply stores.



In situations calling for a wider, stronger tape, aluminum-foil duct tape can be a good choice. However, this type of duct tape isn’t the same as fabric-backed duct tape, which is made of a heavy woven fabric with glue on one side and a plastic coating on the other. With time, many low-cost fabric-backed duct tapes tend to lose their ability to adhere and so become unstuck relatively quickly. In addition, fabric-backed duct tape often has an odor that sensitive individuals find bothersome.
On the other hand, aluminum-foil duct tape is generally of higher quality and more costly. It’s made of a very thin strip of heavy-duty aluminum foil with glue on one side. Aluminum-foil duct tapes are generally lower in odor because the metal surface seals in most of the adhesive odors from the sticky side. However, although aluminum-foil duct tape usually adheres better than fabric-backed duct tape, it may still eventually loosen.



Aluminum-foil duct tape is not difficult to find. It’s often available in local hardware stores and is generally handled by most heating/cooling equipment suppliers.


Incidentally, an alternative to aluminum-foil tape is stainless-steel tape. Both are made in a similar manner. However, some aluminum-sensitive persons prefer this more inert material. Though difficult to find, stainless-steel tape can sometimes be located in hardware stores, building centers, and furnace-supply shops.


For gluing paper, inexpensive, common mucilage glue can work quite well. True mucilage glue is made of gummy plant secretions. However, this term is now also applied to a range of similar, simple liquid glues. Generally, mucilage glues are safe to use (many are labeled “nontoxic”) and they don’t have much of an odor. One you might try is Elmer’s Mucilage (Elmer’s Products, Inc.), which is labeled as nontoxic. It, and other similar brands, are sold in drugstores, office-supply stores, and some discount stores. Other glues from Elmer’s Products, Inc. that your family may want to use include Elmer’s Sno-Drift (a washable, nontoxic, white paste) and Elmer’s Glue Sticks and Glue Gels (nontoxic, handy-to-use formulas.).



Of course, white household glue, such as the nontoxic Elmer’s Glue-All (Elmer’s Products, Inc.) and Weldwood Hobby ‘N Craft Glue (Dap, Inc.), is an very popular, low-odor product. White glues are chiefly soluble-synthetic-resin-and-water solutions, or more specifically, polyvinyl acetate (PVA) emulsions. In other words, water is their vehicle and PVA is their binding agent. As they dry, the water evaporates, leaving a thin, semi-brittle, plastic film.



White glues are designed primarily for gluing paper, cardboard and wood. However, because they’re so readily available and convenient to use, many people use them for jobs for which they were never intended. Unfortunately, white glues aren’t waterproof. No matter how long they’ve been dried, they can become liquefied if they ever become wet. Therefore, white glues shouldn’t be used for anything that will be outdoors, or exposed to moisture indoors. If you’d like to purchase a white glue, it will be available at most local grocery stores, pharmacies, office-supply stores, and discount stores.



Another fairly common household glue is yellow carpenter’s glue. This type of glue is often very similar to white glue in composition. However, it can contain extra additives that permit better adhesion to woods. Two brands of yellow carpenter glue are Elmer’s Carpenter Wood Glue for Interior Use (Elmer’s Products, Inc.) and Weld-Wood Carpenter’s Glue (Dap, Inc.). The Weldwood product is described as having an aliphatic resin base.



For many years, all yellow carpenter’s glues were water-soluble. However, some brands are now available in waterproof formulations as well. One of these is Elmer’s Carpenter Wood Glue for Exterior Use (Elmer’s Products, Inc.). (Note: In some cases, waterproof glues may be more odorous than non-waterproof types.) If you’d like to purchase a carpenters glue, they’re generally found in lumberyards, building centers, and hardware stores.



An entirely different type of wood glue is casein glue. Casein glues use a milk by-product as their main adhesive component.


If you need a glue for jewelry or other unusual items, often an epoxy glue works well. In fact, epoxy will work on virtually any material: metal, ceramic, wood, and even fabric. Generally, this type of glue comes packaged with two tubes: one containing a catalyst agent, the other containing an epoxy resin. To use epoxy glue, it’s necessary to mix equal amounts from these two tubes together. The combination of the two compounds produces the chemical reaction that results in an extremely strong, durable, and waterproof bond. Unfortunately, most epoxy glues have a strong odor due to their chemical ingredients. If you must use an epoxy glue, make sure to have plenty of ventilation. If you’re a chemically sensitive or asthmatic person, someone else may have to do the gluing for you, and you’ll also need to set the newly epoxied item aside a few days until all the odor has dissipated.



