Choosing products for a healthy work interior

Many people are considerate of the types of cleaners and chemicals they use in their home, but have you ever considered the safety of your workspace furniture and finishes? As many of us spend one third of our time at work, healthy commercial interiors are as critical as a healthy home interior. Studies have shown more and more environmental chemicals are linked to human health issues. The modern inventions of adhesives, synthetic textiles, furniture, finishes & carpets, polyurethane foams, stain guards, and much more, all contribute to a virtual chemical soup within our work environment.

Wood furniture

The dreaded volatile organic compound (VOC) is an ingredient found in many interior items, especially wood furniture. Common sources for these potentially dangerous chemicals are paint, lacquer, paint stripper, cleaning solvents, sheet goods, glues and adhesives. Environmentally favorable alternatives include things such as VOC-free, water-based, or powder-based finishes. Look for furniture that is untreated or treated with natural substances, like natural wood finishes. Do not use pressed wood products, where wood chips and formaldehyde are compacted to form solid material.

Upholstered furniture
The biggest concern when it comes to furniture like chairs and couches are the flame retardants in the cushions. Cushions off-gas continually, and the flame retardant chemicals break down into dust that gets inhaled. Healthy options are as simple as cotton with a wool outer layer, because wool is naturally flame retardant, or cushions made from recycled PET bottles. Some contract furniture companies have removed toxic flame retardants from ALL of their products, such as HaworthHumanscale and Leland International.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is found in vinyl, a common product used for upholstery, despite concerns about harmful chemicals being released and diffused into the air. Look for PVC-free upholstery options like Silica from Momentum Textiles. Avoid upholstery that has been treated to resist stains and water – or look for Nano-Tex, a new technology that attaches molecules to fibers without coating them. Fortunately, trendsetting companies like Google and Apple are leading the charge and going completely PVC-free.

Carpeting, like furniture, is an ever-present element of the interior workspace and has a negative impact on indoor air quality due to the VOCs and other toxic components it emits. A few carpet manufacturers offer wool fiber in otherwise synthetic carpet, and some niche manufacturers offer completely natural products with wool fiber. In addition, carpet has a high petrochemical content and requires more intense cleaning. Consider other flooring material, such as wood, linoleum, and polished concrete.

The problem with most commonly available paints lies in their ingredient list, including VOCs, pigments, fungicides and biocides. Ideally, you should use paints that meet all three better health requirements—low VOCs, low biocides, and natural pigments. Milk paint and natural paints are the first choice for commercially available interior paint. Latex paint with very low biocide and VOC levels is another good choice. Latex paint is also safer for the environment than oil- and solvent-based paints, which should be avoided.

Evaluating and selecting these healthy interior products can be confusing. Fortunately, there are more tools and resources than ever to help the with the selection process. Third party sources like Greenguard and BIFMA Level can help clarify the huge amount of information that comes out on this subject. In addition, more alternatives to toxic synthetic products are becoming available, like bio-based hard surface flooring, wallcovering, textiles and plastics. Reclaimed, salvaged, and recycled products are becoming popular, and they are great alternates as they have already off-gassed their chemicals.