A New Low of Toxicity Levels

A Ballard resident uses simple strategies to rid her bungalow of harmful, hidden chemicals.
By: Maria Dolan | Posted September 16, 2011
Rachel Koller, with husband Izaak and daughter Raya. Stainless steel countertops are easy to clean with water and white vinegar; low-toxic bamboo is used for cabinets in place of particleboard, which contains carcinogens

You wouldn’t think a Ballard bungalow with pink asbestos siding and lead paint would appeal to a couple with an interest in the environment, but Rachel and Izaak Koller planned to remodel the Ballard home themselves—wearing suitable hazmat gear.

Thanks to the previous tenants, the couple had to remove or remake nearly everything in the house, including performing lead abatement and removing that pink siding.

“My interest in toxics really stemmed from research we did when we bought the house in 2002,” says Rachel Koller. After having a child a few years later, Rachel says, she became more interested in the everyday issues around toxic products in the home, and left her job as a project coordinator for artists Dale Chihuly and Roy McMakin to work on environmental issues.

She volunteers with the Washington Toxics Coalition, and recently launched the online resource Healthy Home Focus (healthyhomefocus.com).

Many of the low-toxicity choices the Kollers made were the result of salvaging and repurposing items that are naturally nontoxic, such as old wood furniture.

They also made careful choices in new purchases. The insulation for the house is made from recycled jeans, which Rachel says eliminates the air-quality issues associated with fiberglass insulation. The wall paint is low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases emitted from traditional paint, which can take a toll on health. The family’s radiant floor heating is not only more energy efficient than forced air heat, it doesn’t blow dust around.

This summer, the Kollers installed a home HEPA system, which brings fresh air into the house. (Before then, they kept their windows cracked as often as they could.) Since particleboard cabinets usually contain formaldehyde, a federally listed carcinogen, Izaak built his own, using bamboo panels and Forest Stewardship Council–approved plywood.

Though some of their choices may be more expensive than the norm, Rachel emphasizes that low-toxicity living can actually be cheaper than the alternative. Often, she says, the best choice is to go back to “old standards.”

One of the more common sources of home air pollution, for instance, is cleaning products containing toxic chemicals and fragrances. Rachel instead uses an old-fashioned 50/50 water-and-white-vinegar mix for nearly all home surfaces.

“I used to be that person who didn’t want to deal with cleaning product recipes,” she says, “but when I saw this formula on a website I thought, OK, I can eyeball it.” With this in mind, Rachel made remodeling decisions that simplified cleaning.

“Also, I’m lazy,” she says. “Having the guiding principles of low-toxic and sustainable actually simplifies things.” Her bathtub is fiberglass, which eliminates the need to use hard-to-clean grout or caulk. The stainless steel countertops in the kitchen are easy to clean, and the bathroom tiles are glazed porcelain—“totally easy to clean and durable,” she says.

But Rachel doesn’t believe in draconian measures. “When I read articles about raising ‘nontoxic kids’ it drives me crazy,” she says. “You can’t eliminate everything. It’s all about being aware, but in a realistic way.”

 

What you can do:

Quick fix: Plastic containers, especially old ones, can contain chemicals you don’t want in your food. Replace them with glass or metal containers. Get rid of cleaning supplies with health warnings on them, and replace with vinegar and water, or cleaners labeled “nontoxic.”

Weekend project: Rip out wall-to-wall carpeting (which traps dust and is hard to clean) and cracked vinyl flooring. If there’s a wood floor underneath, keep it, or install wood, bamboo, cork, or linoleum, which are all low- or nontoxic choices.

Long term: Add your voice to organizations working to reduce or eliminate the manufacture of products with chemicals toxic to humans and animals. Try the Washington Toxics Coalition: watoxics.org.

Resources:

The American Lung Association has a team of Master Home Environmentalist volunteers who make free home visits to identify hazards and offer suggestions for improvement.

 

Read about another eco-friendly home, featured in our story for its Super Efficient Energy.