In some situations, you may need to use a contact cement in your home. Contact cement is a synthetic adhesive. To use it, both surfaces to be joined are coated with adhesive, the glue is allowed to dry, then the surfaces are brought into contact with each other, creating a permanent bond.



In homes, contact cement is commonly used to attach a hard, plastic laminate (Formica is one popular brand) to a man-made wood product (such as particleboard) in order to create a countertop. Unfortunately, most typical contact cements have a very strong odor. However, fairly recently, much less odorous, and much less hazardous, water-based versions have been developed. Whether these adhere as well as conventional contact cements, is still debatable however.

Wallpaper Pastes

When you’re wallpapering, you can use one of the wheat, or other vegetable-starch, wallpaper pastes that are often still available at many local wallpaper stores. However, you should be aware that some of these products may contain fungicides, that act as mold inhibitors, or biocides to deter insects, bacteria, and mold. Unfortunately, some of these chemical fungicides and biocides can be odorous or otherwise bothersome to certain people.



Of course, some people may want to make their own wallpaper paste by simply mixing wheat starch and water. If you do this, however, it’s a good idea to add one tablespoon of boric acid powder to each quart of paste (this also can be added to any prepackaged all-natural wallpaper paste). Boric acid has innate mold- and insect-inhibiting qualities, yet it doesn’t seem to bother most sensitive people.
You’ll find you can usually purchase boric acid at your local drugstore. Although it’s considered much safer than many petrochemical pesticides, you should realize it’s not a totally nontoxic substance. Therefore, children or pets should not have access to boric-acid powder or any wallpaper paste containing it.

Drywall Compounds

Many people assume that drywall compounds are simple all-natural, completely harmless substances. Actually, this is not the case. Although drywall compounds are made primarily of gypsum with some mica, talc, limestone, and clay, they also contain vinyl adhesives, fungicide preservatives, and often antifreeze. In addition, up until 1977, some drywall compounds also contained asbestos. (It should be noted that typical drywall compounds are usually marketed as thick, gray, mud-like pastes in plastic tubs.)



Unfortunately, because of their many ingredients, most typical modern drywall compounds tend to have relatively strong odors, especially when wet. As a result, some sensitive individuals have been bothered for months (or years) by walls coated with typical drywall compounds.



Fortunately, alternative drywall compounds are now available.

Thinset Ceramic-Tile Mortars

Thinset mortars—also known as dry-set mortars—are cement-like adhesives used to adhere ceramic tile to a base material. Unfortunately, some typical thinset mortars are very odorous because of various additives. The precise ingredients are usually considered trade secrets by manufacturers, so it’s impossible to say exactly what they are, but they likely include fungicides (to retard mold growth) and a variety of other substances to prevent cracking and crumbling. At any rate, the odor from these ingredients is strongest when the thinset mortar is wet. Fortunately, in many cases, if your thinset has only a mild odor, once the thinset has dried, the ceramic tile and the grout in the joints will likely successfully seal in any residual odors.



By the way, it should be noted that you can sometimes “guesstimate” fairly well how odorous a thinset mortar will ultimately be. This can be done simply by judging the odor you perceive when you open a bag of the dry, powdered thinset product. However, an even better indication is to get a small sample and mix it with water. If you detect a strong “chemical-type” odor, don’t use it. If it has only a mild odor, there’s a good chance it will be acceptable when used in your home. (Important note: This sniffing procedure should be tried only by healthy people, and even then, they should take only a very light sniff.)



