If you’ve ever been in a room that was recently wallpapered, chances are you were bombarded by a noxious odor. That smell comes from airborne chemicals or gases like formaldehyde, zylene and toluene, known as VOCs — volatile organic compounds, which can cause health problems such as nausea, dizziness, eye irritation and breathing problems, as well as heart, lung or kidney damage and even cancer. Those with weakened immune systems or chemical sensitivities, asthmatics, young children and the elderly are particularly susceptible.
Like paint, wall coverings cover more surface area than you may think and can harm the indoor air quality. Unknowingly, we often buy what we think looks good rather than what’s safe.
According to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, VOCs are always emitted from those easy-to-clean wallpapers made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), referred to simply as “vinyl.”
One of the big debates raging within architecture and design circles is whether PVC is dangerous. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PVC is a human carcinogen considered to be so toxic that it is banned in some parts of Europe. The environmental organization Greenpeace says “it is the most dangerous of all plastics and its manufacture is linked to the production of chlorine to a degree unmatched by any other material.”
What makes chlorine so bad? Chlorine is found in thousands of chemicals that threaten the environment. It provides the “C” in deadly PCB, and it is the source of the “chloro” in ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. Further still, PVC releases toxic byproducts such as dioxin during its manufacture and if burned during disposal. Dioxin is considered by many scientists to be the deadliest chemical ever made.
If that’s not bad enough, if you use vinyl wallpaper in high-moisture areas in your home, it can create a vapor barrier that traps moisture in the wall and encourages mold growth.
“In general, we recommend against wallpaper of all kinds in humid areas like bathrooms and kitchens,” says John Dunnihoo, general manager of Healthy Home Plans in Marin. “These rooms should have a smooth, easily wiped down finish, because it seems like either the paper, the adhesive, or the lack of breathability of wallpaper in these areas inevitably leads to mold.”
And don’t be fooled by what some companies tout as “low-VOC.” These products meet EPA regulations, but because those regulations are based on ozone reduction, toxic chemicals such as tertiary butyl acetate and methyl formate that do not form ozone are excluded from the required VOC calculations.
There are natural alternatives to vinyl. Greenpeace recommends paper-based wallpaper, with recycled and biodegradable being the best choices. Other natural fibers to look for include linen, cotton, sisal (extracted from leaves of agave plants), cork (from bark of cork trees), grass cloth and cellulose (wood pulp).
Installation using traditional wallpaper paste is preferable to using self-stick wall coverings because of the high levels of VOC in the adhesive. In general, the smoother the surface, the cleaner it stays and the easier it is to clean. Paper coated with liquid acrylic (make sure you don’t get liquid vinyl) is wipeable; uncoated paper wallpaper wouldn’t be practical for a nursery or child’s room. A woven/rougher texture of wall covering requires more volume of adhesive to hold it to the wall, so a zero-VOC adhesive becomes doubly important. If you haven’t wallpapered before, your walls are uneven or both, you may want professional installation, and allow a few days for the room to air out afterward.
Dozens of companies make environmentally friendly wall coverings using nontoxic ingredients. Most of the following, as well as many more, will be showcased at the West Coast Green Conference and Expo 2 Sept. 28-30 at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco (www.westcoastgreen.com):
— Innovations in Wallcoverings Inc. (www.innovationsusa.com) has a line of natural, renewable and recyclable materials that are biodegradable. They use water-based inks containing no heavy metals.
— Hollingsworth & Vose (www.hollingsworth-vose.com) has WallTek, a line of non-woven wall coverings containing no PVC or formaldehyde.
— Roos International (www.roosintl.com) offers Texturglas products that include a specially formulated adhesive called Ecofix, a starch-based powder adhesive made from regenerated, degradable materials, creating no VOC emissions.
— Wolf-Gordon Inc. (www.wolf-gordon.com) introduced an Ecological Reclamation Program with its new EarthSafe collection called Strata made of natural, renewable or recyclable materials and cellulose harvested from managed forests. At the end of the product’s life cycle, the wall coverings can be returned (for credit).
— DesignTex has EarthTex (www.dtex.com), a non-PVC wall covering without heavy metals or plasticizers (made from phthalates, that mimic natural hormones and are increasingly identified with health problems).
— MDC Wallcoverings (www.mdcwall.com) makes Natural Environments, which uses natural materials, including the dyes. Newcastle Fabrics (www.newcastlefabrics.com) has the South Seas collection which is natural. Cork wall tiles (www.naturalcork.com) are often used like wallpaper. Sinan Co. Environmental Products in Davis (www.sinanco.com) makes a plant-based wallpaper adhesive (389 Natural Wallpaper Adhesive).
Also, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration recently introduced a “Green California” site (www.green.ca.gov) that provides information on environmentally friendly products and services. And check out both the movie and the site called “Blue Vinyl” (www.bluevinyl.org) for information about PVC.