Off-Gassing and how to avoid it

With the news that solar panels can now be bought on the high street, Red Pepper turns its hand to a spot of green DIY

September 1, 2006
5 min read

Be green and mean

Plan to use, where possible, recycled and salvaged building materials. See www.salvo.co.uk, www.wantsandoffers.com, www.freecycle.org or do some skip hunting.

Avoid materials that ‘off-gas’

Standard building and renovation materials such as MDF, carpeting, adhesives, paints and particleboard release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Your freshly painted ‘new home smell’ is the mark of off-gassing chemicals; and now homes are less drafty these chemical nasties hang around even longer. MDF deserves a special mention as the devil’s own work, containing urea formaldehyde that continually ‘off-gasses’, together with highly hazardous fibrous dust.

Wood

Recycled plastic lumber may sound horrible but it has come a long way since taking pride of place in Ye Olde English Pub as oh-so-real ‘oak beams’. It can make an attractive low maintenance alternative to cutting down more precious trees.

Only use sourced wood supplies. The Forestry Stewardship Council has a database of companies selling wood from well-managed forests. See www.fsc-uk.org

Buy salvaged and reclaimed wood. See www.demolitions.co.uk

Water

Install water-efficient toilets and showers, such as ‘low flow’ units, to reduce water usage. With hosepipe bans and rising water costs, rainwater collection systems should be all the rage – fit yours now. See www.rainharvesting.co.uk

Flooring

Forget about carpets and vinyl floor tiles. Invest in cork, bamboo and recycled glass floors to make a big difference to your footprint (metaphorically speaking). Don’t think Cathy Come Home but trendy eco alternative when you next see real linoleum. Durable, easy to recycle and low maintenance, it now comes in some great designs. See www.forboflooring.co.uk

Paints

Most standard paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that off-gas at room temperature. There are up to 300 carcinogens and 150 mutagens in a can. Non-toxic paints allow the material underneath, such as plaster and wood, to breathe and absorb moisture, as does unsealed timber.

Beautiful eco paints and wood finishes, such as Auro and Nutshell paints, are far healthier and can also lower your carbon footprint by as much as 30 kg in comparison to using normal paint.

When buying from your local store, check the paint’s VOC rating on the tin to ensure it has no, minimal or low VOC content. But beware: VOC-free may not mean free from formaldehyde, acetone or ammonia.

Heating

Insulation is the key to any ecologically-sound home, especially in the UK. Heat loss through walls and roofs can account for as much as 80 per cent of heating costs. However, it can take more energy to manufacture insulation than you will ever save.

Standard polystyrene insulation contains chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs/HCFCs) that are destructive to the ozone layer, while mineral and glass fibre insulation may be carcinogenic. Instead, invest in composite insulation made from recycled newspapers or wool. Wool, especially, has many benefits. As well as reducing condensation, it’s sound absorbent, insect resistant and absorbs toxins such as nitrogen oxide. See www.secondnatureuk.com

Try Termex for carbon-neutral insulation for your walls. It is made from waste newsprint and uses only one tenth of the energy used to make polyurethene and polystyrene-based insulation materials.

Warmcel DIY roof insulation made from newsprint is cheap and easy to fit. I can only think of one better way to use the Sun and Daily Mail while closing the recycling loop.

Avoid PVC window frames.

PVC is high in toxins and dioxins, such as lead, cadmium and phthalates (linked to DNA damage). Find recycled wood window frames or Forest Stewardship approved durable hardwood such as sweet chestnut.

Choose ‘Low e’ (low emission) glass for windows. It has an invisible coating to reflect heat back into the room. Placing a shelf above radiators or backing with kitchen foil has a similar effect.

Plant trees towards the west and south of your home to keep the temperature down in summer and shrubs on the north side to combat the cold winter wind.

Don’t use particleboard (aka chipboard)

Particleboard, used in cheap furniture, fittings and even flooring, uses a formaldehyde binding. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified formaldehyde as a ‘probable human carcinogen’, meaning it can cause cancer in animals and possibly humans too. Formaldehyde chipboard and MDF are now available but only for large volume orders. Try wheatboard or sunflower board instead.

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