12 DIY Hacks for a Healthier Materials Environment at Home

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

A Healthier Materials Environment at Home is important because:

  • There are at least 130 substances that are considered toxic to our health, many of which are in materials or are part of a production process, as outlined by The List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999)

  • We want to avoid having asbestos, mercury or lead in our homes, in which the 1978-1979 Canada Health Survey indicated that 25% of Canadians aged 6 or older had blood concentrations of the latter higher than the recommended healthy threshold (Statistics Canada, 2015)

  • At least 95% of all building material ingredients lack empirical data on the impact they have on human health and the environment

(Source: WELL v2, 2018)

Being wellness-conscious with our material choices reduces our risk of bringing harmful substances into our homes.

Of particular concern are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), toxic off-gassing chemicals that are found in many building materials such as “ insulation, paints, coatings, adhesives, furniture and furnishings, composite wood products and flooring materials” (WELL v2, 2018, pg. 167), and has been shown to harm our respiratory and reproductive organs, as well as cause cancer.

Furthermore, the presence of heavy metals in our household, the use of pesticides, herbicides, biocides, wood preservatives (like chromated copper arsenate, or CCA) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in older industrial components can further compromise our health and environment.

To ensure that our material choices are not making us sick during our fight against the COVID pandemic, we must do our due diligence in researching, managing and evaluating what substances are within our indoor and outdoor environments and to eliminate and substitute them with cleaner, healthy material alternatives when possible.

Here are therefore 12 DIY Hacks for a Healthier Materials Environment at Home (from Overall Project to External Site to Interior Spaces) within a reasonable price range:

1) Overall Project: Consider the Three Pillars of Sustainability

Cost: $0

Sustainability and Wellness are parallel frameworks but often converge in many areas, especially in WELL v2’s AIR, WATER, NOURISHMENT, LIGHT, MOVEMENT, THERMAL COMFORT, and MATERIALS Concept areas.

The three pillars of Sustainability are generally regarded as the Social, the Environmental and the Economic spheres.

When considering materials and products, it is therefore important to balance the health and wellness benefits that they bring, as well as how these three pillars impact our interior spaces, the architecture, the planning of cities, and our planet.

2) Overall Project: Ban the use of Lead, Asbestos, & Mercury

Cost: $0

Lead*, Asbestos**, and Mercury*** are three of the most hazardous ingredients to human health and were once prominently used in the AEC industry as building materials and products (i.e. plumbing and paints, fireproofing, and lamps, respectively).

After their ban or proposed ban in Canada in 1976, 1979, and 2011 respectively, the federal government has severely limited their use in both exterior and interior products due to their harmful effect on human health upon exposure.

Lead and Asbestos slowly phased out in favour for more healthier material and product alternatives, with Mercury in the process of following suite.

3) Overall Project: Lead, Asbestos and PCB Abatement Strategy

Cost: $0

If your house was built before the 1960s in Canada, and you are planning to renovate or demolish parts of it, consider the following information:

Homes during this era are likely to contain hazardous traces of lead in old paint, asbestos for heat resistance and fireproofing materials, and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl)**** in old industrial components, such as sealants, caulking, oils, paints, lubricants, and coolants.

Despite their uses, Lead has been shown to cause anemia and neurological defects in young children; Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a respiratory cancer in which the lungs’ linings get filled with fiber when it is inhaled; and PCBs which can adversely affect our “immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects” (EPA, 2020).

Due to the potential harm that these hazardous materials can have on humans and our environment, local laws typically outline an abatement strategy on how to handle these materials before repair or construction.

For a comprehensive strategy in handling these hazardous materials, please refer to WELL v2’s Materials Concept, Hazardous Material Abatement.

4) Overall Project: Create a Waste Management Plan at Home

Cost: $0

According to WELL v2, there are three essential plans that a project should consider when it comes to the management of Materials.

The first is that of a Waste Management Plan for our homes. Having one not only benefits the environment, but it can also save us cost by reducing the number of garbage bags we throw out each week (in Toronto, a Garbage tag per bag costs $5).

The following are key items to consider:

  1. Strategies in the reduction, the reuse, and the recycling of waste

  2. The disposal of Batteries

  3. The disposal of Pesticides

  4. The disposal of Lamps that may contain Mercury

5) Overall Project: Create a Pest Control Plan at Home

Cost: $0

The second plan that we should have at home is a Pest Control Plan, which focuses on eliminating the use of pesticides and making use of healthier or lower-hazard alternatives.

For an outline on how to create this Plan, refer to WELL v2 for more details here.

6) Overall Project: Create a Cleaning Plan at Home

Cost: $0

The third plan that we should have is a Cleaning Plan. Having a Cleaning Plan is important because it identifies the following:

  1. The extent and frequency of cleaning and disinfection

  2. High-Contact Surfaces and Identify the who, what, when, and the how to clean them

  3. If Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are required during cleaning and disinfection

  4. What cleaning supplies to buy, such as disinfectants, gloves, bleach, soap, scrubs, cleaning cloths, etc.

  5. A storage strategy for supplies such as disinfectants, gloves, bleach, soap, scrubs, cleaning cloths, etc.

  6. The Safety Data Sheets (SDS) of all cleaning and disinfectant products & materials

  7. An Emergency Plan in case of emergencies resulting from cleaning

  8. A station for eye-washing or hygiene purposes for cleaning

  9. Potential slip hazards in our homes

  10. A Plan in the handling of waste materials

For more information regarding acceptable ingredients and best practices for healthy cleaning protocols, refer to WELL v2 here.

7) Exterior Site: Assess for CCA & Arsenic in Wood Structures, if any

Cost: $0

Once the Waste, Pest and Cleaning Plans are established as per points (4), (5), and (6), we can then start to look into the health and safety of material products holistically. We can start this process by identifying hazardous materials that are commonly found on the exterior site.

For example, CCA, or Chromated Copper Arsenate, is a preservative that is sometimes used in outdoor Treated Wood for patio decks and playground structures as a way to protect the wood from insects and microbial attacks.

Although chromium, copper, and arsenic - the three components which make up CCA - do not pose a significant risk to the human body in the short-term, it is the long-term exposure of arsenic that is concerning as it is a carcinogenic, especially if it leaches into our drinking water.

If there are CCA wooden structures affecting your project scope:

  1. Verify potential problems by researching on the wooden structure’s material history;

  2. Testing for CCA wood and arsenic leaching in the soil by referring to WELL v2 here;

  3. Be knowledgeable in the proper disposal of CCA-containing woods as per local and applicable laws;

  4. Know how to handle arsenic leaching as per WELL v2 guidelines here

8) Exterior Site: Assess Lead presence on Site Conditions

Cost: $0

Lead can accidentally settle into the soil of our property, either through the chipping of structures which use Lead-based paint and/or cars that use gasoline that contain traces of Lead.

Since Lead does not easily wash away, and can easily be brought into our homes by us walking on Lead-contaminated soil, it can therefore pose a significant health risk to our indoor environment when its particles get into our air and we accidentally inhale or ingest it.

To prevent Lead from accumulating in and around our homes, assess Lead based on the protocols established in WELL v2 here, in areas such as:

  • Existing soil conditions, and to evaluate that Lead does not exceed the threshold of 400 ppm by weight on the first 0.6 in layer in all existing soil

  • Artificial turfs

  • Playground paints, and in loose-fill recycled rubber tires

9) Interior Spaces: Verify that Furnishings, Architectural & Interior Products are PPM Threshold compliant