The air we breathe inside our home can often have significantly higher concentrations of man-made chemicals compared to outdoor air. Levels of flame retardants, phthalates and some pesticides have been measured at significantly higher concentrations indoors. While removing these chemicals is often the most desirable outcome, it can be difficult to identify the product or material that is treated with these chemicals. To reduce the levels in your home, we recommend changing your air filters on a regular basis and using filters with high filtration ratings. Furnaces that use electrostatic precipitators or high efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) filters can also help remove particles in the air that can contain these chemicals. A good alternative is to simply increase the ventilation in your home by opening the windows.
House dust is often considered innocuous, but those small particles of dust also contain high concentrations of contaminants. Unfortunately, dust is a sink for many chemicals that off-gas from products in our homes (e.g. paint, plastics, foam, etc). Previous research from our laboratory has demonstrated that the concentrations of flame retardant chemicals in house dust are significantly correlated with concentrations present in children’s bodies. We recommend trying to reduce the accumulation of dust in your home and avoiding direct contact with dust particles. Vacuuming frequently and using wet mopping and dusting techniques can help reduce exposure and the accumulation of dust.
When purchasing or installing flooring materials we often think about aesthetics, color and texture. However, flooring materials can often contain chemical treatments, which can result in exposure to residents, and particularly small children who spend more time in contact with the floor. For example, some carpets are treated with chemicals to provide stain-repellent properties, and the chemicals used most frequently for this purpose belong to the class of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). PFASs are under intense scrutiny at this time due to concerns about their toxicity. More information on PFASs can be found here. Vinyl flooring is often treated with plasticizers, chemicals that change the durability and flexibility of the products. Phthalates are a common class of plasticizers used in vinyl sheeting and vinyl tiles. Our research has found that vinyl flooring found in older apartments and homes contains benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), while new vinyl sheeting and tile currently on the market contain diethyl hexyl terephthalate (DEHT). A recent study conducted by our laboratory found that the amount of vinyl flooring in the home was significantly correlated with the concentration of BBP metabolites in children’s urine. We recommend avoiding stain-repellant carpet, and vinyl flooring containing phthalates. In general, we recommend considering all chemical and topical treatments in your flooring materials. Healthy Stuff, a project of the Ecology Center identifies recommendations to reduce exposure to toxic phthalates in vinyl flooring.
Consumer Products & Building Materials
Construction materials and products that we purchase can also lead to chemical exposures in the home. Some materials or products are not labeled with chemical treatments, but based on research, we have some general information that can be helpful. Overall, we recommend looking for products that are certified by Greenguard to help ensure low emissions of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).
Most residential furniture sold in the United States has to comply with a California flammability standard known as TB 117. Historically, the cushions and foam inside furniture was often treated with chemical flame retardants to meet this standard; however, research conducted by our group and others helped to raise awareness about exposure and health problems related to the use of these chemicals. In 2014, this flammability standard was changed, and now all residential furniture should contain a label indicating whether the furniture is treated with flame retardants. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a labels fact sheet for the different kinds of labels and what they mean. We recommend purchasing furniture that does not contain chemical flame retardants.
Memory foam products
Some mattresses, pillows and mattress toppers are made with a special type of polyurethane foam called memory foam. This dense foam often contains elevated concentrations of VOCs when newly purchased, and often has a strong smell. If you buy a memory foam product, we recommend airing the product outdoors for several days before use, or until the smell is gone.
Insulation used in residential and public settings can also be treated with chemical flame retardants that can lead to exposure in the home through inhalation. Most polyurethane, polystyrene and polyisocyanurate based insulation materials have chemical flame retardants. Talk to the manufacturers about the chemicals they use in your insulation and try to avoid insulation containing Tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TCPP).
Further information about chemical exposures and health concerns related to the indoor environment can be found at the sites listed below: