Don’t be fooled by the oak, walnut or cherry veneer cloaking your office cabinets, wall paneling, desk and shelves. Underneath, these products are made of plywood and particleboard, which in turn consist of wood strips or particles bonded together with formaldehyde-based glues and resins. These materials can off-gas chemicals for years.
For an environmentally friendly alternative, office decision-makers empowered with buying new furniture can try Medex, an exterior-grade product originally developed for highway signs, and Medite II, used for interior applications such as cabinets. These materials are bound with "phenol-formaldehyde," which does not off-gas as much formaldehyde as do conventional building products made with urea-formaldehyde. Standardized tests indicate that the formaldehyde levels from Medex and Medite II are well below most indoor air-quality standards, and both are offered by Sierra Pine Composite Solutions (www.sierrapine.com).
There are also "bio-composite" substitutes for wood paneling, which have the advantage of being completely formaldehyde-free. Baltix Sustainable Furniture Inc. in Minneapolis (www.Baltix.com) offers several types of "wood" panels made from sunflower seed hulls, wheat strands, or newspaper boards using recycled paper and a soy-based resin system. All of the Baltix adhesives, resins and coatings are formaldehyde-free and emit no VOCs.
Another option is to buy products certified by the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit organization whose scientific third-party board establishes environmental and indoor air quality standards for indoor products and building materials. GREENGUARD is the world’s only certification program that evaluates products from a chemical emissions perspective. Henning Bloech, Greenguard’s communications director, credits consumer awareness and pressure with "transforming the whole office furniture industry and making a huge change in indoor air quality."
You can view images of products that earn the GREENGUARD Indoor Air quality certification for low-emitting products at Greenguard.org. Companies include:
Haworth. Translucent materials add to the appeal of this company’s stylish Moxie line of systems furniture, as do design details such as tapered legs and circular lampshades that recall the comforts of home. Other Greenguard-certified products include swivel office chairs, files, bookcases. 1 Haworth Center, Holland, MI 49423, (800)344-2600,www.haworth.com.
Herman Miller. This global provider of office furniture sells major Greenguard-certified lines of systems furniture, filing, storage and office seating. Stackable storage cabinets number among the offerings, as does a nurses station. 855 East Main Avenue, P.O. Box 302, Zeeland, MI 49464, (888)443-4357, www.hermanmiller.com.
Knoll Inc. Earned Greenguard certification for its swivel office chairs and stacking chairs, as well as for its modern bar stools and lounge seating, including Mies Van der Rohe lounge seating and Maya Lin stone tables and chairs. 1235 Water St., East Greenville, PA 18041, (800)445-5045, www.knoll.com.
RJF International. Sells a line of Greenguard-certified wall coverings, which use water-based inks instead of chemical solvents. 3875 Embassy Parkway, Fairlawn, OH 44333, (800) 628-0449, www.rjfinternational.com.
Steelcase Inc. Earned Greenguard certification for a dozen office seating lines including swivel office chairs and stackable chairs. (800)333-9939, www.steelcase.com.
Teknion Inc. This Canadian company manufactures Greenguard-certified office and executive suite chairs. See them at nearly a dozen Teknion U.S. showrooms or perhaps on the company’s on-line showroom video. (877)TEKNION, www.teknion.com.
The next time someone gets ready to slap a coat of high-gloss paint onto an office wall, think about this: A federal EPA study showed that indoor levels of volatile organic compounds were 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels after painting. Another study showed that paints send more chemicals airborne than any other indoor product.
To mitigate the health and environmental impact, decision-makers buying paint for the office should choose latex paints instead of alkyds. Alkyd paints—oil-based and often used for high-gloss applications—contain eight to 20 times more volatile organic compounds, sending irritating chemical residues into the air. Be aware, however, that even latex paints contain harmful fungicides and preservatives to combat mold. And since over 80 percent of all interior paint applications are latex, emissions from latex paints remain a major source of indoor air pollution.
Toxic-free alternatives include a wide variety of natural paints made from plant ingredients, milk proteins or clay. One caveat: Natural paints contain aromatic ingredients such as the citrus-based solvents, and tung oil or pine resins. These are all potent natural volatile organic compounds that can cause watery eyes or respiratory problems in some people.
Natural paints also are more fragile than petrochemical-fortified paints, so they’re best used on stucco, plaster or cement walls. Although eco-friendly paints require additional coats and take longer to dry, they’ve garnered praise from green architects and builders for their earthy look and feel.
Labels to watch for:
" "Low VOC" paints. Based on a standard established by the nonprofit Green Seal, "Low Voc" paints contain no more than 50 grams per liter of volatile organic compounds for flat paints, or 150 for non-flat paints. You can also find out about the volatile organic compounds of any paint by requesting the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the manufacturer or paint store.
" "VOC free" or "Zero VOCs." These paints don’t send gaseous chemicals into the air. But they tend to cost significantly more than their conventional counterparts.
" "Low biocide" paints. They’re 90 to 95 percent free of preservatives. However, low biocide paints can still have a high content of volatile organic compounds. They shouldn’t be used in weather-exposed or humid areas.
" Natural Milk paints. These use the milk protein casein with earth pigments, lime and clay. Sold in powdered form, they must be mixed with water. Made from lime paste and water, whitewashes are the most natural paints on the market. They come in only one color—white.
If your office painter has trouble finding them, here are some manufacturers to consider:
AFM Enterprises. This manufacturer worked with environmental medicine physicians and people with allergies to formulate zero-emission paints. The company sells non-toxic stains,
paints and finishes. 3251 Third Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103, (619)239-0321, www.afmsafecoat.com.
BioShield Paint Company. Sells eco-friendly paints, stains and finishes, including natural milk paints. 1365 Rufina Circle, Santa Fe, NM 87507, (505)438-3448, www.bioshieldpaint.com.
Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company. Sells 16 colors of milk-based paints. 436 Main Street, Groton, MA 01450, (978)448-6336, www.milkpaint.com.
Few products are as environmentally UN-friendly as computers. In 1995, ethylene glycol ethers were banned from use in computers after being linked to miscarriages among manufacturing workers. Today, computers are rife with toxins such as lead, brominated fire retardants (which have been found to inhibit fetal brain development), polyvinyl chloride and heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium and mercury. What’s more, twelve million PCs are dumped into landfills every year in the U.S., posing serious threats to the environment and human health. Many recyclers also dump computers on countries in the developing world, where unprotected workers are exposed to hazardous materials.
"The export of e-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution," according to a report by the Basel Action Network, Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "A free trade in hazardous waste leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison—a choice that nobody should have to make."
There’s not a whole lot of movement on the healthy computer front. California and Massachusetts have banned televisions and cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors from landfills because of lead. In July 2004, California was to add a recycling fee to the cost of new computers and televisions. Unlike the European Union, however, the U.S. hasn’t mandated corporate responsibility programs for eliminating hazardous materials or instituting take-back programs.
The multiple chemicals, glues and adhesives in computers send "a good amount of chemicals" airborne, says Bloech, of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. "But not a single computer manufacturer even mentions indoor air quality," he says. "It’s a can of worms they don’t want to bring up."
In Europe, consumer pressure has forced some U.S. companies to be compliant with EU environmental and indoor air quality regulations and/or eco-labels such as Germany’s Blue Angel, Norway’s Nordic Swan or Sweden’s TCO label.
The same kind of consumer pressure is necessary to bring about change in the U.S. computer industry, says Henning. "People should call their manufacturers and ask them questions," he says. "Until industry perceives any kind of problem on the part of consumers, they won’t pay attention to the problem."
Not surprisingly, green computer alternatives are, well, virtually non-existent. In its 2002 annual report card, The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition gave only one manufacturer, Fujitsu, a passing grade, and that was for its achievements in replacing lead solder and the environmental information on its website (www.fujitsu.com/about/environment). All of the other manufacturers earned a "need improvement" or "poor" rating.
