Home Planning for Health: A Good Investment

Book Review by Sarah Dursley
UPdate Fall 2001

Are you about to renovate your kitchen, prepare a room for a baby or build a new house? Whether your project is big or small, purchasing (and reading) The Healthy House: How to buy one, how to build one, how to cure a sick one (4th edition) by John Bower before you start may be the wisest investment you make. 

"Our homes may be our castles," says Bower, "yet they hardly protect us from indoor air pollution. The atmosphere inside most houses is typically 5-10 times worse than the outdoor air."  The average North American spends 80-90% of time indoors - at home, school, or work.  Young children, people who are sick and the elderly may spend most of their time in just one location, the home. 

When we think about fixing up a home, we think about how we want it to look and how much we can spend.  Health is usually not a major consideration. Professional Builder magazine found that most homebuyers would be willing to pay more for a healthy home.  But where to start, what are the priorities?

"If you don't have any severe health problems, eliminating carpeting, the worst manufactured wood products and combustion appliances that don't have sealed combustion chambers will be a significant step toward cleaner indoor air," Bower writes.  An excellent section by architects Bruce Coldham and Mary Kraus lists 22 building choices and evaluates the healthy choice versus the traditional choice taking into account cost and how much health benefit they give.  Looking at the chart, it is clear that some options give a lot of health bang for few bucks, such as low toxicity paints and electric stoves. Central ventilation systems and wood flooring are more costly but also have significant health benefits.  Other choices, such as low toxicity insulation or natural exterior stains may cost a lot and have little effect on indoor air.

Healthy building and renovating take more thinking and planning on the consumer's part.  It's the same as other ways of keeping your body healthy.  At this point in the building game, no one can do it for you. If you wait until the last minute you may be stuck with unhealthy materials. There are increasing numbers of people knowledgeable about healthy housing and more sources of healthy materials. Bower incorporates essays from 50 healthy building experts in the 2001 edition. 
Bower introduces the reader to the general principles of how a house works.  He sees a house as a system, like the body. What is done in one place affects what happens somewhere else. For example, adding insulation and weatherizing a house can effect the way moisture migrates through walls and ceiling. This can result in mould growth unless preventative measures are taken.

He prioritizes four healthy design principles: eliminate (get rid of the worst pollutants), separate (create a barrier between pollutants and the living space), ventilate (a proper air flow provides oxygen and dilutes the moisture and pollutants which result from normal living) and filtrate (air filters can purify the air further for people who need an especially clean environment.)  He stresses that ventilation systems and air purifiers can't act as substitutes for eliminating unhealthy materials. 
There are hundreds of helpful pieces of information in this book.  Here is a sampling:
     ATTACHED GARAGES are a major source of toxic fumes which can leak into the living space.  If you don't have one, don't build one.  If you do have one, you can install an exhaust fan which should be kept running at all times, or a ducting system to draw air out of the garage and away from the living space. 
     CABINETS can be among the most polluting components of a house.   Practically all commercially manufactured cabinets are partially constructed with plywood, particleboard or medium density fiberboard products that outgas formaldehyde for years. "Most wood-cabinet makers also use a urea-formaldehyde clear finish that is significantly more potent than the glue used in manufactured wood products.  These finishes actually generate formaldehyde as they cure, so much so that there is 2-8 times more formaldehyde emitted than existed in the original liquid finish...It is very potent for several months, then the finish is considerably less volatile."  Bower lists some of the less toxic cabinets and finishes available.  At the very least he recommends that ready made cabinets be well aired for 4-6 months before installation. 
     TIGHT HOUSING is important, says Bower, so long as it is constructed with and filled with healthy materials. Like many people, I imagine tight houses full of stale, pollution-laden air.  But Bower's argument that we should choose the holes which our air and moisture flows through is convincing.  Tight houses are not closed houses.  They can have windows that open as well as air exchange systems.  What houses shouldn't have, says Bower, is lots of cracks and holes through which air and moisture can flow, which can result in moulds in building cavities or off gassing from building materials entering the indoor air.  A healthy tight house depends on treating the house as a system, with both effective ventilation and a minimum of pollution creating materials. Tightening an older home without taking steps to make sure proper ventilation is in place can create new sets of problems, like chimneys which backdraft exhaust products into the living space or mould contamination. 
     FLOORING is a significant part of the surface area of a house.  New flooring is a common renovation in older homes.  Bower's section on flooring is very detailed.  It includes information on carpets, carpet backings, underlay and adhesives. He reviews studies from the Anderson Laboratory in which mice exposed to new carpets died. The book also quotes memos from the carpet industry exposing the manufacturers' search for ways to discredit Anderson's results. The memos say nothing about a desire to improve the safety of their carpets. Sources of less toxic carpets are provided, as well as an evaluation of other floor coverings, including linoleum and different types of wood.
     A HOUSE BUILT TO CODE is not necessarily going to be a healthy house.  Consultant Bion Howard describes his experience with an unhealthy house. "Having recently inspected an 8 year old home with extensive moisture problems, rotting framing, mold and miserable occupants, I was saddened to report to them that $45,000 in repairs would be needed just to make the home livable again.  The damage to this house could have easily been prevented with some simple air-sealing measures, better foundation construction, and proper drainage.  Ironically, this home was a model and it met all the applicable building codes.  The repairs to this 2,600 square foot home cost over $17 per square foot...Up front, the builder only would have had to spend less than $2 per square foot to avoid the problems, and he would have created a healthy home to boot."

