How Important is Indoor Air Quality?

Green Certifications Part 2

(Read part 1 here)

Homebuyers today are increasingly concerned about the indoor air quality of their homes. Issues like mold, radon, carbon monoxide and toxic chemicals have received greater attention than ever as poor indoor air quality has been linked to a host of health problems. A Wellness-Within-Your-Walls (WWYW) certification is a good way to ensure healthy indoor air. WWYW is an informational resource group created to provide education and guidance on chemicals commonly found in living environments. Check out the Ready Residence, which is soon to be the first WWYW certified home in N.C.

Many years ago we built a home for Steve and Betty. Like all of our homes, it was certified and very energy efficient. Steve and Betty told us that they wanted to provide their own cabinets from a company that is known for “do it yourself” because it was less expensive. We tried talking them out of this decision but they had their hearts set on it. On the day that the cabinet parts were delivered to the site, we asked Steve who was going to put together the cabinets? (The cabinets came unassembled in flat boxes and reeked of formaldehyde). Steve was shocked, he hadn’t thought about who would put them together (or install) his cabinets. Once he realized how heavy they were, he decided to have our trim carpenters do it for him. After the cabinets were assembled and installed, it cost more than if they had gone with a decent quality wood/plywood cabinet. Not only that, but the home was now filled with off-gassing particle board. It was only a few years later that I remember Betty was diagnosed with cancer. Obviously we cannot prove the causation, but the correlation is certainly reason for alarm. If you’re building a custom home, you are likely not planning to sell it any time soon. Aging-In-Place certifications are also important if you’re building your forever home.

New homes are much tighter than homes built before the first energy efficient legislation in 1978. However, even if your home is built and certified Energy Star, there is no documentation for the quality of the contents pertaining to air. Homes built to earn the Indoor airPLUS label include features to reduce contaminants that can lead to poor indoor air quality, including mold, moisture, radon, carbon monoxide, toxic chemicals and more. Unfortunately, homeowners are not taught of the dangers that home furnishings can present when brought into the home after completion.


A few things to consider regarding indoor air quality when building your new custom home:

  • Up to 90% of our time is spent indoors
  • 750,000 new asthma cases per year in the U.S. alone
  • Childhood asthma has increased 600% in the last 30 years
  • Homes built today are much tighter than just a few years before and fresh air is hard to get into the home

Danger Level 1 Contaminants (in a home) include toxic compounds such as:

  • Building materials
  • Furniture
  • Carpets
  • Paints
  • Cleaning chemicals

Flame retardants and other chemicals have been used for decades in the production of commercial and residential upholstered furniture as a method for achieving fire protection. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has classified formaldehyde as a Toxic Air Contaminant, based on its potential to cause cancer and other adverse health effects.

What is formaldehyde? Formaldehyde is a colorless gas. At elevated concentrations it has a strong, pungent odor and can be irritating to the eyes, nose, and lungs. Formaldehyde is released into the home from a variety of indoor sources. Some resins, or glues, used to bind wood chips or fibers into plywood, particleboard, and other pressed wood products, contain formaldehyde. Cabinetry and some floor and wall materials are often made from such products. Formaldehyde is also used in fabrics to impart wrinkle resistance or to fix color, and in some consumer products it is used as a hardening agent or preservative. Also, formaldehyde is a by-product of cabinetry, and gas appliances are common sources of two combustion processes, such as wood burning, gas appliance use, and cigarette smoking. Formaldehyde is usually present at lower (but not necessarily healthful) levels in outdoor air; it is emitted in some industrial sources, and is also created from chemical reactions in the air among combustion pollutants, such as those in automobile exhaust.

Some common sources of formaldehyde indoors:

  • Pressed wood products: particleboard, plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF); often used in cabinetry, and wall and floor materials
  • Consumer Products: fingernail hardeners, nail polish, wallpaper, some other paper goods, paint, coatings; often a preservative in these and other products
  • Coatings for Some Cabinet and Furniture Products: acid-catalyzed urea-formaldehyde type finishes
  • Permanent Press Fabrics: clothing, linens, draperies
  • Combustion Appliances: wood stoves, gas appliances, kerosene stoves
  • Tobacco products: cigarettes, cigars.

Health effects from exposure to formaldehyde affect concentration:

  • Odor 50-500 ppb eye & nose irritation, nasal stuffiness, 40-500 ppb lung discomfort (coughing, wheezing, bronchitis symptoms)
  • Allergic reactions, worsening of asthma – variable symptoms
  • Cancer – No known level with zero risk
  • Approximate range of concentrations where effect first observed, in parts per billion (ppb)

What can I do to reduce formaldehyde in my home?
There are practical steps you can take to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde in your home. Levels can be reduced whether you are building a new home, remodeling an older home, or seeking to reduce exposure from sources you may have in your home. The most effective way to reduce formaldehyde in indoor air is to remove or reduce sources of formaldehyde in the home and avoid adding new sources. Formaldehyde from sources such as pressed wood products can take years to off-gas. Additionally, porous materials and furnishings can absorb formaldehyde and re-emit it later. Thus, avoidance of sources and prevention of emissions from the start is best.

Because homes are built so tight today, building a new home can unintentionally create a harmful environment for breathing. Research the products that go into your home, including the furnishings, or hire a builder that is an expert on indoor air quality and builds Indoor airPLUS certified homes.

Building A Quality Custom Home

Want to know more? This book by Sean Sullivan is full of helpful information in easy-to-read chapters like this blog post.

It is a step-by-step guide to the “must-know” issues of building your dream home. Discover the custom-home construction secrets that could save you headaches, heartaches, and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars.

Building A Custom Home