October Monthly Meeting Recap: Environmental Toxins

Tuesday night’s meeting was a great one.  Our guest speaker, Linda Kincaid, shared some important information on testing your home for major environmental toxins.  While Linda is knowledgeable on many chemicals commonly found in the home, she chose to focus on radon and formaldehyde for Tuesday’s presentation.

Radon is a cancer-causing natural radioactive gas that you can’t see, smell or taste. Its presence in your home can pose a danger to your family’s health. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America and claims about 20,000 lives annually (EPA).   Radon is naturally-occurring and can be found in many areas of the country.  Linda has found that it does not often occur in high levels here in the Bay Area flatlands, but has found dangerous levels in homes located along the mountain range from Monterey to the North Bay.  One member from San Carlos was highly recommended to test for radon due to her location in this range.  She handed out free radon testing kits to ensure that your home has safe levels of radiation.  Linda cautioned that radon comes not only from  what lies beneath our homes, but also from what we bring into our homes.  She passed around a radon detecting machine with some samples of marble and granite counter tops.  The granite (especially red granite) emitted elevated levels of radon.  This is something you may want to consider when renovating your kitchen. 

Linda is currently working on a research project focusing on formaldehyde levels within the home.  We have all heard about the chemical off-gassing of common household items like mattresses and carpets.    Formaldehyde, a common chemical in new wood products and finishes, is an irritant and an asthma trigger. Other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) cause similar symptoms (Kincaid) .  New building materials emit substantial amounts of these chemicals initially, with emissions decreasing over time.  Linda brought a new topic to light many of us had not considered;  furniture made from particle board.  Particle board (MDF) is now commonly used in place of natural timber.  The reasoning for this is that MDF is much cheaper to produce as well as reduces the falling of virgin timber.  The downside to MDF is that it is created by mixing sawdust with formaldehyde-containing resins and pressing them into boards.  This material is the basis for most laminated furniture, flooring and cabinetry.

Linda told a tale about a client of hers that had collected a house full of such furniture from Pottery Barn.  For years, the formaldehyde gas emitted by this furniture didn’t seem to bother the family.  Their home was drafty and had a high turnover of interior air.  This flushed out much of the gas.  The family decided that it was time to upgrade their home by making it more energy-efficient.  They added insulation as well as double-paned windows.  While this upgrade certainly reduced their heating/cooling bills, it also reduced the air-exchange in their home.  They effectively sealed in the formaldehyde gas.  Within a few months, the family members became so sick (lung irritaion, fatigue, sore throats) that the Father needed to take a leave of absence from his job.  As the medical bills piled up and no cause for their maladies was found, they decided to hire Linda to evaluate their home for toxins.  What she found was levels of over 300 parts per billion (ppb) of formaldehyde in their home.  Just 100 ppb of formaldehyde will cause illness in most adults.  The family vacated the house and put the furniture in storage.  After properly ventilating the house, the formaldehyde lowered back down to levels of 20-30 ppb.  Linda recommends shopping for furniture at thrift and antique stores in order to avoid the formaldehyde present in modern, MDF-based products.  

Another interesting point that she brought up is that new homes acquiring a “Green Point Rated” standard, tend to have the highest levels of formaldehyde amongst homes she has tested.  This is due to the “sealed” nature of the homes for energy-efficiency as well as the high concentration of manufactured wood products in the homes.  

If you would like to test your home for formaldehyde, the process is pretty simple.  Check out her Formaldehyde Testing 101 Article for instructions.  In the meantime, open windows and doors at least once a day to bring outside air into your home and try to reduce/eliminate any purchases of pressed particle board in the future.

If you would like to read more about Linda Kincaid’s research, she has a treasure trove of articles available at The Examiner.

Next month’s meeting topic is “Fighting Commercialism.”  This is an especially challenging topic during the approaching holiday season.  Bring your ideas for less commercial modes of celebration.


2 comments to October Monthly Meeting Recap: Environmental Toxins

  • J

    Thanks for posting this recap. Wish I could have made it. This is excellent info and I may, if you don't mind, repurpose some of it for my personal blog. I have several friends who live in the Los Gatos area and/or who shop for furniture exclusively at PB and Restoration Hardware.

  • Thanks for the cross-link, Jennifer. I added your blog to my bookmarks. I hope you can make it to another meeting soon so that we can finally meet!

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