10 Materials I Would Never Use in a Healthy Home

by Corinne Segura

This article is a list of the building components that I find to be the most problematic as well as their healthier substitutes.

I am not able to say the exact levels of formaldehyde or other volatile organic compound (VOC) levels are universally acceptable. I believe that my role is to inform people and to present the viewpoint of individuals who are harmed by environmental illnesses, or “canaries in the coal mine,” as I like to call us.

There are also semi-volatile persistent chemicals that we know are very harmful for humans and the environment, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds and flame retardants.

There are areas of the home that have easy substitutes, so making a choice to lower the VOCs, and reduce persistent chemicals is an obvious choice.

The ten materials I find to be most alarming, along with the best current substitutes available follows.

  1. Resilient Vinyl Flooring (and other flexible PVC products)

Even though vinyl sheet flooring is not that prevalent in conventional homes, it is in “mobile homes” and can be used in lower-end (non-mobile) homes’ bathrooms and kitchens. It is also the most typical type of flooring in recreational vehicles (RVs) and trailers.

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, raises a number of environmental and health issues. The off-gassing varies by type of vinyl and gets worse the more flexible the product is.

Vinyl flooring is very flexible and emits a high level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and to make it flexible, plasticizers are required (phthalates or DOTP).

Two notable substitutes exist. One is resilient flooring made of polyurethane. This is the closest equivalent since it can equal its durability, it’s waterproof, impermeable, and it resembles vinyl in appearance. Yet it has no detectable odor or off-gassing and contains no plasticizers or other highly persistent chemicals of concern.

Natural linoleum is another option for resilient flooring. It resembles PVC somewhat but feels more organic and is “breathable”. Even though it is not harmful, the smell of natural linseed oil may be bothersome to some sensitive individuals. The majority of the flooring’s components are natural.

Mass loading vinyl (MLV) soundproofing barriers, vinyl shower curtains, vinyl peel-and-stick wallpaper, and vinyl roll-down blinds are other applications of flexible PVC that I would steer clear of.

  1. SBR Rubber Floors

Another very pungent flooring material that is typically only found in home gyms is rubber flooring. Styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) flooring can be made from virgin rubber or recycled rubber (typically recycled tires), but even the best options, which avoid the contamination risks of used tires and are vulcanized (not made with polyurethane glues), still have a potent smell from the VOCs that is perceptible for years.

While some intense exercise regimens necessitate rubber flooring, the majority of home workouts do not. Solid wood, carpet, or even LVP can be used, depending on the workout.

Everything, with the exception of vinyl sheet flooring, is better than SBR rubber in my opinion.

SBR rubber is also found in some soundproofing membranes for use between floors.

  1. Nylon Carpet

At least in some brands, the VOC levels of brand-new nylon carpet do appear to be decreasing, but most nylon carpets still off-gas too much for my standards and for most sensitive people.

Polyester carpet (both PET and PTT) is the alternative that is most similar in appearance and price. Some polyester carpet brands, like Air.o by Mohawk and Home Fresh by Empire Today, are zero-VOC. These two are PFAS-free as well.

The fact that PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds) stain-resistant treatments are still commonplace on all synthetic carpet presents another significant risk carpet. This is a chemical class that raises concerns for both humans and the environment. We are just in the midst of the transition away from PFAS now in carpets and fabrics because of new laws that are coming into place in a number of US states.

Wool carpet is a truly healthy substitute for synthetic carpet. While some brands treat the carpet with enough chemicals to leave them with that distinct “new carpet smell”, others do not. Though most are treated with permethrin which is a pesticide for moths. And some of them do have a strong wooly odor, which is natural.

  1. Polyurethane Adhesives

Even when the VOC listing is quite low, polyurethane caulking compounds and glues have a tendency to have a stronger odor than alternatives, and in my experience the off-gassing is simply slower. While a polyether caulking with the same official VOC level will just take a few days to a few weeks tops to off-gas, a very low-VOC polyurethane caulking can easily take 4-5 months to off-gas to the point of being undetectable.

They are the sneaky contributors to that new house smell.

  1. Two-part polyurethane spray foam insulation (SPF)

On my list of things to avoid in a healthy home, this is at the top. We all know what happens when this is installed improperly (it’s a disaster), but even if nothing terrible goes wrong with the installation, SPF off-gasses more than we are encouraged to believe, in my experience.