Important note: If you’re a chemically sensitive person and plan to use any thinset mortar, it’s extremely important to test it more thoroughly. To do this, first purchase a large, odor-free patio block. On its backside, write down the date and the brand of thinset you plan to test (as well as the type of grout and tile). Then, simply apply a layer of thinset mortar to the topside of the patio block. Next, adhere some of the same ceramic tile you plan to use in your upcoming home project. When the thinset mortar is dry, you can then apply the grout to the joints, making sure that none of the thinset mortar is left uncovered around the edges. (If the grout requires damp-curing, you’ll need to mist the tile/grout surface and cover it with plastic sheeting.) After the grout has cured, you can then very lightly sniff the surface of the sample block. (This procedure, as with all sniff tests, is not recommended for asthmatics.) If there’s an odor, wait a week and lightly sniff it again. Repeat this until no odor is detected, then you can put the sample block next to your bed. If you sleep well through the night, it usually means you can easily tolerate the thinset, the grout, and the tile. Finally, you’ll need to make a note on the backside of the patio block as to how long it took to become tolerable.



By the way, the grout that goes between the tiles doesn’t need as many additives as the thinset, to do its job well. So, a nontoxic grout can be made with simply water, sand, and Portland cement. Because it doesn’t have any extra additives, this grout must be damp cured. Complete instructions for mixing, applying, and curing home-made grout are covered in Healthy House Building for the New Millennium by John Bower.


Typically, caulkings are very odorous, especially while being applied. Unfortunately, the odor can sometimes linger for a long time afterwards. This shouldn’t be too surprising when you realize that most modern caulking products contain a variety of synthetic, petroleum-derived ingredients. As a result, a caulking could release acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl porpionate, and a variety of other noxious substances into the air, depending on the exact type and brand.



One-hundred-percent silicone caulkings are often suggested for sensitive individuals. Silicone is actually a synthetic product consisting of alternating oxygen and silicon atoms. This particular molecular combination results in a material that’s both rubbery and very stable. As a result, silicone caulkings are resistant to high temperatures and water. Although most 100%-silicone caulkings are quite strong-smelling when first applied, once they’re dry they are often quite inert. However, the main reason they’ve been recommended to sensitive persons for some time now is that they’re quite durable, so they don’t have to be replaced for many years. One serious drawback to 100%-silicone caulkings is that, as a rule, they can’t be painted. Fortunately, some brands are now made in white, brown, and a few other basic colors besides clear. If you’re interested in purchasing 100%-silicone caulking, it’s usually sold in most local hardware stores and building centers.



Most silicone caulkings contain acetic acid, which aids in curing. “Neutral-cure” silicone caulkings don’t use acetic acid, so they are a little less odorous, but they can be more difficult to find. Some people recommend using aquarium-grade silicone caulkings. These caulkings are usually FDA approved, but they generally contain acetic acid. To buy aquarium caulking, check with local pet centers and tropical-fish shops.



In situations where it’s desirable to paint the caulking, you might try a “latex” caulking. Originally, these were made with natural or synthetic rubber (along with other ingredients). However, some caulkings that are called “latex” today use entirely different formulations, because the word “latex” has now become a generic term for any water-based caulking.



A real advantage to “latex” caulkings is that, unlike silicone caulkings, drips and smears can be easily cleaned up with water—that is, if they haven’t had a chance to dry yet. But one real disadvantage to latex caulkings is that they’re not nearly as durable as their 100%-silicone counterparts. You should also be aware that “latex” caulkings are not odor free. They definitely have an odor when they’re being applied, which could persist for a few days or a few weeks. Then, too, those with real latex in them are obviously not suitable for latex-allergic people. If you’re interested in using a “latex” caulking, virtually all hardware stores and building centers stock them.



Note: Because of the odors and ingredients in most caulkings, it’s best to following certain precautions when using them. Above all, have plenty of ventilation when you’re applying them. Also, it’s a good idea to wear a chemical respirator mask. It should be stressed that the actual time that will be required for any caulking product to become odorless will depend on the brand, the amount used, the temperature, the relative humidity, and your individual tolerability.

Construction Adhesives

In certain situations where nails or screws aren’t appropriate or aren’t strong enough alone, construction adhesives are usually used. These come in tubes for use in a caulking gun, or in plastic tubs to be applied with a notched trowel. The caulking gun types are usually used for walls and the tub types as mastics for flooring. When using any of these products, use as small an amount as you can, yet enough to do the job.



If construction adhesives can be avoided, don’t use them. For example, if you’re installing a wall mirror in the bathroom, ask your supplier if mirror clips will be sufficient to hold it securely in place. Often times, clips will be adequate. If you’re installing vinyl sheet flooring, it may be that the quarter-round molding around the perimeter of the room will hold the flooring in place just fine.

