The science is complicated.
The marketing is unregulated.
Why it’s so hard to know what makes a healthy home.
An irony: learning about health risks in the home is not particularly good for your mental health. During the course of my reporting for this article, I spoke to doctors, researchers and government scientists, and each conversation ratcheted up my stress level another notch. I found myself wide awake in bed, unable to fall asleep, worrying about chemicals I couldn’t pronounce lurking in my furniture. At one point, after reading a particularly alarmist article, I ran into my daughter’s room and ripped off the cover on her crib mattress, frantically scanning the tag for various certifications that, once, I had never known existed. A healthy home isn’t a subject for the faint of heart.
It is increasingly a subject for interior designers. As the concept of wellness has traveled from the fringes of 1970s California counterculture into mainstream ubiquity, it’s become an integral aspect of crafting a home. Most designers I spoke with for this piece told me that every single one of their projects has a wellness component, and that their clients turn to them to create not only a beautiful home, but one that improves the quality of their lives.
Wellness isn’t just a buzzy cultural concept, it’s big business. The Global Wellness Institute reports that wellness is now a $4.5 trillion market, $134 billion of which is devoted to holistic-oriented real estate. So it’s no surprise that a growing number of designers see a focus on health as a way to demonstrate value to clients.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that wellness has become such a thing is that the concept itself is so flexible. “Wellness” can mean anything from an exercise room to a focus on sustainable building materials (the health of the environment is often cited as a central pillar of wellness). But surely any definition of wellness in the home has to include considerations of human health and safety. A designer can create a serene meditation room for a client, but if the walls are slathered in lead paint and the furniture is leaking carcinogens, the harm eats into the benefits.
Assessing health risks catapults designers into the world of science and medicine, navigating complex waters on behalf of their clients. However, before I began researching the subject, I had assumed that most potential home dangers—toxic off-gassing, carcinogenic dust, dirty air—were definitively understood and well-regulated. Surely there was some government-vetted website that listed them in alphabetical order, and the challenge was simply for designers to read it, then educate their clients. And to be sure, several designers told me that educating clients was a key component of achieving a healthy home. But as it turns out, understanding the risks in the first place is maddeningly complex.
Worrying about the unseen dangers lurking in our homes is an old phenomenon. In 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter describing the toxic effects of lead paint on those who used it frequently: “dry gripes” (a stomach colic) and “dangles” (wrist drop). What’s new is the sheer volume of things to worry about. Over the past century, a combination of technological advancement and mass consumer culture has invited tens of thousands of new chemicals through our front doors. Are they safe? Maybe. It’s a common assumption that the chemicals in consumer products are required to be rigorously tested before they’re sold to the public. They’re not. A 1976 bill, the Toxic Substance Control Act, cemented a regulatory framework that is sometimes derisively referred to as “innocent until proven guilty.” Essentially, companies sell their products on the open market, and if, after the public has been exposed, there’s reason to believe they’re causing harm, the government will study them—in some cases.
An update to the law, passed in 2016, strengthened federal agencies’ ability to intervene, but the basic truth remains: The vast majority of chemicals in consumer products have not been tested for long-term health effects. In fact, because chemical recipes are often considered trade secrets and therefore protected by law, the government isn’t always aware of what’s actually in a given product.
And even in the instances when a chemical is determined to have negative effects on human health, regulation often lags far behind a diagnosis. Take lead paint. Though its negative health effects were known for hundreds of years, it wasn’t outlawed in residential buildings in the United States until 1978 (and is still legal in many countries around the world). Asbestos, long known as a potent carcinogen, has never been banned outright.
It’s not paranoid to worry that potentially harmful substances are slipping through this loose regulatory net and making their way into homes. There are many known examples. Formaldehyde is a commonly used ingredient to make the resin that binds together particleboard; when it’s present in the air, formaldehyde can also lead to skin irritation, respiratory problems, and, in extreme doses, has been linked to cancer. Benzene is an ingredient in many paints and glues—and a known carcinogen. Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous chemicals that increase the flexibility of plastic and are found in everything from vinyl flooring and carpets to shower curtains and deodorant; they’re also endocrine disruptors that have the potential to derail our hormonal systems.
These chemicals enter our bodies in a variety of ways. Sometimes, they break down into dust, which is either ingested or inhaled. Some evaporate easily at room temperature and enter the air we breathe—a phenomenon known as off-gassing. Commonly classified as volatile organic compounds (more commonly referred to as VOCs), these chemicals make up a large portion of indoor pollutants.
Certainly, many potentially harmful chemicals are only present in our homes in trace amounts. But one of the ironies of the modern age is that, while pressure from the environmental movement has improved the quality of outdoor air, we’re increasingly living indoors—we spend 90 percent of our lives inside. And according to the EPA, concentrations of pollutants can be two to five times worse inside than outside.
