The Nonallergenic Abode

Healthy building materials and household products are no longer a niche marketor a major expense.

REMEMBER JULIANNE Moore as the chemically sensitive heroine of the movie Safe? The mold under her carpet, the metal in her paint, the mysterious something in her house was making her very, very sick. Like her, I'm a skinny, pale, allergic-to-everything type, but fortunately there's an array of local green-building businesses dedicated to allergen-free and low-toxin building and remodeling.

There's more to household hazards than just the asbestos in insulation and the lead in paint. Sick Home Syndrome indicates a house with compromised indoor air quality that concerned homeowners and remodelers will want to detox. Hence the new demand for natural carpets, hypoallergenic bedding, low-toxin paints, and even healthy lightbulbs to cure sick homes.

The first step is to identify the offending toxins or allergens. Both the American Lung Association and Environmental Protection Agency have good Web sites that detail molds, mildew, dust mites, and vapors. Common culprits are mite-friendly carpets and bedding; poor ventilation; open combustion sources such as fireplaces and candles; archaic furnaces and water heaters; and toxic adhesives, cleaning supplies, paints, and insulation. If you decide to make some changes, you may wish to hire a green-building consultant (see the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Web site).

Next, hit the stores. SoDo's Environmental Home Center offers low-toxin paint, stains, carpets, and cleaning supplies; environmentally sound wallpaper and adhesives; high-tech vacuum cleaners; and books to get you started. For paints that are low- or no-VOC (that's Volatile Organic Compounds, a dirty phrase in clean-air circles), try Ballard's Best Paints. Various retailers sell beds made of wool, organic green cotton, and natural latex; they're promoted as being mite-resistant and acid-free for allergy-prone sleepers. You can even get buckwheat pillows (although strange dreams may result).

However, in your search for clean air, be aware that some so-called healthy products are actually harmful. Check with the EPA. about specific products, such as "ozone-generating" air cleaners, which are polluters in themselves.

SO WITH ALL the safe products available, why aren't all new homes built green and clean? Price is a deterrent, according to Marni Evans of Paladino and Co. green-building consultants. She claims green products and materials can cost only up to 5 percent more than conventional materials. (Other estimates go much higher, like 15 percent to 20 percent.) "It's a small price to pay when you consider your health, energy, and productivity levels," Evans says. "The up-front costs of low- toxic building products and materials pay for themselves in the long run."

Maybe so, but fully green, low-toxin homes are still a rare, if sensible, investment. And short of building a bubble around your house (or moving into a bubble in the desert, like Moore in Safe), there's no such thing as perfect indoor air quality.

Yet the costs are getting cheaper as green consciousness begins to permeate big-box retailers. Target, Home Depot, and others now sell hypoallergenic mattress and pillow covers, nontoxic paint removers, full-spectrum lightbulbs, and other healthier-than-the-alternative products. Bubbles can't be far behind.

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