Some jobs simply need an adhesive, such as installing some bathtub surrounds. In those situations, choose only water-based products. There should be a number of brands available in local hardware and building centers.



There are now a number of companies who offer a complete line of zero- or low-VOC adhesives and mastics that you might be able to find locally.


(Note: Remember that construction adhesives having latex as an ingredient should never be handled by latex-allergic people.)


Many typical lubricating products are quite odorous. This is usually because they’re petroleum-based. Therefore, they’re almost universally bothersome or even intolerable to chemically sensitive individuals for months or even years. Fortunately, however, certain lubricants are now available that have very little odor. These can often be used satisfactorily in a number of situations—but certainly not in all.



Some simple low-odor lubricating options to use on your cabinet and door hinges include petroleum jelly, pharmaceutical-grade mineral oil, or natural plant oils such as jojoba. However, although all of these products can lubricate, they can also leave behind greasy stains. In addition, some of them, in time, will become gummy, and some natural plant oils can eventually become rancid or attract mold or bacteria. However, if you’d like to try one of these options, they’re not difficult to find. Petroleum jelly and pharmacy-grade mineral oil are available at drugstores. Jojoba and other plant oils are usually sold in health-food stores, and in some cosmetic departments, or they can be ordered online.


As another option, household graphite lubricating products often work well to lubricate hinges and latches. Graphite lubricants are actually composed of slippery, fine carbon particles. Generally, pure-graphite lubricants have only nominal odor and never become gummy or rancid. Unfortunately, graphite’s big drawback is that it often leaves sooty black dust and smears around where it was applied. If you’re interested in purchasing a graphite lubricant, check your local hardware store for the brand it carries. Look for a pure product, one that doesn’t contain added oil.



For machinery, clocks, or any other mechanical devices that require periodic lubrication, it is often wise to use only the type of lubricant recommended by the manufacturer. Unfortunately, in most cases, this means you’ll have to use an odorous petroleum-based product. However, if you substitute another kind of lubricant and it doesn’t do its job well, it could result in damage as well as voiding of any product warranties or guarantees. Of course, you can place newly lubricated equipment outdoors in dry, uncontaminated surroundings, or indoors in an infrequently used room with good ventilation until they become more tolerable.



In cases where the lubricated item remains bothersome (as with a sewing machine), you might consider using a fan situated so that it blows across the machine and away from your face. This should help dispel the oily smells. In many cases, people tend to use far more lubricant than is necessary. So, only apply a very small amount. It will not only be less odorous, but less messy as well. As a final note: if at all possible, purchase items that don’t require lubrication.

Foil Barriers

Many times, chemically sensitive people find they need large aluminum-foil sheets to block certain objectionable odors in their homes. This is often done as a temporary solution, but it can also be semipermanent. Rather than taping together several 12"-wide strips of heavy-duty household aluminum foil, you can use builder’s foil. This is a fairly durable product that’s often sold as a reflective insulation/vapor barrier. It’s actually a “sandwich” consisting of brown Kraft paper with a thin layer of aluminum applied one or both sides. Builder’s foil often comes in 36"-wide rolls.
One brand you might want to use is Dennyfoil Reflective Foil Insulation (Denny Sales Corp.). Their 36"-wide product comes with either foil on one side or on both sides, and in a solid-foil type or a “breather” version which is lightly perforated.


Another type of foil product that you might want to use in some applications is aluminized sheathing. This is a much more substantial material than builder’s foil. It’s constructed of an 1/8"-thick, gray, cardboard core with an aluminum-foil layer on each side. This foil-faced sheathing generally comes in 4' x 8' sheets. (Note: These foil-faced products tend to be more popular in warm, sunny climates.) By the way, to adhere builder’s foil, or to seal the seams between sheets, simply use aluminum-foil duct tape.


Of course, many home projects require wood construction. However, there are some basic guidelines for storing and using wood that are always good to know and follow. First, all wood should be stored in a dry area. This will minimize warping and possible mildew growth. Also, when you sand or saw wood, it’s always wise to wear a cartridge-type respirator mask rather than a simple, inexpensive disposable dust mask. This is because newly cut wood can release natural, but irritating, compounds as well sawdust. And sawdust may be carcinogenic.

