Is your home toxic?

Is your home toxic?



Could your home be a health hazard to you and your family? Sustainably expert Eminè Mehmet shares her advice on avoiding volatile organic compounds, particulates and other pollutants.


By Eminè Mehmet, FDIA

Image: This home is far from toxic. It has been painted with Dulux Wash & Wear paints which are all eco-choice paints, meaning they contain less than 5g per litre of VOCs.


Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals emitted in a gas form when they reach a certain temperature. They include both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds, which may have adverse health effects when inhaled or cause harm to the environment during manufacture, use and disposal.

Surprisingly, VOCs are found in many everyday products, such as:

        Building materials: carpets and adhesives, composite wood products used to make kitchens (eg MDF), paints, paint strippers, upholstery fabrics and vinyl floors.

        Household and personal care products: cosmetics, pesticides, aerosol sprays, cleansers and disinfectants, moth repellents and air fresheners, stored fuels and automotive products, hobby supplies, and even dry-cleaned clothing.

        Everyday living: gas heating, gas stoves and smoking.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, studies have shown that levels of VOCs can average 2–5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for long periods after performing activities such as paint stripping, levels may be 1000 times higher than outdoor levels.

TIP: Carpet and paint make up the largest areas in your home. If you’re planning to repaint or recarpet, reduce your VOC exposure by choosing paints with low VOC content and natural fibre carpets installed with low VOC adhesives.


Health effects

The risk of your health being affected by inhaling VOCs is dependent on several factors:

        The amount of VOCs in a product;

        Rate at which the VOCs are released;

        Volume of the air in the room;

        Ventilation rate;

        Outdoor concentrations of VOCs; and

        Your personal sensitivity to VOCs.

Common symptoms of short-term VOC exposure can include: eye, nose, skin and throat irritation, headaches, nausea or vomiting, dizziness and worsening of asthma symptoms. Long-term exposure to concentrated amounts can lead to far more serious health risks such as cancer, liver and kidney damage, and damage to the central nervous system.

Common VOC chemicals found in everyday items include benzene, formaldehyde, acetone, ethanol, methanol, dichlorobenzene and toluene. All of these are considered to be carcinogenic to human beings.

When you’re building or renovating, consider the VOC content in the new materials and products you use, as they may contaminate your indoor air for up to seven years after installation. Contamination can increase during the winter months when we seal up our homes and turn up the heat, transforming VOCs into toxic gases.

TIP: Soft furnishings are a haven for dust mites, pollen and dander — both animal and human — as well as other particulates. To reduce build-up, regular maintenance is necessary through beating them on a regular basis, as well as vacuuming and airing them. 


Alternative materials

Growing awareness of the harmful affects of VOCs has created an increase in the availability of products with low VOC content.

Examples can be found in:

        Natural timbers with natural varnish

        EO Board for kitchens replacing MDF

        Natural fabrics

        Low VOC adhesives

        Low VOC paints

        Low VOC carpet

DID YOU KNOW? Latex mattresses, cushions and pillows are antimicrobial, dust mite free, and resist mould and mildew. Natural latex varieties are not only good for the environment but are more durable than their synthetic counterparts.



Particulates in the air can occur due to natural events such as bush fires, or human activities such as renovating your home. In our homes, particulates consist of both external and internal pollutants.

According to Nicole Bijlsma in her book Healthy Home Healthy Family, there are four groups of air particulates:

        Heavy metals such as lead, titanium, copper, cadmium, mercury, nickel and chromium;

        Toxic particles such as asbestos, glass, pesticides, plastics and smoke or soot;

        Dust consisting of dirt, human skin cells, pet hair and dander, fibres from clothing and upholstery, particles from insects, building materials and food; and

        Organisms attached to the dust particles consisting of viruses, bacteria, mould spores, pollen and mites.

Alarmingly, The National Health Call Centre Network states that Australia has one of the highest number of asthma suffers in the world. Sufferers are not confined to adults alone. Between 10­15 per cent of children and between 10­12 per cent of adults suffer from asthma.


Reducing particulates

There are some very simple ways to reduce particulates in your home:

        Wipe your feet before you enter the house and remove your shoes to reduce external dust entering your home.

        Vacuum once a week using an appropriate vacuum with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter and motorised head. This will help lift and trap small particles normally recirculated back into the air.

        Beat rugs and beding on a regular basis to avoid dust and dander build up.

        Reduce or eliminate the use of air conditioning systems to stop particulates circulating through your home.

        Use microfibre cloths to clean — they pick up dust instead of just moving it around.

        Open windows regularly to exchange the air in your home.

        Contain areas being renovated by closing doors/windows and clean up after works on a regular basis.

When next planning a renovation, be it a single room or something on a larger scale, be aware of what you’re bringing into your home. Check VOC content with suppliers and manufacturers before you commit to purchasing and installing new products and materials. Ensure you have a plan in place to tackle any unwanted chemical or dust intrusion. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Reduce toxins in your home to create a healthier, happier environment.

Grand Designs Australia magazine Vol. 2 No. 1