19 February 2014 — Bunnings is changing its product mix to lower toxicity and Dulux likewise, but according to sustainable design consultant Megan Norgate eradicating commonly found toxins in indoor environments can be a real challenge for many people.
“It is a bit of a can of worms,” Norgate says. “What I find is clients are looking at the energy efficiency of homes, but when you try to layer [toxins] on top of it, it can be too much.”
In a new venture, Commonspace, Norgate’s business, Brave New Eco, has teamed with interior designer Kim Kneipp to specifically address indoor air quality in the aged care, medical and allied health sectors.
Based on a wealth of research on the carcinogens and allergens found in many common building products and furnishings, Commonspace will advise clients on reducing or where possible eliminating these substances and replacing them with cost-effective sustainable alternatives.
As part of launching the business, the company is offering a free consultation to a business in the sector willing to become a case study for further projects.
Toxins cross all property sectors
The existence of known toxins and allergens crosses all property sectors, from private homes, where ageing hessian carpet underlay may have been made from bags used for packing asbestos fibres, through to motels, offices and aged care centres where couches and mattresses are generally impregnated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a common class of brominated flame retardants.
According to a 2006 research report by the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, in animals tests, PBDEs have been identified as increasing the risk of a number of problems, including liver and thyroid effects, subtle behavioural changes and immune system impairment.
The same study undertook sampling of blood across both urban and regional Australia from people of all ages, and found that varying levels of the chemicals were found in every sample. The chemicals’ pathways into the body included furnishings, dust and through the food chain.
Certain chemical hazards found in interior furnishings have been identified conclusively as extremely detrimental both to human health and the wider environment, in part due to their complete resistance to breakdown, which enables them bio-accumulate. Once they get in, there’s no getting rid of them.
In 2009, Australia was one of the signatory countries to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. This agreement committed Australian manufacturers to subject perfluorooctane sulfonate, its salts and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride to restrictions on production and use.
While the Stockholm POPs convention signatories agreed that the ultimate goal was the elimination of PFOS, production of the chemical is still permitted for limited uses including coatings for semiconductors, firefighting foam, photo imaging, aviation hydraulic fluids, metal plating and certain medical devices, which means the odds are fairly good we are all still being exposed to it.
Volatile organic compounds
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are another class of indoor toxin which has received significant attention from bodies including the Green Building Council of Australia, with VOC minimisation one of the possible credits for a Green Star Design, Green Star Interiors or Green Star As Built project. VOCs are off-gassed by materials including some vinyls, paints, solvents, fixatives, waterproofing compounds, tile grouts and some furnishings.
The National Pollutant Inventory states: “General effects of exposure to VOCs include: irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system. Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected or are known to cause cancer in humans. Build up of VOCs in indoor environments have been associated with ‘sick building syndrome’.”
Sometimes you need to get out of the house
Norgate says it is important for DIY renovators and those employing tradesmen to be aware that many paints, floor coverings and other interior elements should ideally be subject to a period of non-occupancy while VOC-laden fumes dissipate.
The Material Safety Data Sheets for all products, which specify safety precautions including critical periods for VOC risk, while not generally available at the point of purchase must by law be available from the website of the manufacturer.
Ventilation is key
“Ventilation is one of the other key things [for interior sustainability], designing houses with windows which can be opened securely at night to allow any fumes to escape,” Norgate says.
Add some plants
“Having lots of houseplants is also a positive step. Plants are a really powerful tool for keeping indoor air quality good. NASA research [into indoor air quality] has shown that up to 87 per cent of the VOCs in an indoor environment over a 24-hour period can be removed by between 15-18 plants in a 167 square metres home or office. In a standard three-bedroom home, that is roughly between one to three plants per room.”
Certain species are more effective than others with NASA’s research showing peace lilies, florist chrysanthemums, mother-in-law’s tongue, philodendrons, gerberas, Boston ferns and ficus (fig) are some of the most effective air purifiers.
- See articles in The Fifth Estate by Dr Ronald Wood – The power of plants for good indoor air: Part 1; and Part 2.
Other important measures include ensuring homes have some kind of heat exchange ventilation, particularly in winter when airborne pollutants including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide from gas heaters, VOCs from furnishings and electrical appliances, as well as air-borne dust containing PBDEs and other nasties can accumulate in tightly sealed homes.
“VOCs accumulate in sealed spaces – your nose is a fairly powerful tool, so if you can smell the paint or floor coverings, then you are absorbing a high level of VOCs [when you breathe],” Norgate says.
“Children are especially vulnerable, because they are down on the ground – also the elderly and the sick, because they are often confined in indoor environments for long periods.”
Change is difficult
The key difficulty with changes occurring at a legislative level to limit their manufacture and use is that it is, “almost impossible to prove that any one thing caused any of those health impacts,” Norgate says.
This is basically because researchers cannot create a control group to compare those who have exposure to the chemicals with those who haven’t, because those who have had no exposure simply do not exist, such is the all-pervasive nature of these substances.
The Lancet links toxins to a range of illnesses
Some scientists are pushing the case, though. A review published in The Lancet Neurology last week, which gained widespread media coverage, found that neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other cognitive impairments, had increasing rates of diagnoses in children.
The increased rise in prevalence had links to developmental neurotoxins including lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, toluene, manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene and the PBDEs, the scientists stated.
It recommended that a global prevention strategy was instigated, which would involve “mandatory developmental neurotoxicity testing of existing and new chemicals before they come into the marketplace”, according to co-author of the paper Dr Philip Landrigan.
Bunning and Dulux changing the product mix
It also appears industry is starting to get on the same page as sustainability advocates such as Norgate.
A spokesman for hardware and home improvements retailer Bunnings told The Fifth Estate the marketing teams for major manufacturers of paints, sealants and other building products are increasingly driving product development in a more sustainable direction, as it is seen as a “point of difference” that attracts customers.
Bunnings itself phased out the sale of all aerosol products with toluene, one of the VOCs, and are finding that more suppliers are developing low-VOC products suitable for asthmatics and less risky for pregnant women to use.
“This is right across the board – Dulux really championed it, and they own the Selleys brand, which is now producing silicones and sealants which are low VOC. They are launching more and more sustainable products all the time,” the Bunnings spokesman said.
“A lot of products have been formulated for changes in the building regulations – there are some buildings now which are required to have zero VOC levels.
“In the commercial and residential sectors, the high end, builders are specifying products with more sustainable attributes, and suppliers are doing a lot of research into developing these [kinds of] products.
“Is it beneficial [for end users]? Guaranteed, 100 per cent. Is there a demand? We do see it changing, and it is changing very fast, with a lot more products being specified which are low VOC.”
Norgate has a very simple benchmark when it comes to interiors.
“My personal philosophy when choosing products is, ”guilty until proven innocent.” Unless a product has been tested and certified, I am [reluctant to use it],” Norgate said.
“The common notion that if is used widely, it must be safe, is simply not true.”
Norgate is bringing her Brave New Eco interiors advice to the Speed Date a Sustainability Expert event being held by the Alternative Technology Association in Melbourne on 22 February, where she will offer free one-on-one consultations to small businesses and homeowners.