Going green means building smart
By Katie Scarvey
Robyn Gribbs Lawrence is on a mission, but she’s not a zealot.
As editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine, she wants to help people create beautiful, non-toxic environments that make them feel good.
But she realizes that for most of us, it’s impossible to make changes all at once.
“It’s about making better choices over time,” she told a crowd of about 100 people who gathered recently to hear her at Catawba College’s Center for the Environment.
She wants to teach people how to live naturally without compromising their health, convenience or sanity.
Lawrence, who lives in Boulder, Colo., is also the author of “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty.”
Lawrence pointed out that the average person spends 65 percent of his or her time at home ó a powerful argument for making it an inviting, non-toxic place.
At home, she reminded her audience, “We get to control what goes on.”
Lawrence has studied different traditions, from Native American lore to “Grandma’s wisdom,” she said.
Indoor pollution can cause serious health problems, she said, many related to inadequate ventilation and an overabundance of chemicals in our environment ó in carpets, adhesives and cleaning products. Simply having good ventilation can help keep our homes healthy, she said.
Lawrence is a proponent of natural building materials. As much as possible, she said, we should eliminate materials that emit harmful fumes. And if they can’t be eliminated, then we should encapsulate them, or seal them off to reduce exposure.
She argued for the need to reduce volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are chemicals that evaporate at normal room temperatures to pollute indoor air.
Lawrence is also concerned about the chemicals that are in flame retardants, which are found in televisions, remote controls, computers and mattresses.
Mattresses are particularly a concern, she said, since we breathe in those flame-retardant chemicals as we sleep. While you may not be able to ditch your mattress, even buying a natural wool or cotton mattress topper can help, she said.
But, she pointed out, even in cotton sheets toxins can be lurking.
Cotton is a heavily sprayed crop, she said, with more than a pound of chemicals going into the making of one set of queen-sized sheets. Some of the pesticides will remain in the cotton even after it’s processed, she said.
She recommends organic cotton, which has come down in price in recent years, she said.
Items made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are also a concern. Shower curtains are one common household item that can outgas chemicals for at least a month, she said.
Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is “ubiquitous,” in almost every type of glue used in home products, such as wood veneers, she said.
Lawrence also spoke about the many benefits of good home design. Ideally, she said, homes will take advantage of the sun. In the ancient Indian design system called Vastu, home entrances faced east, with the bedroom in the back, the better to take advantage of the golden light of the setting sun. If you can only make one change to make your home healthier, “look to your floors,” Lawrence said.
“Get rid of your carpet. If you can not have carpet, it’s a good thing.”
That new carpet smell? It’s chemicals.
Better alternatives are hemp, sisa, jute or cork, she said. And if you must have carpet, she said, invest in wool, a natural fiber that is long-lasting.
Natural linoleum is also a great choice, she said. Linoleum has actually been around since 1860 ó but we don’t know what real linoleum is anymore because the vinyl industry has “co-opted the word,” she said.
Bamboo can also be a good flooring choice, although in recent years as it’s caught on, Lawrence believes it’s been exploited to some degree. “Greenwashing” ó misrepresenting products as environmentally friendly when they may not be ó has become a concern, she said. Hardwoods are also good choices, she said, but consumers should make sure that the wood has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council ó which certifies that the wood is grown sustainably.
Walls are also a concern. “Try to keep them as simple as possible,” Lawrence advised.
Wallpaper harbors mold, she cautioned, especially in an environment such as Salisbury’s. She recommended a product called American Clay, a natural plaster interior wall finish that can go over drywall or brick.
If you’re painting, she said, choose low VOC paint. Bio-shield is one good paint company, she says.
Chemicals can also be lurking in our furniture, she says, and 30 tons of waste is produced for every ton of furniture.
“Buying used furniture is a great way to go,” Lawrence says. “If it’s going to outgas, it already did.”
Our bodies, our homes and our planet are all interconnected, Lawrence believes. Creating a safe, nurturing home can help keep us ó and the Earth ó healthy.
For more tips on how to create a healthy home environment, visit www.naturalhomemagazine.com.