When I spoke with Dustin Poppendieck, an environmental engineer who studies indoor air quality at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, about the exposure risks at home, he was precise, if not reassuring. “We spend 27 years in bed, and a good half of our life in our primary residence,” he told me. “The majority of the chemicals that we are exposed to have a higher concentration in indoor environments compared to outdoors—and we spend most of our time indoors.”
Poppendieck was also candid about the challenges of studying an environment with so many unknowns. “The difficulty with the indoor environment is that a lot of it is unknown risks. There are thousands of chemicals,” he said. “It’s like Pandora’s box: Every time you think you know something, 10 other problems pop up.”
That challenge was echoed by Delphine Farmer, an associate professor at Colorado State University who focuses on environmental chemistry. In 2018, she and Marina Vance, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, supervised an experiment, HOMEChem, designed to test the effects of day-to-day household tasks on indoor air quality. The research saw a small army of professors and students (and millions of dollars’ worth of monitoring equipment) cram into a ranch home at the University of Texas at Austin. For four weeks, the team mopped, cooked and measured obsessively. The experiment concluded with a midsummer Thanksgiving feast.
One of the goals of the research, Farmer says, was to study the chemistry of indoor air in a “real” environment and analyze the cumulative effects. “It’s not just single chemicals getting released into the air,” she said. “Indoor chemistry is very complex—it’s all these different reactions happening at once.”
Farmer’s team is still in the process of analyzing the data they collected during HOMEChem, but the early results were striking. One thing was abundantly clear: Indoor air quality can get really, really bad. Everything from using bleach-based cleaners to toasting bread and cooking stir-fry pumped out copious VOCs and particulates—to the extent that Farmer and her team had to recalibrate some of their equipment to measure higher concentrations than expected.
In an article chronicling the experiment in The New Yorker, one of the scientists was quoted as observing that, in the thick of Thanksgiving prep, the air inside the ranch home was worse than the air in New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city.
The more experts I talked to, the more pervasive the risks seemed. Speaking with Dr. Jerome Paulson, a veteran researcher and advocate on the subject of pediatric environmental health, I learned about how harmful chemicals in the home can often have a greater impact on children than on adults (they’re more likely to ingest dust, and a lower body weight increases the impact of toxins). Toward the end of the conversation, I told him that all of the research on indoor air quality was making me want to move out to the desert and live in a plastic bubble. “Except that the plastic in the bubble might have BPAs, which are endocrine disruptors,” he replied.
To sum up: We often don’t know exactly what chemicals are in the products we bring into our home. Nor do we have a complete picture of how they’re reacting with each other. We know that some of them are definitively linked to health risks yet aren’t banned. Also, we have reason to suspect that indoor air quality could potentially be far worse than most of us would have imagined. How, I asked Farmer, does anyone survive a day at home?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she replied. “It’s very difficult to study individual health effects.” One of the great challenges of assessing health risks in the home is linking cause to effect. Because we’re exposed to such a wide variety of chemicals and particulates in tiny amounts, it’s incredibly difficult to know what effect any one of them individually has on our health, especially because many of the risks are presumed to accumulate over long stretches of time.
The boundaries of responsible science create a frustrating psychological dilemma: We’re acutely aware of the many sources of potential risk in our homes, but we’re also unable to say with precision how risky each of them is—and are thus limited in our ability to mitigate that risk.
Scientists and doctors speak in the language of certainty—hypotheses, tests and conclusions. It’s understandable that they shy away from overstating the conclusions of their research. However, the vacuum of definitive information does end up getting filled—usually by marketing.
As the concept of wellness has risen in our cultural awareness, it’s only natural that companies have taken note and begun to create products (or reframe existing products) that suggest a health benefit. Words like nontoxic, natural and pure have become commonplace in advertising for everything from cleaning supplies to mattresses. These terms evoke the idea of health and well-being. They’re also mostly unregulated.
“When something is labeled as ‘natural’—there’s no regulation that determines what ‘natural’ means. Any label other than ‘USDA Organic’ has no standardization behind it,” says Paulson. “You have no idea what they’re talking about when they say, ‘natural,’ ‘pure,’ or ‘earth-based.’ In terms of products that [designers] might be sourcing, what they need to be aware of is that these terms don’t help them—they really don’t mean anything.”
It’s comparatively easy to spot hyperbolic marketing claims—for example, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that the concept of a “chemical-free” mattress is ludicrous. But it becomes more complicated when there is some meaning to a specific marketing claim, but its interpretation is confusing, like “low-VOC” paint.
