Project One-Eleven is our nontoxic home renovation project. We’re taking an old row house that’s been serving as an office and converting it back into a residence (where you’ll be able to come test mattresses and other Good Stuff!). Because we’re all about the Good Stuff, we will use nontoxic and sustainable products, materials, and processes as much as possible. We’re blogging about the process to share the joys and challenges of taking a non-toxic approach to home renovation.
For step 1 of our renovation project, we decided to restore the original wood floors. Read on for tips on removing old carpets, finishing or refinishing wood floors with nontoxic alternatives to polyurethane, and cleaning up your air quality if you are worried about existing wood floors.
First Dirty Job: Out with the Old Carpet
Every inch of floor in this house– including stairs–was covered with 30-year-old carpet. Older carpets are not just ugly, they are also extra toxic. They were made and installed with chemicals that have since been found to be unhealthy and banned from more recent production, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (which is associated with altered thyroid hormone levels, elevated cholesterol, and ADHD), PBDEs (which are shown to cause disruption of thyroid homeostasis after perinatal exposure), and PCBs (established carcinogens).
Older carpets also have had years to accumulate pounds of dust mites, dirt, pesticides, and other toxins brought in on shoes, feet, and pet’s paws. Please try not to gag when you read this: Carpet can hold up to one pound of toxin-filled dirt per square foot.
The EPA states that 80% of human exposure to pesticides happens indoors. Household dust also contains lead and other heavy metals. Older carpets are so toxic that your chances of being exposed to hazardous chemicals are up to 50 times higher in a carpeted room than outdoors.
I found a couple of guys on Craigslist to tear out the old carpet and cart it away to a recycling center, but we were left with the unenviable task of removing thousands (seemed like millions) of staples that held down the carpet pad. After my son-in-law and I tried several tools and bloodied our knuckles some, we found the Stanley 8-inch nail puller and chisel scraper. This cool little flat bar saved us days of extra work.
In with the New (Old) Wood Floors
Most of the floors underneath the carpet are four-inch wide planks of southern yellow pine. They were in rough shape (hence the carpet installation 30 years ago), but I knew from experience that we could revive them if we were willing to live with the “vintage distressed” look. Given the historic charm of the house, it seemed appropriate to restore the original floors, even if they are scarred. We hired a good floor-sanding outfit, and the sanding alone made the floors look so much better! (Check out the picture on the left to see what I mean.)
Non-toxic Floor Finish
Because this is a non-toxic renovation project, we did not use typical floor-finishing products like polyurethane. This type of finish emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as it is being applied and while it is curing (drying). The good news about polyurethane is that once it’s fully cured–after about two to three weeks–it is quite inert and is no longer particularly toxic. So if you are currently living with polyurethane-finished floors, don’t worry; they are unlikely to pose much of a risk.
If, like us, you have some refinishing to do, you want to reduce exposure to VOCs during the process by using a non-toxic alternative to polyurethane. To find such a product, we sought the expertise of Joel at Green Building Supply (they have proven to be such a valuable resource!).
Joel helped us choose Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus, and kindly donated some for this job. We like that Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus is made of natural oils, has no VOCs, and is virtually odorless. A huge bonus, which I know from first-hand experience, it is actually much easier and faster to install than typical polyurethane floor finish. It is finished in one coat and there are no toxic fumes.
My flooring guy was not familiar Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus and is not comfortable installing it. That means that yours truly got to do it!
Are Wood Floors Toxic?
We chose to refinish the existing wood floors in the old home we are renovating. But some of you may be considering an installation of new wood floors and want to make sure you avoid toxins when doing so.
The important thing is to choose true hardwood floors–meaning flooring that’s made from solid wood rather than composite wood (otherwise known as laminate flooring). You probably heard about the scandal involving Lumber Liquidators last year. Basically, the flooring giant was caught selling Chinese-made laminate flooring that far exceeds the legal limits of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen).
If you’re in the market for new wood floors, I would again recommend you contact Joel at Green Building Supply for guidance on choosing and installing non-toxic wood floors.
How to Detox Your Home if You Have Toxic Floors
If you are worried about the existing floors in your home, especially if they may be laminate, you will be glad to hear that there are things you can do to improve your indoor air quality.
- Plants. Many common household plants like Boston fern, English Ivy, spider plants, and peace lilies will filter formaldehyde from indoor air.
- Moso Bags. We’ve got these all over our homes and cars. Moso Bags contain a particular bamboo charcoal that studies show to reduce formaldehyde (and other toxins) from household air.
- Ventilate your home. Periodically opening windows to introduce clean air, and keeping indoor temps and humidity low, may help decrease the amount of flooring toxins that off-gas.
- Electronic air filter. For truly robust, active filtration, we chose to invest in this air filter.
What’s Next for Our Project
After everything I just told you about carpets, you might be surprised to hear that we will be installing some carpet on a staircase and some landings in this home. This can be done in a with non-toxic carpeting and installation materials, so stay tuned!
But first, I’ll be blogging about wall paints next, and answering one big question: does milk paint really work?
Stay sane until then,