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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

Cost: $0

In addition to keeping our exterior spaces healthy and free of pollutants, we should therefore extend this practice into our interior spaces as well.

We can begin this by checking and reading through the material ingredients list for the following products that we intend to purchase or have purchased:

  • Interior Furnishings (textiles and plastics);

  • Architectural & Interior Products (flooring; acoustic and thermal insulation; ceiling & wall panels; plastic plumbing)

Second, we must ensure that these products do not surpass the threshold for Mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium, Antimony and Lead in Electrical Components (fire alarms, meters, sensors, thermostats and load break switches)

For more information regarding these products and their specific thresholds in ppm (parts per million), refer to WELL v2 here.

10) Interior Spaces: Verify that Furniture, Architectural & Interior Products are VOC content & emissions compliant

Cost: $0

Third, we must restrict the potential presence of hazardous off-gassing of VOCs and SVOC material ingredients in our homes.

For Interior Furnishings and Architectural & Interior Products, this could come from ingredients such as halogenated flame retardants*****, urea-formaldehyde******, and phthalates******* (For more information regarding their specific thresholds, refer to WELL v2 here).

Also, we must check and ensure that at least 50% of all newly installed Interior Furnishings, and Architectural & Interior Products complies with the following VOC content and emissions regulations, where applicable:

  • “ANSI/BIFMA e3-2011 Furniture Sustainability Standard sections 7.6.1 or 7.6.2, tested in accordance with ANSI/BIFMA Standard Method M7.1-2011 or any more recent version;

  • California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method v.1.1-2010 or any more recent version;

  • California Air Resources Board (CARB) 2007, Suggested Control Measure (SCM) for Architectural Coatings;

  • Conduct testing of VOC content in accordance with ASTM D2369-10; ISO 11890, part 1; ASTM D6886-03; or ISO 11890-2, and meet thresholds of CARB 2007 or SCAQMD Rule 1113 June 3, 2011 or Rule 1168 amended October 6, 2017.” (WELL v2, 2018)

11) Interior Spaces: Select Products with disclosed and verified Ingredients that have been audited to be Healthy Materials

Cost: $0

Once points (9) and (10) are verified, we can then start to optimize our homes by selecting the most healthy of Materials and Products.

This can easily be done by selecting materials and products that have already been audited and certified to be one of the following labels:

  1. Declare Label;

  2. No GreenScreen® Benchmark 1, List Translator 1 or List Translator Possible 1

  3. Cradle to Cradle Certified™

An ideal goal here is to have at least 15% of all new Furniture, Millwork, Finishes and Architectural materials/products to be healthy material compliant.

12) Interior Spaces: Transparent Display of Material Ingredients

Cost: $0

Finally, our new purchases should make use of and display their material ingredient labels so that household members can be educated on their processes and make-up.

To comply with WELL v2’s standards, labels should identify and disclose with accuracy to at least 1,000 ppm via one of the following or more health material labels:

  1. “Declare Label;

  2. Health Product Declaration;

  3. Any screening and hazard disclosure method accepted in USGBC's LEED v4 MR credit: Building Product Disclosure and Optimization - Material Ingredients, Option 1: material ingredient reporting” (WELL v2, 2018)


*Lead - used in paint to “accelerate drying, increase durability, maintain a fresh appearance, and resist moisture that causes corrosion”

**Asbestos - a fibrous material that was used in buildings for its heat-resistance and fireproofing properties. Traces of asbestos can still be found in many material products produced since its ban in 1979, however the Canadian federal government has made a commitment to fully ban it in all products, manufacture, import and sale by 2018. (CCOHS, 2020). To learn more about Asbestos and its effect on health, visit CCOHS here

***Mercury - an element that naturally exists in our environment in various forms, and gets into our system when we are exposed to naturally or through a manufacturing process for products, etc. In Canada, Mercury is in the process of being banned, but can still be found in some thermometers, batteries, dental fillings, and fluorescent lamps (CTV News, 2011). Just a small amount of exposure to mercury has detrimental effects to our health

****PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl) - man-made chemicals made of hydrogen, carbon, and chlorine atoms. Although PCBs do not produce any odor and are stable in form, they are toxic to our ““immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system[s]” (EPA, 2020) when directly or indirectly inhaled, ingested, or through contact. PCBs were slowly phased out in Canada since 1977 in the use of sealants, caulking, oils, paints, lubricants, and coolants

*****Halogenated Flame Retardants - a chemical that was added to “textiles, furnishings and electronics” (ACS, 2015) to provide them with fireproofing. Despite this advantage, it has been shown to compromise our health and has thus been phased out. Halogenated (brominated) flame retardants are related to PCBs

******Urea-Formaldehyde - found in adhesives and as an insulation ingredient. It is a sinus irritant and has been known to cause cancer

*******Phthalates - chemicals that are used to increase the flexibility and toughness of plastics. Phthalates has been shown to cause "asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes,low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues" (The Guardian, 2020)

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