GreenTown Los Altos

Uh Oh. What Toxics Are Lurking In Your Home?


Dec 2014


Expert Kunjan Shah knows her "toxic" stuff, as she shares tips for avoiding such problems in our homes.

Expert Kunjan Shah knows her “toxic” stuff, as she shares tips for avoiding such problems in our homes.

What can you do to protect your family from toxic chemicals in your home? In short, fight with your dollars.

On Nov. 12, Kunjan Shah, local architect and expert on healthy building systems, raised the specter of toxins lurking in our homes for a GreenTown talk at the Los Altos Library. Among her recommendations, are to look for specific labels and certifications that protect the health of you and your family.

Scary but true

Chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment. Pregnant women tested by researchers at UCSF were found to have, on average, 43 toxic chemicals in their blood, many of which were banned in the 1970s. These chemicals are visible in our children as well where autism rates in the population have increased dramatically – from 1 in 2500 in 1985 to 1 in 88 in 2012. Chronic conditions, such as asthma, behavior/learning disorders, and obesity, are also on the rise from 28% in 1988 to 52% in 2006.

“One out of every six children suffers from neuro-developmental abnormality…Some environmental chemicals are known to are known to cause brain damage and many more are suspected of it.” – Philippe Grandjean,

You Need To Step Up Because The Government Isn’t Protecting Us

Wonder how these toxics “slip into” our lives? Food, drugs and cosmetics, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are the only products that companies need to demonstrate are safe. All other products and the chemicals in them – think furniture, building products, food storage containers, and toys – are virtually unregulated.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), the burden of proving an “unreasonable risk” to health and safety lies not with the manufacturer, but with EPA. So in 1976, when TSCA went into effect, 62,000 chemicals were “grandfathered in,”( i.e., considered acceptable without any testing). Since then, 20,000+ “new” chemicals have been introduced. Each is innocent until proven guilty. Manufacturers have provided EPA with only scant data on these chemicals. More than two-thirds have no data at all. Of the original 62,000, 200 have been tested and only five have been regulated: PCBs, halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium. Of the new chemicals, only four chemicals – used in metal working fluids – have restricted use. In short, TSCA has no teeth.

The worst offenders

Among the most common hazards are flame retardants, volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde. So where are these lurking in your home?

  1. Flame retardants

Flame retardants are found in just about anything with foam, e.g., home insulation, couches, carpet padding, and baby products. The various flame retardant chemicals change our cell structure and function, affecting learning, reproduction (reducing sperm counts and delaying conception), and suppress the immune system, contributing to cancer. Some of the most prevalent bioaccumulate in the environment, such that marine mammals have 100 times the concentration compared to smaller aquatic animals. Source: Green Policy Institute, 2014.

Your next couch could be better

In the U.S., flame retardant additives in furniture foam, insulation and baby products, became the norm after California issued its flammability standard – Technical Bulletin 117 – in 1975. Ironically, flame retardants added to furniture foam do not prevent ignition, which typically starts on the fabric. Further, they do not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time.

The Green Science Policy Institute and others have been working to counter the 1975 standard. Key among its successes is a replacement standard, TB117-2013, which adds a smolder test for fabric. This standard addresses how and where fires start. Cigarettes on couch fabric is the leading cause of furniture fires. Flame retardant chemicals in the filling are not required to meet TB117-2013. However, caveat emptor, the new standard does ban the use of flame retardants in foam, so when purchasing a couch or chair, buyers should check with the retailer to ensure that the furniture BOTH: (1) complies with TB117-2013; and (2) does not include harmful flame retardants.

Wondering about alternatives? This is an awesome article on replacing your couch foam!!

  1. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a readily available and inexpensive chemical. It is found in many products, ranging from building products; glues and adhesives; permanent-press and wrinkle-free fabrics; paper product coatings; certain insulation materials, and other household products. Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde adhesives or resins, such as particleboard, plywood and fiberboard, are a significant source of formaldehyde in homes. Formaldehyde inhalation can irritate the nose and throat, cause a burning sensation in the eyes and result in difficulty breathing. It can also trigger asthma symptoms in people with asthma and is a known human carcinogen.

Regulation and new products offer hope

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has set stringent emissions standards on formaldehyde in “composite wood products,” including plywood, particleboard and medium density fiberboard. Before purchasing pressed-wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture, buyers should ask if the product is “California 93120 Compliant for Formaldehyde.” They can also ask for engineered wood products that are manufactured with resins that contain no added formaldehyde (NAF) or urea formaldehyde (NAUF). If manufactured products containing formaldehyde have been used in a building project, all hope is not lost. These can cbe sealed with a product like AFM Safecoat to limit off-gassing.

  1. VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds

VOCs are carbon-based compounds, such as acetone and methane, that evaporate at room temperature. In the home, they are commonly found in paint, adhesives, caulks, sealants and coatings. While they have been linked to asthma and cancer, EPA regulates VOCs only for their contribution to smog formation. So some exempt, non-smog causing VOCs are found in “low” or “zero” VOC products, despite health hazards.

How can you limit exposure?

Look for products that are certified by MPI-X Green, Greenguard or Greenseal or for products that pass California Section 01350 or the California Department of Health Standard.

Resources for safer products

Green Home Guide

Environmental Working Group

Green Science Policy

Pharos Project (Professional, Membership based)

Building Green (Professional, Membership based)

EPA’s Design for the Environment

For more information or to get your questions answered about building product choices and carpet and furniture selection for a healthy home, contact Kunjan Shah at

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