For many of us, “going green” starts with recycling and buying organic food. As we learn more about the environment and our affect on it, we slowly begin to make our homes green havens.
It’s out with plastic bags and in with reusable bags. We turn up the air conditioning a few notches to save electricity. Maybe, we even look into composting. As we learn more, we begin to think about making more significant green changes to our homes. Maybe, we want to purchase more energy efficient appliances? Or, redo the walls with paint that’s free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
Whether we want to make green changes to a rental apartment, do a full home remodel, or build a home from scratch, we often don’t consider that just because we make our homes green, doesn’t automatically mean that we make them healthy. Bummer.
“You could build a green house that can get moldy. You could build a green house that’s full of chemicals and electromagnetic fields. And, you could build a green house that doesn’t have very good ventilation, that brings air in from dirty places,” said Mary Cordaro, an expert and consultant in healthy and sustainable building and indoor air quality.
From mold to chemicals to ventilation and water to materials and products for building, many factors, that we often forget to consider, can affect the health of a home, even if they’re considered “green”.
“Think of it as routes of exposure,” said Cordaro, who is the president and founder of Mary Cordaro Inc., a consultation business that provides health and environmental consulting for residential and commercial buildings. “Most people focus first on what they put in their mouths. Maybe the next thing they’ll focus on is what goes on their skin. Those are two routes of exposure. But there’s a third important route of exposure, which is actually equal to exposure through your mouth and skin, and that’s through your nose. It’s inhalation.”
“If you’re living in a house with high levels of mold or chemicals, you may be getting an enormous exposure,” Cordaro said. “You might as well be eating that mold or those chemicals because they’re going right into your body. They’re going right in just like if you ate a McDonald's hamburger.”
Whatever stage you’re at in your eco-friendly journey, Cordaro urges homeowners and renters to make changes to create a home that’s not just green, it’s ‘healthy’ green.
Learn how Cordaro got her start in the healthy and sustainable home industry, how the green building movement has transformed over the years, and some simple first steps to make your own home equally easy on the environment and healthy in our Q&A session.
What are some easy first steps to create a green and healthy home?
1. The very first step for everybody to take, if this is totally new to them, is to switch over to nontoxic cleaning products. Cleaning products put chemicals into the air on a regular basis because they’re used pretty frequently. And, there are highly toxic cleaning products that you buy from the grocery store, including those that some people think are green. Simple Green, for example. People used to think that was a really clean and green product, and it’s nowhere near nontoxic.
Switch over from toxic cleaning products to either homemade cleaning products—you can make your own very inexpensively with distilled white vinegar, baking soda and other super simple easy-to-find ingredients—or, you can go to the nearest health food store and buy Seventh Generation, or one of the nontoxic lines they offer. The Environmental Working Group also offers a free database of healthier products.
2. In addition to cleaning products, you want to get rid of conventional air fresheners and fragranced candles.These include the plug-in type of air freshener and the spray type—they are all highly toxic. The plug-ins emit endocrine-mimicking chemicals on a 24/7 basis. And, there are also neurotoxic chemicals in the fragrances. There’s a very long list of serious chemicals that these air fresheners are emitting into the air.
Stop using fragranced paraffin candles, as well. The fragrances contain some of the same toxic chemicals found in conventional air fresheners. Replace your paraffin candles with beeswax or GMO-free soy candles, and make sure that the fragrances are from essential oils only.
3. Then, clean up your personal products. Personal products go on your skin, which means they go into your body because the skin is an organ. It readily absorbs what you put on it. Personal products contain seriously toxic chemicals that also pollute the air, such as fragrances. If you just see the word “fragrance” on any product, and it doesn’t say something like “from all-natural sources” or "from essential oils", if it just says “fragrance”, then every time you use it you are increasing the neurotoxic, and perhaps even carcinogenic, load of chemicals that are absorbed through your skin and inhaled from the air.
How did you get started in the business? You’re basically one of the pioneers in the industry.
Yes. I’m definitely an old timer. I started learning about the relationship between the indoor environment and health when I suffered terribly from chemical sensitivity, asthma and allergies. That was in the 70s. At that time there was no such thing as green. The field of environmental medicine was in its infancy, and there was only a handful of environmental specialists. Their focus was similar to that of allergists today, including testing and desensitizing patients to pollen, dust, dust mites and other common allergens, and reducing allergens in the home. But, there was very little information about the more technical aspects of the built environment, including moisture and mold, materials, chemicals, electromagnetic fields, ventilation, and other important areas of concern.