You may need to ask a lot of questions to find out what is actually in a material.  Bower explains how to interpret a manufacturer's safety data sheet (MSDS) and what information you won't find there.  Labels and MSDS's won't necessarily tell you all you need to know.  Some places allow plywood to be labeled as "Solid Wood".  A consultant writes of his search for a least toxic insulating material for a chemically sensitive customer.  He brought over a bag of mica, to which the customer reacted severely.  A long discussion with the manufacturer finally revealed that when the mica was dried it was treated with pesticide, which was not on the label. The amount was such a small percentage of the product that labeling was not required. 

The Healthy Home is written for both the healthy and the chemically sensitive.  Bower's wife Lynn has severe chemical sensitivities.  Much of Bower's expertise in healthy housing came through his efforts to build a home where Lynn could regain her health. Detailed information on the three healthy homes which they built is included in the book.  Lynn has written a companion book, The Healthy Household , which contains detailed information on products found inside the home. 

For the environmentally sensitive, there's a wealth of helpful hints scattered throughout the book.  Nova Scotia's Robin Barrett of Healthy Homes contributed a detailed section on how to self-test to determine if you can use a product without reacting.  There's information on where to find formaldehyde free particle board, a less toxic PVC glue for plumbing and inert materials you can use for closet shelving which won't off gas into your clothing.  One of the hints I found most useful was to test materials which are going to be used together as a "package", e.g. drywall, joint compound and paint.  Each product might be tolerable separately, but when used together they may react with each other and become intolerable.  Testing can help to find this out before they are on the walls.

The Healthy Home is encyclopedic in scope. Bower looks at virtually every component which goes into a house, from concrete to roofing, plumbing glues to smoke detectors. He evaluates the potential hazards of each and identifies the least toxic options.

Topics range from the common to the obscure.   Are ozonators healthy? How do you renovate safely if you have old lead paint in your home? What windows and doors are healthiest? This book will answer your questions. It will even tell you how to make your own additive free tile grout. 

There are detailed sections on six common pollutants: lead, asbestos, radon, mold, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's), and how to identify and deal with them.
There is a listing of over 600 companies that provide less toxic products, from caulking to carpet to joint compound. Addresses, phone numbers and websites are provided.  Most of these suppliers are American. Canadian producers of less toxic products are often not included. In most cases the American products are available in Canada. 

Whether you are healthy and want to stay that way, or have allergies, asthma or chemical sensitivities, this book will help.  You will be more able to make informed choices, identify potential problems, and deal confidently with tradespeople and contractors.  The information it provides will help you know what questions to ask and give you the confidence to insist on products and methods of work which will result in a healthier home. 


The Healthy House by John Bower (ISBN 0-9637156-9-0) is published by The Healthy House Institute, 430 N. Sewell Road, Bloomington, IN 47408 USA, phone/fax 812-332-5073.  Bower's website at www.hhinst.com includes information on other Healthy House publications, and numerous articles on the subject. 

Sarah Dursley is environmentally sensitive and appreciates the importance of a healthy home. 

For more on healthy housing, see these individual's stories:

Barb Harris is severely chemically sensitive and approaches home removations with extreme caution ...

Shelly Shea is chemically sensitive. She recently built a package home that she amended to suit her needs ...

Lori Reid, her husband and their two children were a healthy family, until they moved into their new home ...