The Green Guide (www.greenguide.com) also issues the following product guidelines and recommendations:
" Flat-panel screen monitors lack the 5 to 8 pounds of lead found in conventional CRT monitors.
" NEC’s PowerMate ECO desktop is lead-free, PVC-free, mercury-free, cadmium-free, chromium-free and boron-free, and offers a flat-panel screen. Made of recyclable plastic, it also earns an Energy Star (www.necsolutions-am.com).
" Panasonic’s Toughbook R1 laptop uses lead-free solder in most Toughbook models. It also features a recyclable magnesium alloy case, reduced flame retardants, consumer take-back programs. And it earns an Energy Star (www.Panasonic.com).
Other kinds of office equipment are also linked to indoor air quality problems, most notably printers, whose toners and inks send chemicals airborne. AERIAS, the indoor air quality information clearinghouse, recommends that large numbers of printers and photocopiers be grouped together in a separate room with a separate ventilation system. The area should contain plenty of outdoor air, which should not be recirculated throughout the rest of the building or located near air return ducts. Printers and photocopiers should also be turned off when not in use for any length of time.
What You Can Do:
So what should you do if you suspect your workplace is making you sick? Speak up. "People worry about reporting this stuff, but they should do it," says Dr. Morris Beck, chief of allergy at Miami Childrens Hospital and former chief of the allergy division at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Miami. In severe cases, "If you’re working in a sick building, people can sue and win—if they can prove it."
First, fix whatever minor issues you can yourself (see "No Brainers" companion article). If that doesn’t help, take further action. Don’t live with it.
" Gently point out the problem to the cleaning staff or a boss, just as Cynthia Vallo did when a chemical used by an exterminator sickened her at the American Lung Association in West Palm Beach, Florida. "I could always tell when the building was sprayed. I had really bad headaches…to the point that they were waking me up at night," recalled Vallo. Her office switched from Dursban to bait traps. Vallo’s problems disappeared. The switch came after Vallo called a national pesticide hot line (800-858-7378). She learned that using such sprays required rooms to be well-ventilated—not have sealed-closed windows, as many offices have. "If anyone is in a workplace where they feel their health is compromised, they need to say something," Vallo concluded.
" Tell your union (if applicable), as air traffic controller Pam Lessor did after her sinuses swelled so much that she needed surgery. At first, she didn’t connect her sinus problem to the big splotches of mold on the ceiling until a colleague at the Miami Route Traffic Control Center needed the same surgery. Her union eventually found 84 workers claimed respiratory problems; 11 asked for workers" compensation. The union pressed for improvements.
" Check into testing the office’s indoor air quality. Molly, a financial vice president in Seattle, did just that after she experienced what felt like a constant achy flu. The air in her remodeled office was thick with dust and chemical smells from new paints and varnishes. She wore a facemask to work; for a couple of months, she even donned a gas mask. When visits to naturopaths and acupuncturists didn’t help, she contacted a leading indoor
air quality company. Tests are offered by various companies, including Georgia-based Air Quality Sciences (www.aqs.com) and the Seattle company Molly chose, Healthy Buildings Inc. (www.healthybuilding.com). Tests showed that dust levels—from the remodeling—far exceeded standards for healthy air, and that the new carpets and particleboard-furniture off-gassed chemicals. To remedy the problem, the heating and air-conditioning system was flushed and adjusted to increase the percentage of outside air. Carpets were steam washed to speed up chemical absorption. Executives supported Molly’s efforts, though building managers didn’t exactly take a pro-active approach. "I had to bird dog the whole thing," says Molly, who also paid $4,000 in healthcare costs.
" Move to a new office, if possible. That’s what Molly, the Seattle executive mentioned above, did. While taking other steps helped, the damage to her body already had been done. Diagnosed with "chemical overload," a syndrome that makes it difficult for her to be in office or retail environments, Molly says: "I can’t go shopping at Nordstroms, I don’t fly as often. It’s been a nightmare." She breathed easier after she moved across the street to an office with operable windows, where, she says, "It’s the fresh air that makes the difference."