The way I got into it was through an advertisement in a popular health magazine, on a course in Bau-Biologie, which is the field that I eventually became certified in. At that time there was a school that had just started in the U.S. It was an arm of the schools that had been started in Germany and Switzerland. At that time, it was run by Helmut Ziehe, a German architect, and all of my teachers, except for maybe one or two, were cutting-edge German architects, and environmental scientists and specialists. (Note: Cordaro became certified in Bau-Biologie from the International Institute for Bau-Biologie and Ecology in 1992.)
I got my certification in the early 90s and I did that for myself because I wanted to know how to improve the home that my husband and I lived in. He was the one who actually found the ad.
Then, almost immediately I started working because there was nobody doing this work at the time. I got to work immediately with very little experience, no experience really, just the Bau-Biologie training. And, I’ve been doing it full-time ever since. I wouldn’t recommend that others start out with no experience as I did, though. It’s essential to work extensively with a mentor in the field first. But at the time, I had no choice but to strike out on my own.
What was one of the first healthy changes you made in your own home?
Because of my asthma, the thing that we changed pretty early on was the insulation in our attic, which was full of blown-in mineral wool. That’s what they used to put in attics before fiberglass came along. It’s very loose. It gets into the air very easily. There were all of these little holes that connected the interior with the attic. So, I actually would sit in my house and these microscopic particles came raining down on top of me, and I didn’t know I was breathing in these carcinogenic fibers that irritated my lungs.
So, one of the first things we did was to replace the mineral wool in our attic. Then, after that it became a work in progress. We spent the next 20 years slowly adapting the house so it became what it is today. But, it has definitely been a step-by-step process.
Some of my clients started with me way back in the early 90s and gradually they keep coming back and saying, “Ok. What should I do next?” And, over the years they've improved their homes. They improve the heating and air conditioning, the ventilation. They hire specialists on our team to test for mold, electromagnetic fields and chemicals in their air and house dust. They make sure there aren’t any pesticides in the crawl space coming up into the house. They put a new water system in. They use products and materials for remodeling, maybe even for building a new home, that are healthy.
So, they just take it a step at a time as they can afford to, with my guidance along the way. It makes an enormous difference to live in a healthy house. An enormous difference.
How have you seen the green building movement transform over the years?
I watched the green movement being born and get to where it is today. It has been a fascinating thing to watch. If we just talk about health, I think the green building movement has done the most work in the areas of VOCs and using low- or no- or zero-VOC materials.
There’s still quite a long way to go, but there have also been some tremendous strides. For example, one of the biggest steps happened only a few years ago in green building when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) decided that builders would get LEED credit for voluntarily not using PVC materials. That was a huge step because the building products industry puts tremendous pressure on LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the rating system set by the USGBC, to use materials that they make and sell.
So, it was a battle with the industry to get PVC out of LEED. And it’s still voluntary. You can still build a LEED house with PVC if you want, but you get credits for leaving it out. Even though LEED continues to make steps toward health, there’s a long way to go to get the chemicals out that are not classified as VOCs, such phthalates, which are the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in PVC . They’ve sent a big message out to the building materials industry, but it’s a fight and there’s still a long way to go.
What’s your favorite part about your home?
We’re in the LA area. We’re actually in a very smoggy place, the San Fernando Valley. It has been a really good testing ground to make a house healthy in a very toxic location.
I’m sitting here enjoying our incredible air conditioning because it’s so clean, and I no longer experience reactions or allergies from mold, chemicals or electromagnetic fields, which have all been eliminated. But, there’s something that I really love and that is that all the walls and ceilings are all finished in natural plaster and paints that are made almost entirely from healthy ingredients found in nature. So, we don’t have synthetic wall paint in any rooms in our house.
Synthetic wall paint includes zero-VOC paint and that’s okay. Zero-VOC synthetic paint is great, but we’ve gone a step further. The plasters and paints in our home are not only zero-VOC—the ingredients are also truly from nature. The natural paints, lime plaster and American Clay plaster creates a very peaceful, restful feeling in here.
Find out more about Mary Cordaro on her website.