Man-Made Wood Products

In an ideal healthy home interior, there would probably be no man-made wood products. This means no plywood, no particleboard, and no sheets of wall paneling. Admittedly, these materials have real advantages associated with them—they’re relatively cheap, often made of wood that would otherwise be wasted (inferior logs, mill scraps, sawdust etc.), they resist warping, and in some cases they are stronger than solid wood.



However, typical man-made wood products have health-related drawbacks, especially for sensitive people. For example, they’re nearly always made of softwoods (primarily pine or fir) that can release strong-smelling natural terpenes when they’re freshly cut or sanded. These compounds can be irritating and bothersome to breathe for some people. Even worse, man-made wood products are generally held together with formaldehyde-based glues. Unfortunately, formaldehyde can cause a wide variety of health problems from nasal irritation and respiratory problems, to menstrual irregularities and cancer.



Sadly, formaldehyde will likely be emitted from man-made wood products for many years. This is because the formaldehyde glues used can have a half-life of 3–5 years. In other words, in three to five years after the cabinets are first made, only half of the formaldehyde that was originally in them will have been released into the air. In the next three to five years, half of the remaining formaldehyde will be emitted. And so on. Therefore, many things made with man-made wood products can be ongoing, long-term problems.



However, you should be aware that there are actually two basic types of formaldehyde-based glues that are used in the wood-products industry. Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) glues are generally used in products designed for use outdoors and in construction-grade plywood. As it turns, out PF glues only emit about 10% as much formaldehyde as the other popular formaldehyde-based glue, urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue. UF glues are often used for indoor construction and are common in cabinet-grade plywood. Obviously, if you must use a man-made wood product containing a formaldehyde glue, you’ll want to choose one that’s held together with PF glue rather than UF glue.
You should also know that, although typical plywood (of any type) is definitely a source of formaldehyde, typical particleboard is a far worse emitter. That’s because much more glue is required to make particleboard than to make other man-made wood products. Unfortunately, the glue that’s usually used in particle board is the UF type. Because particle board is cheaper than plywood (after all, it’s only composed of tiny wood scraps and glue), builders often use it for subfloors, and it is widely used in cabinet construction as well. As a result, typical UF particleboard is often a major source of formaldehyde in new homes.



Fortunately, there are alternative particleboard products now available that can be substituted for typical particleboard products, and sometimes typical plywood products as well.

Solid Wood

As a rule, solid wood is often preferable to man-made wood products from an aesthetic as well as a health standpoint. After all, solid wood has an innate beauty that is pleasing to look at and to touch. And being solid, it’s not constructed with formaldehyde glues, or any other type of glue for that matter. (Of course, sometimes individual narrow boards are glued together to create a wide panel, but this is often done with a less-toxic carpenter’s glue.)



However, there are certain drawbacks to solid wood you should keep in mind. First, as compared to man-made wood products, solid wood can be relatively expensive. Although you can purchase construction-grade wood (which is a more economical grade of solid wood), the boards in this category often have large knots, actual knot holes, or other deformities. Also, you should know that most solid wood is somewhat susceptible to warping and this often creates problems of wasted, unusable lumber.
Of course, another drawback to solid wood is that it’s sold as individual boards—not in large 4' x 8' sheets. Therefore, solid-wood boards can’t be used to cover large areas quickly. As a result, using solid wood can mean an increase in both material and labor costs. Also, solid wood can significantly expand or shrink due to changing temperature and humidity conditions. So, people who plan on using solid wood must account for this in their project’s design and construction.



If you choose to use solid wood, it’s wise to become familiar with the two basic categories: softwoods and hardwoods. Softwoods are conifers, or cone-bearing trees, having needles or scale like leaves. Hardwoods are defined as broad-leafed trees. Confusingly, the terms hardwood and softwood don’t always describe the firmness or density of a particular wood. As it turns out, certain hardwoods may actually be softer than many softwoods. For example, balsa wood is botanically classified as a hardwood. However, as a general rule, most softwoods are softer than most hardwoods.



