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Healthy Home Basics - Furnishing a Healthy House

By HHI Staff

From The Healthy House Answer Book: Answers to the 133 most commonly asked questions. Questions 119-126.


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119. We’re getting ready to move into our new healthy house. Do you have any additional advice?


Congratulations! By using healthy building materials and installing a ventilation system, you now have a healthier structure. However, you must realize that what you put inside your house is just as important as how you built it. We’ve heard of cases where healthy houses were filled with unhealthy furnishings and maintained with unhealthy cleaning products. The result was poor indoor air quality. Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy products out there that can be substituted for all the unhealthy ones. Lynn Bower's book, The Healthy Household, goes into interiors in considerable depth, but the following questions and answers cover the highlights.


120. Antique furniture was made before particleboard and other synthetic materials became popular, so it’s healthy, right?


Not necessarily, old furniture can be contaminated with musty smells, tobacco smoke, pesticides, and perfume odors—all things that affect air quality. Some pieces are actually moldy. If an antique piece has been refinished recently, it may be bothersome because of a noxious stripper that was used, or because of an oil-based stain or finish.


We have an antique oak desk that belonged to John’s great grandmother. Over the years it picked up a wide variety of odors, and it was too bothersome to bring it into our healthy house. We thought about stripping the finish off ourselves (3M has a low-tox product that’s widely available called Safest Stripper), but decided to take it to a commercial stripper. They had more powerful stripping chemicals, the correct safety equipment, and they knew where to properly dispose of the spent stripper and old finish. Once it was stripped, it didn’t have the original odors, but it did smell of stripper. So, we put it in the garage and let it air out for a couple of months. Once it was aired out, we finished it with a water-based urethane floor finish. It’s now odor free and sitting in our entry hall.


121. I think outgassing from some of my new upholstered furniture is affecting my health. Any suggestions?


This can be due to outgassing from materials used in the framework, artificial stuffing, synthetic fabrics, dyes, or stain-resistant treatments. It can be a difficult situation, and your options are limited—but there are options. The first option is to keep the furniture in the house. This is only viable if you aren’t seriously affected, and it’s possible for you to avoid spending very much time in the same room with it. If it’s more-than-a-little bothersome, and it’s brand new, you may try to get the store to take it back. Sometimes, new furniture just needs time to air out. We’ve known people who had to place a new couch in an uncontaminated garage, or on a covered patio, to air out naturally for as long as a year before they could tolerate it indoors. If you must keep a piece of furniture indoors, there’s a very densely woven cotton fabric, called barrier cloth, that can be draped over it to block some of the outgassing.


If your furniture is really bothersome, you may need to consider selling it or donating it to someone who is less sensitive than you are. Whatever, remember that your health is of primary importance. Don’t worry what people will think if you don’t have a couch in your living room. And, don’t worry about money wasted. Money is less important than your physical well being.


122. We’re in the market for a new couch. Does anyone make them with healthy materials?


Yes, there are some mail-order and Internet sources that offer upholstered furniture made with solid wood frames and all-natural stuffing and fabrics. A number of different styles are available. In some cases you can actually specify organically raised cotton.


If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you might look into a metal-framed patio couch, and make your own cushions out of healthy stuffing and fabric.


123. Do you think the extra cost of an all-natural mattress is worth the expense?


Absolutely. You spend about a third of your life in bed, so it should be as healthy as is possible. Most mattresses are made of synthetic materials, and they have various chemical coatings and treatments. For example, Federal law requires that mattresses be treated with flame retardants.


Healthy mattresses can be made of all-cotton or wool. If your doctor feels it’s a good idea, he can actually write you a prescription for a mattress without flame retardants.


124. I don’t like the appearance of metal mini-blinds. Why do you use them for your windows?


Everyone’s taste is different. We happen to like metal mini-blinds because they come in a wide range of colors, slat widths, and styles. Once you’ve let the new paint air out for a while, they’re quite inert. They won’t deteriorate like fabric curtains do in the sun, and they can be adjusted to provide just the amount of privacy or sunlight you desire. In addition, they’re easy to clean with a vacuum, and they're affordable.


125. I’m very chemically sensitive and need a new stove. What do you suggest I get?


This is another one of our most asked questions. First of all, you should avoid gas ranges. We feel the negative health effects associated with combustion by-products are just too serious for them to be a consideration. As far as electric stoves are concerned, the bad news is that there aren’t any that are perfect. They can all have an odor from the new heating elements, warm plastic jacketing on wiring, outgassing from insulation, or odors from oven coatings.


We have a fairly new electric stove in our house, and it’s very healthy. However, it wasn’t that way when we bought it. Based on past experience, we knew that Lynn would be bothered by conventional spiral heating elements. So, we decided to get a model with a smooth glass top having burners hidden just under the surface. We opted for a self-cleaning model. When we first turned it on, it smelled quite strongly. The manufacturer said it was normal and the odor would eventually go away, but it seemed like it was going to take a long time.


We have a 220-volt outlet in our garage, so we put the new stove in the garage and plugged it in there. Then we turned it on. The top aired out fairly quickly, but the oven had a stronger odor. So, we activated the oven’s self cleaning cycle—which operates at a higher-than-normal temperature. Over a couple of weeks, we ran the cleaning cycle twice a day—about 30 times in all. This was enough heat to bake out all the synthetic odors. Today the stove is indoors and is just fine.


126. I’ve heard of something called a safe haven. Just what is that?


When someone first learns that they’re chemically sensitive, it can be discouraging to hear that their house—and everything in it—could be contributing to their ill health. Very few of us can afford to build a new house and completely furnish it overnight with healthy materials. What often helps (in some cases, it helps a lot) is to create one room in a house that’s as healthy as possible. If good air quality can be maintained in, say, a bedroom, a sensitive person can often regain a certain level of their health back by spending eight hours or more in that room every day. This safe haven is also sometimes called an oasis or sanctuary because it provides relief from an otherwise continuous exposure to air pollutants.


To create a safe haven, you’ll first need to remove everything from the bedroom. Then, the walls will need to be thoroughly cleaned with a tolerable, low-odor cleaner. If the clean, empty room is still bothersome, it’s sometimes necessary to seal off the heating/cooling registers to prevent air from entering from other parts of the house. If you suspect the flooring or the paint on the walls to be a problem, they can be covered with builders foil to seal in any outgassing. Once the room itself is tolerable, you can bring in (one at time) different pieces of furniture to see how you react to them. You should only have items in the safe haven that are perfectly tolerable.


You should be aware that a safe haven is often not a cure-all. But it can be a significant step toward improved health. For in-depth instructions on how to create a safe haven, check out Lynn’s book, The Healthy Household.


(Note: This article is part of the original HHI Archives, and was believed to be accurate at the time of writing. 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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Healthy Home Basics - Furnishing a Healthy House:  Created on February 3rd, 2008.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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