14 toxic home improvement materials to avoid: the Red List

Matthew Grocoff

February 3, 2014

By: Matthew Grocoff, Green Renovation Expert

In: Green Living

When we bought our now 113-year-old Victorian home it had everything a health-conscious, educated, tree-huggin' young couple could want: lead paint, asbestos siding, asbestos insulation on the ducts, formaldehyde in the countertops, CFCs in the old fridge, and mercury in the stove and thermostat. Can you say 'Dream House'?

Today, it's easy to dismiss the use of these now obvious hazards as simple ignorance of our predecessors. Surely now our homes are safe and healthy, right? Not quite. Many common home improvement and building materials still contain chemicals that are toxic, bioaccumulative (works its way up the food chain), and persistent (sticks around in the environment and doesn't degrade).

In fact, the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act that aims to ensure chemical safety hasn't substantially changed since 1976. Lead was finally banned from paint and gasoline in 1978. To help close the information gap, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has compiled a materials "Red List" containing fourteen chemicals and materials to avoid.

ILFI Red List:

Asbestos

Cadmium

Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethlene

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

Chloroprene (Neoprene)

Formaldehyde

Halogenated Flame Retardants

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)

Lead

Mercury

Petrochemical Fertilizers and Pesticides

Phthalates

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic, or pentachlorophenol

Demand to know what's in your stuff

Consumers are demanding to know what's in the products they buy. Recent alerts over the safety of cleaning products, cosmetics, food, toys, dog food, building materials, and furniture has caused many responsible companies to evaluate their products and supply chains. The challenge is that companies are not required to disclose known hazardous materials in their products.

The ILFI in partnership with the Health Product Declaration Collaborative has created a system called "Declare" for manufacturers to disclose the chemical components of their products. Declare is like a 'nutrition label' to help you feel secure that what you are buying has no chemicals of concern.

In 2011, Google, which is adding tens of thousands of square feet of office space each week, announced that they would no longer allow any materials that contained items on the Red List. Many other companies are following their lead.

How to make healthy choices: materials rules

A few years ago at the Living Future unConference Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network and Robin Guenther from Perkins+Will brainstormed a list of "Materials Rules" based on Michael Pollan's "Food Rules." Here's a summary of these simple rules to help guide your purchasing choices during your next home improvement or renovation project.

  1. If they won't tell you what's in it, you probably don't want what's in it.
  2. What's that smell? Consult your nose -- if it stinks, don't use it. (remember that stinky vinyl shower curtain? That's an indicator of chlorine and phthalates)
  3. Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not. Question anything labeled "Green" but that doesn't declare ingredients.
  4. Pay more, use less. If it's cheap, it probably has a hidden cost.
  5. If it started out toxic, you don't want it in your home
  6. Use things you can imagine in their raw, natural state. It's easy to imagine a sheep's wool. Can you imagine where vinyl came from?
  7. The less something is processed, the better.
  8. Use things that can be repaired, not just replaced (read my article on 6 Best Garden Tools)

"If we made our products to a lower standard, we'd go to prison."

One final note, when you consider making a purchase, contact the company you're buying from and ask them if it contains any items on the Red List. The question alone will help drive the market toward more disclosure. The good news is that many major retailers like Walmart, Pottery Barn, Target, Home Depot, and Whirlpool are exploring ways to phase out many of these chemicals and materials from all of their products (i.e. Wal-Mart no longer sells vinyls shower curtains. Pottery Barn has removed hazardous halogenated flame retardants from their furniture).

If you call a retailer and they can't or won't tell you what's in their product . . . you probably don't want it in your home.

Remember, if they tell you they "comply with all regulations and laws," what they are really saying is "if we made our products to a lower standard, we'd go to prison."

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