First introduced in the 1990s, the concept behind low-VOC (or no-VOC) paints is to offer a formula that minimizes the concentration of volatile organic compounds—the ingredients guilty of short-term off-gassing—and with it, the chemical smell of freshly applied paint. Over time, the concept has become loosely synonymous with the idea of a “healthier” paint, and endless resources online and off recommend low-VOC paints as a safer alternative.
Unlike the word pure, the phrase low-VOC is not meaningless, but its standardization is murky. The EPA’s definition of a low-VOC product pertains to its relatively low concentration of volatile organic compounds; the designation was created mostly for outdoor paint, to prevent the formation of smog. Local governments have varying definitions about acceptable VOC content in paint, but there is no national legal standard for what counts as “low.”
There is also no centralized list of precisely which chemicals must be eliminated—and even paints that promise to lower emissions don’t always deliver. A 2015 study published in Building and Environment found that the “differences between conventional paints and low-VOC and zero-VOC formulations are not as significant as expected.” A 2012 study at global safety certification company UL discovered that some paints labeled as low in VOC content actually emitted more VOCs than standard paint does. “The results demonstrate that paint VOC content should not be used as a proxy for paint VOC emissions into indoor air, as there is no correlation between the two measures,” the report concluded.
In short, the term low-VOC alone doesn’t guarantee that there are no toxic chemicals in a paint. Nor does the designation imply that there have been any long-term studies that prove the paint is “healthy.” Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission has sued companies that have suggested as much. In 2017, it filed separate lawsuits against four paint companies—Benjamin Moore, ICP Construction, YOLO Colorhouse and Imperial Paints—over the way their products were advertised.
For example, Imperial Paints described its Lullaby line as “The World’s Finest Baby Safe Paint” and described it as “the safest paint available.” Benjamin Moore ran a commercial featuring a mural being painted in a baby’s room, along with a voice-over stating, “If you want to paint without harmful chemicals, if you want a paint that is safer for your family and the environment, only this can.” The other companies made similar statements in their advertisements. Across the board, the FTC found that the claims about health and safety weren’t properly backed up. (They also dinged Benjamin Moore and ICP for marketing with green-friendly seals—without telling consumers that they created the seals in order to award them to their own products.) The paint makers all settled and agreed to amend their advertising.
To be clear, low-VOC paint is not necessarily less healthy than conventional paint. And certainly brands that market around health and wellness are not necessarily doing so cynically. In general, companies want their products to be safe for customers and it’s not a bad thing for industries to feel pressure to deliver safer options. The danger is that because the science is so uncertain, marketers are free to interpret it in ways that cast their product in a good light, and their competitors in a bad one.
The result is a muddled landscape—one in which it’s extremely difficult to assess what’s a serious health risk and what’s manufactured hype and paranoia. The uncertainty of the science around indoor air quality also makes the field ripe for “greenwashing” and “well-washing,” two deceptive spin practices that are becoming increasingly intertwined.
The linking of health and environment is a phenomenon I became acutely aware of when researching this article. I often found myself beginning conversations talking about health risks in the home, slipping into discussions about sustainability, then sliding back again—all without noticing the change of subject.
That’s no accident, says Suzanne Shelton, a sustainability marketing expert whose agency conducts a thrice-yearly poll on consumer beliefs and expectations of companies related to sustainability. “It’s a funny thing, but most people don’t put [health and sustainability] into separate buckets,” she says. “We have so many things to pay attention to, we don’t have the time to pay attention to the complexity of sustainability, so consumers just put companies on a good list and a bad list. A good company is good for the environment, good for our health and good [to] its employees, but a company only has to be bad at one of those to be considered a bad company.”
The conflation of sustainability and healthiness, Shelton says, is pretty standard—though the connection isn’t always there and linking the two can set a dangerous precedent. “One of the shocking things about corporate sustainability is that it’s often an island,” says Shelton. “Companies all have sustainability departments, but they’re frequently disconnected from the teams in charge of social responsibility and they may not have a lot of say over what happens with product development and sourcing.”
And even if companies are completely sincere in their efforts to produce both a healthy and environmentally sustainable product, the two ideals don’t always perfectly align. In fact, one of the most basic challenges of indoor air quality is a byproduct of green thinking: As our homes have become more energy-efficient, they’ve also become more tightly sealed—leading to worse indoor air quality. The world resists easy solutions.
That’s not to say that there are no solutions. I had hoped that this article would yield clear, definitive answers about health risks in the home. Instead, the subject seemed to become impossibly complex, full of unknowable dangers and unanswerable questions. However, there are reasons to be optimistic.
“The positive part is we have some control,” says Poppendieck. “Yes, there are a multitude of chemicals in the indoor environment, but we have the ability to choose which ones we bring into our homes.”