Common softwood lumber (pine or fir boards) is generally cheaper, comes in more standardized sizes, and is more readily available than hardwood lumber. Therefore, virtually all major construction projects use softwood lumber. Unfortunately, pine and fir can emit strong, and sometimes irritating, natural terpene odors when newly cut or sanded. These odors can be very bothersome to certain sensitive individuals. Interestingly, some people have reported that,when choosing between pine and fir lumber, fir seemed to be better tolerated. Unfortunately, finding out whether the softwood lumber you’re about to purchase is actually pine or fir can be difficult. In reality, in most cases anyway, the differences are relatively minor.



Generally, if a softwood—whether pine, spruce, hemlock, or fir, etc.—is used for framing a house, its odors may not pose a problem because the wood is enclosed inside wall cavities. If foil-backed drywall is used to cover the framing and the house is tightly constructed, the odors will be prevented from entering the living space. However, you shouldn’t automatically specify foil-backed drywall for your next room addition. That’s because, in some climates (such as in Florida) doing so could result in hidden condensation problems, and mold growth or rot. For more detailed information on this important topic, see The Healthy House by John Bower.


If you’re bothered by terpene odors, any softwood lumber that you use within the living space (such as in cabinets, furniture, and tongue-and-groove paneling, etc.) will be of more concern. Fortunately, in time, any emissions from the wood will naturally diminish. But if you want to immediately reduce the terpene odors, you can always apply a sealant finish over any exposed softwood surfaces. However, bear in mind that sealants won’t give you 100% protection, and they are often very odorous in their own right.


One softwood that’s often well-tolerated by sensitive individuals in particular is redwood. Although redwood is a softwood, it emits fewer irritating odors than other softwood species. This may be because redwood’s terpenes are water-soluble, so within a relatively short time after it has been cut or sanded, its odor diminishes greatly. One well known plus for redwood is that it resists termite damage and rot. If you use it outdoors, for patio furniture for example, it’ll weather naturally so no protective finish is required, although you might choose to use one anyway if you don’t like the weathered, dull-gray color.


In fact, from a health standpoint, redwood is a superior choice for any outdoor project when compared to the more popular salt-treated softwood lumber. Few people realize that this benign-sounding descriptive phrase—“salt treated”—doesn’t mean table salt (sodium chloride) but, instead, it refers a toxic copper-chromium-arsenic salt. During its manufacture, salt-treated lumber has had these noxious salts driven deeply into it under pressure. Therefore, this type of wood is also known as pressure-treated lumber. Obviously, redwood is a far safer material for you and your family to be around.


Yet, for some projects indoors, you probably won’t want to use redwood. This is because it’s fairly soft, making it susceptible to dings, scratches, and nicks. In addition, there are some environmental concerns related to cutting down redwood trees. However, redwood is still commonly used indoors in saunas.



If you’re bothered by softwood terpene odors, it’s often best to use hardwoods for those projects that will be kept indoors. Although hardwood lumber costs more than softwood lumber, it’s generally far more attractive and durable. So, in the end, you’ll have made a good investment in both appearance and quality, as well as your own better health. Hardwood lumber is ideal for use in flooring, furniture, wall treatments, cabinets, etc.



However, be aware that certain hardwood species are naturally less odorous than others. Some of these low-odor hardwood species include apple, aspen, basswood, beech, birch, elm, gum, maple, pecan, sycamore, and tulip poplar, among others. Though not always easy to find, these woods are often suggested for some sensitive persons to use instead of the more popular red oak, white oak, and walnut, which have much stronger natural odors. Of course, the emissions from all woods will decrease in time, and you can always coat them with a sealant as was described with softwoods earlier.



Tulip poplar is one hardwood with which you might want to especially become familiar. The lumber from this species presents an interesting variegated pattern of tones that’s rather similar to pine. Although it’s somewhat greenish when newly cut, the wood changes to an attractive tan as it ages giving it a butternut-look. Tulip poplar is also quite affordable, often fairly easy to find (this will vary in different parts of the country, of course), and it’s very easy to work with. Therefore, it can be an excellent wood for many projects. However, it is one of the softer hardwood species.



Important note: It’s always a good idea to test a wood species for personal tolerance before you use it for a home project, especially if you’re a sensitive person.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing.)


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)



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The Home Workshop - Making it Healthier:  Created on June 29th, 2007.  Last Modified on February 27th, 2011


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