" If you’re getting nowhere, turn to outside help. Call your state or local health department or air pollution control agency to talk over the symptoms and possible causes. By calling 1-800-35-NIOSH, you"ll reach the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which may conduct a health hazard evaluation of your office. You also can contact your nearest federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration office or its toll-free line (1-800-321-6742). Some workers fear they"ll lose their jobs by complaining. But your job is legally protected, OSHA spokesman Bill Wright said. You can’t be demoted. Or fired. "There’s no way anyone can legally have retribution. This is the United States of America," Wright said. "They’re protected."
" Look after your health. If you think you’re suffering from poor indoor air at work, make sure to bolster your immune system by taking steps to reduce problems at home, allergists say. Wash all bedding in hot water weekly to kill dust mites. Cover the mattress, pillows and box spring in mite-proof covers, sold by companies such as PurenNatural Systems (www.purennatural.com, 1-800-237-9199), Allergy Control Products (www.allergycontrol.com, 1-800-422-DUST), and National Allergy (www.nationalallergy.com, 1-800-522-1448). Eat fresh fruit, vegetables and oily fish. Researchers found that kids who never ate fresh fruit had a 25 percent higher incidence of wheezing. An Australian study discovered asthmatic kids who ate oily fish at least weekly suffered about half the rate of asthma symptoms as those who swore off fish. If nothing helps, consider an allergist. Miami air traffic controller Pam Lessor says her sinus infections decreased from 17 a year to three after she started getting allergy shots from a respected allergist. An added benefit: A doctor’s note suggesting that your boss take a certain course of action—such as removing moldy carpets—can help.
" Encourage building managers to follow steps laid out in the EPA’s continually updated IAQ Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM), which can be downloaded at Epa.gov or obtained for free in CD-ROM form by calling 1-800-438-4318. It’s designed to offer state-of-the-art guidance for managing indoor air quality in commercial buildings. Another resource is Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers, which also can be downloaded at Epa.gov. Plenty of technical resources regarding proper ways to ventilate buildings are offered by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, an Atlanta-based trade association that serves engineers and the public (www.ashrae.org). For a general overview of indoor-air issues, you can get a free copy of "An Office Building Occupant’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality" at Epa.gov or by calling 1-800-438-4318. Schools are legendary for their indoor-air problems. A free "IAQ Tools for Schools Kit" can be downloaded (www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/tools4s2.html) or requested by phone. Ask for EPA document number 402-C-00-002, August 2000, when calling (800)438-4318.
" If you’re a building manager and you want tenants to understand helpful concepts—such as how overwatering potted plants can contribute to mold—then consider ordering brochures offering such tips from the Building Owners and Managers Association International. "Improving the Great Indoors: Your Office Guide to Indoor Air Quality" is sold at www.Boma.org and (800)426-6292.
" Want to buy green products?The EPA maintains an extensive online list of resources and information on green procurement policies (http://www.epa.gov/oppt/epp/ppg/resource.htm). Computer buy-back programs and other issues are followed by the Northwest Product Stewardship Council, which works to improve public and private product stewardship policies (www.productstewardship.net).
" Call hotlines for information, including the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse (800)438 4318) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences" ENVIRO-HEALTH hotline (800)643-4794).
" Read up on the issues. News about indoor air quality and mold is offered online by the nonprofit Indoor Air Quality Association (www.iaqa.org). Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (www.svtc.org) campaigns for clean computers and against the impacts of high-tech products on communities and workers. Information about persistent pollutants and other toxins is offered by the Washington Toxics Coalition (www.watoxics.org). The Chemical Injury Information Network (www.ciin.org) focuses on education, research and activism into Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Plenty of resources—including journal articles and health hazard evaluations conducted by the NIOSH—also are online (www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/indoorenv/).