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Back in the 1980s, builder David Johnston specialized in energy-efficient, solar-based construction. He didn’t give much thought to the dangerous products and fumes that were part of the building process, though, and when a chemically sensitive client started demanding special materials and questioning his ventilation practices, it nearly drove him crazy.

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Blueprint for a Healthy Home

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By Sally Lehrman

Back in the 1980s, builder David Johnston specialized in energy-efficient, solar-based construction. He didn’t give much thought to the dangerous products and fumes that were part of the building process, though, and when a chemically sensitive client started demanding special materials and questioning his ventilation practices, it nearly drove him crazy. Then one day she walked into the rooms he was adding to her Bethesda, Maryland, house, began gasping for breath, and nearly went into allergic shock. The culprit? A seemingly innocuous adhesive.

“It opened my eyes to things I’d never thought about,” says Johnston, who’s now based in Boulder, Colorado. “From then on we’d have her sleep next to the building materials before we used them.”

Unless you’re hypersensitive to chemicals, you probably don’t need to go to bed with two-by-fours and open cans of paint. But if you’re one of the millions of people planning to remodel your home in the next few years, you may want to think twice about simply accepting the standard construction materials and practices most contractors are likely to suggest.

As Johnston learned when he began to study the products he routinely used, many can contribute to both short- and long-term health problems, most often by emitting toxic gases into the air. The emissions are strongest when materials are first installed, but continue for years afterward. Formaldehyde, typically found in cabinets, hardwood plywood paneling, and the particleboard used for subfloors, can contribute to fatigue, rashes, asthma, allergies, and possibly cancer. Volatile compounds in paints and solvents can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as cause headaches and nausea, and may damage the central nervous system—even at the levels found in a typical house. For some people, a reaction to these substances can provoke the immune system to overreact to all kinds of chemicals, resulting in multiple chemical sensitivity, in which exposure to even minuscule levels of chemicals can trigger serious illness.

And, of course, just the process of pulling apart old structures, then sawing and sanding new ones, produces lots of dust particles that can set off allergies and asthma. “Once I started researching it, I realized what a major set of issues we had in hand,” says Johnston, who’s since written a book, Green Remodeling, and is creating a national “green” certification program for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

Fortunately, it’s gotten much easier to avoid troublesome products and to incorporate cleaner materials and techniques into your remodeling job. Builders used to wave off the suggestion of hazard-free construction as too expensive, but nontoxic materials have come down in price, and many more contractors these days are accustomed to using them.

For that you can thank, oddly enough, the commercial building industry. About ten years ago, some forward-thinking architects and designers began to...

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