I think there is a big difference between the foam in the real world and the official VOC testing samples, which are made from carefully mixed little samples in a lab. Usually, the smell of spray-foamed walls or attics VOCs lingers for two to three years. Most people tend to concur with this evaluation, especially those with strong senses of smell or chemical sensitivity.

Cans of one-part polyurethane spray appear to be very different. The fact that this type is typically not an issue for most individuals may be due to the fact that fewer complications can occur without the on-site mixing of the two-component foam, as well as the fact that it is used in very small amounts.

Another reason to limit or prevent the use of spray foam is the high percentage of harmful flame retardants in both types.

  1. Fiberboards

With the switch to phenol-formaldehyde (and away from urea-formaldehyde) and the use of various formaldehyde scavengers, the formaldehyde levels in pressed wood products have undoubtedly improved. However, compared to other engineered woods like plywood, High Density Fiberboard (HDF) and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) still contain more formaldehyde.

You can replace MDF baseboards and trim with solid wood alternatives.

A little HDF or MDF can be found inside doors, both hollow core and solid doors. Unless you chose a door type that is uncommon, this is difficult to get around.

Depending on the design of the cabinets door fronts you choose, MDF can be avoided when choosing kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Although not all styles permit it, the majority of mid-range to high-end cabinets and vanities can be manufactured with plywood boxes and solid wood doors and drawer fronts. Plywood has a lower formaldehyde content and off-gasses quicker. (According to the American Plywood Association, phenol-formaldehyde plywood quickly attained undetectable levels).

  1. Paints High in VOCs

Oil-based paints contain high levels of VOCs though they are used much less frequently today. They still may be used as a bathroom primer or on trim and doors in some homes.

For trim and doors, water-based alkyd paints are now the norm, and these are definitely an improvement over oil-based solvent-filled paints. However, anyone who is chemically sensitive or wants to significantly lower the VOC levels in a new home may want to simply use conventional acrylic-based paint in semi-gloss on the trim and doors or natural linseed oil-based paints (that are solvent-free).

One exception to this rule is that some factory-cured solvent-based paints don’t exhibit any observable off-gassing because they are UV-cured. (Some cabinet paints are an example).

  1. Solvent-based stains and sealants for wood

The fact that solvent-based wood stains emit a high level of VOCs is probably not shocking. Water-based stains can be finicky and don’t always turn out the same, therefore solvent-based stains are often preferred.

The quick-drying solvent-based stains (like Duraseal QuickCoat) are the best type if you do have to go with solvent-based stain; the addition of solvents like alcohol that flash off quickly seems to help, but I still wouldn’t use them personally.

Conversion varnish is another type of specialized floor finish that I would stay away from since it can be really harsh.

Thre are two good alternatives. Water-based stains under a water-based polyurethane or natural penetrating oils. Or a natural oil-based finish with an integral stain like Rubio Monocoat or Tried and True Linseed. These are gaining in popularity which means more contractors that have experience with these stains.

  1. Sealants for Light-Colored Stone Countertops & Tiles

The bulk of stone sealants out there right now are fluoropolymer based, which is a form of per- or polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS).

Stones that are dark or warm in hue can be coated with a natural walnut oil and wax finish, such as The Real Milk Paint Company’s Soapstone Sealer, which is both healthy and incredibly durable. This can outperform synthetic sealers so it’s worth considering going with a dark or warm-colored stone in order to avoid synthetic sealers in many cases.

If you do go with a white or cool-toned light stone, SimpleCoat is the only synthetic sealer that I know of that is both 0-VOC and free of PFAS.

  1. Lead-Based Tiles

I recently used an XRF analyzer to test 64 tiles from well-known merchants for lead. The lead content of two of those tiles was significantly higher than 1.0 mg/cm2, the threshold at which paint is considered to be “lead-containing”. Five more tiles were between 0.1 and 1 mg/cm2, and one tile measured just under 1 mg/cm2, and I would consider those levels to be significant.

While there are comprehensive remediation guidelines for lead paint, there are none for lead-containing tiles and the dust they produce when cut or demolished. These companies are not required to test their products, and I never see a Prop 65 warning on these tiles.

The alternative is to test your tiles before installing or demolishing, or just go ahead with lead containment practices.

Corinne Segura is a healthy materials specifier and author of the website My Chemical-Free House.