You can’t put a price on your family’s health. When we set out to build the Mill Creek NetZero Home, we were determined to make it a healthy living environment for us, our children and those who visit us.
The factors that are most responsible for making a home’s air toxic are paint, formaldehyde and carpet.
Engineered wood products (also called composite wood products) have saved untold numbers of trees since they were invented. What could be wrong with making big pieces of “wood” by gluing together tiny ones, thereby reducing the waste associated with creating lumber from trees? The answer to that is formaldehyde, a substance that “has been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans” (EPA website).
The medium-density fibreboard (MDF) that most furniture is at least partially made of these days is composed of tiny pieces of wood bound together using urea formaldehyde, a particularly high-offgassing type of formaldehyde. The kicker is that you can make MDF without formaldehyde, but almost nobody does it because it’s about 50% more expensive. Say what? See above quote regarding putting a price on your family’s health.
To avoid urea formaldehyde offgassing into our home, we decided to have the built-in shelves in the closets and pantry built out of Medite II MDF. Medite II uses a “formaldehyde-free adhesive system” and costs about 50% more than regular poisonous MDF.
Pantry shelves in the MCNZH, built out of formaldehyde-free Medite II fibreboard
We also decided to buy our kitchen from Ikea, which follows European standards for formaldehyde in their fibreboard products. The Europeans apparently believe in protecting the health of their citizens.
Finally, our house was built in such a way as to minimize how much Oriented Strand Board (OSB) is inside the vapour barrier. Although manufactured with the much slower-offgassing phenol formaldehyde, it is still a good idea to have as little OSB as possible inside one’s house.
OSB is exempt from formaldehyde regulations because it has very low emission levels (APA)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can emit from standard paints, so it’s well worth it to invest in low-VOC paints. Andrea from raisingspaces.com sells them online. Otherwise, you can buy them at most paint shops. We used Lifemaster from Dulux, which they claim to be “the first solvent free, no VOC, low-odor interior latex paints”.
Have you ever noticed that Ikea doesn’t stink? Canadian Tire has a smell. Zellers definitely has a smell, but Ikea is pretty much scent free. I think that the main reason is that Ikea follows European standards when it comes to offgassing. In other words, their stuff doesn’t poison you once you bring it home.
We aren’t installing wall-to-wall carpet in the MCNZH (aw, no new house smell!), and the carpets that we do use will either be reused (done offgassing long ago) or from Ikea.
We have a bad habit of choosing unhealthy options because they are cheaper. I personally think that they shouldn’t be allowed to sell high formaldehyde MDF board regardless of the (fairly minimal) extra cost. Not everyone has the time or inclination to research everything that they buy for health effects, and it fact, many people trust that the government would not allow a poisonous product to be sold for use in their home.
Until the authorities do the right thing, as they eventually did with Bisphenol A in plastics, those of us who know about the risks can choose the right paints, carpets, and engineered woods to minimize the risk for those inhabiting our homes. The MCNZH will be a healthier home for us having made those choices.