It’s worthwhile to dig into the details when studying specific chemicals; ingredients such as formaldehyde, benzene and phthalates should be avoided whenever possible. However, given the complexity of the science, many of the experts advocated for keeping the big picture in mind as well. Proper ventilation was a unanimous suggestion, especially in the kitchen. (“I used to be a bit lazy about turning on the ventilator over my stove,” says Farmer. “Not anymore.”) Another unanimous suggestion: the smell test.
Certainly, not all harmful chemicals in our homes emit an odor, nor are all scents proof-positive of brewing toxins. But all scents indicate that a chemical reaction is occurring, so it’s generally safer to cut down on anything that, well, stinks. That includes minimizing relatively obvious noxious scents, like sealants and finishes, but also getting rid of products that are supposed to smell good—everything from dryer sheets to scented soaps and candles.
“If I were king for a day, and could ban something by fiat, I would ban fragrances,” says Paulson. “Many are made up of chemicals that are endocrine disruptors. If people are using fabric softener that has these in it, or it’s plugged in like an air freshener, that’s low doses of chemicals all day. Yes, your T-shirt smells delightful, but is the exposure worth having your T-shirt smell delightful?”
Interior designers are in a particularly powerful position, as they have a say in what goes into many homes; their choices have an outsize influence on manufacturers. Several designers I spoke with had embraced the challenge of creating healthier houses. With a clear grip on the biggest known risk factors, they had come up with clever approaches to circumvent them.
The most elegant solution is simple: editing, often long before the client sees a thing. “We are already helping clients make decisions by narrowing down the choices,” says Berkeley, California–based designer Lynn Kloythanomsup of Landed Interiors & Homes. “A lot of beautiful options now are healthy and sustainable. Why not pick from those?”
Baltimore-based designer Laura Hodges takes a similar approach. She avoids furniture makers who use topical stain protection and toxic sealants—and those who don’t let pieces properly off-gas before delivery. “[A focus on healthy materials] is something I try to bring into every project,” she says. “Whether or not we highlight it as something that we’re focusing on, we do it anyway. If clients express an interest, we’ll tell them all the things we’re doing. And if they’re not necessarily caring, we do it anyway—we just don’t highlight it.”
Indeed, while clients with young children often show a justifiably heightened interest in healthy homes, not all are eager to seek out (or pay for) the healthiest options. “I relate it to eating a delicious meal a really good restaurant, then finding out it was healthy,” says Hodges. “When it’s like, ‘Eat your vegetables!’ that’s not fun. We try to present it as an added bonus—you start with the beautiful aesthetic side, and then you explain that it’s healthy for them.”
New York–based designer Becky Shea has made it a point to focus on the healthy and environment-friendly elements of her practice—all of her projects make extensive use of water filtration units, which are both healthy and cut back on needless plastic water bottles. She also hones in on details like formaldehyde-free doors. “I always pitch [healthier choices] as a long-term investment. We build homes that people want to be in for the rest of their lives, and once you get into the weeds, people see it’s worth it,” she says. “I’m definitely on a soapbox talking about this stuff—but once clients are educated, they get excited and feel good about what they’re doing for the world.”
Maybe just as important as their focus on the details, the designers I spoke with had made peace with the fact that there are trade-offs when it comes to health in the home. When studying the dangers, it’s easy to fall deep into a rabbit hole of paranoia and lose sight of the bigger picture: All of us, every day, make hundreds of choices that balance risk and reward. UV radiation is a known carcinogen—but we all accept that the occasional trip to the beach is part of life (and good for you, as long as you wear sunscreen).
“I had a client recently who wanted to do a vinyl wallpaper. I said, ‘I don’t usually do vinyl,’ because there’s off-gassing and it’s not sustainable, but at the same time, it is practical for a bathroom,” says Hodges. “We did our best to get the most responsibly made vinyl, free of hazardous air pollutants and made with low-emitting inks. It’s going to stay up—it’s not going to get ripped down soon and thrown away. We do our best, but we have to do what the client wants; we can’t put our foot down in every situation.”
Neither, it seems, can scientists. I made a point of asking the experts I talked to how they had balanced their awareness of home-health risks with the practicalities of day-to-day living. Did they all live in completely sterile white cubes? As it turned out, each had a confession or two about their own homes—carpets they’d like ripped up, cleaning supplies they shouldn’t use, purchases they’d made for comfort and not chemical content.
“In spite of studying all this, I haven’t taken all the steps to change my home that I could. My spouse wouldn’t countenance some of those things,” says Paulson, chuckling. “People have to do what they can.”
Homepage image: Callie Richmond