Everyone knows the air in New York isn't the best stuff in the world to breathe. But what most people don't know is that the indoor environment is often more polluted and toxic than the world outdoors. In fact, a recent EPA study found that the indoor concentrations of 20 toxic compounds can be as much as 200 times higher compared to the relatively pristine urban outdoors. So let's start with a basic - and, hopefully, obvious - principle: If it's poisonous, carcinogenic, triggers asthma, or wreaks havoc on your nervous system, you probably don't want it in your building. Seems like common sense, right? And yet most of the products we use to build and maintain our buildings are portable Superfund sites, making their way Trojan Horse-like, into our common and living spaces. The good news for building owners and managers is that once you know what to look for, keeping the toxins out is a relatively easy thing to do.
Take paints, for example. Paints are like gasoline or new cars: they smell. Some people think they smell good, but most people have the good sense not to linger too long with their nose at the gas tank. Fumes from gasoline, glues, nail polish, the upholstery in new cars, some cleaning products, and paints are part of a broad class of pollutant called "volatile organic compounds," or VOCs, which include benzene, toluene, xylene and trichloroethane. The "volatile" in VOC, means that they convert to a vapor at room temperature and atmospheric pressure - in other words, we can smell them because their fumes diffuse into the air. VOCs can trigger asthma attacks, and according to the EPA, many VOCs are known carcinogens, and symptoms of intense of prolonged exposure include eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment.
OK, so painting a room or a hallway is like washing it with gasoline. Does this mean that detoxing means living a colorless, dirty-walled existence?
Thankfully, no. You can find high quality no-VOC or low-VOC paint products for a variety of different applications at most of the big paint stores (see the links below for guides to product alternatives).
In fact, non-toxic alternatives are available for almost any job you want to do, and reducing or eliminating the toxicity is often as simple as knowing what to ask for and where to get it. The following is a short list of product types and things to look for when you do your shopping. And in those cases where using the low-tox version is not an option, you can reduce exposure by properly ventilating for as long as the pollutant is present (i.e. during the work and, in most cases, until the smell goes away).