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Guidelines for Non-Toxic Criteria

By Alex Stark. Copyright and all rights reserved.

The following set of guidelines outlines basic considerations for the design of non-toxic environments. These are to be taken only as a guide, as green building practices involves many technical and analytical tools which are beyond the scope of this document. For optimal results, always consult with a professional practitioner.

You are also encouraged to visit our Guidelines for Healthy & Healing Environments which describes feng shui criteria for health homes and offices, and our Guidelines for Safe Electrical Systems, which summarizes main concerns in electrical installations.


Increasingly, homes are becoming saturated with harmful chemicals, molds, and particulates. This trend shows no sign of diminishing. Although the number of harmful chemicals is enormous, with many harmful chemicals being introduced into the market every day, there are some main culprits that need to be taken into careful consideration when evaluating the healthiness of any environment. These are:

1. Polyvinyl Chloride
Of all the chemical compounds known to man, the most dangerous is probably PVC (Polyvinyl chloride). Many household items contain large amounts of PVC.

PVC can be found in myriad house components: appliances, carpeting, upholstery, flooring, siding, wall coverings. PVC is used to form the shells of most inexpensive home components such as fans, heaters, humidifiers, tables, chairs.

PVC is used extensively in the construction industry, primarily in pipes. Many municipal water supply systems are based on PVC pipes and joints.

PVC is even used to build whole structures such as mobile homes, garden sheds, and gazebos. It is also used extensively as siding. PVC can be found hidden everywhere: on wires, conduit, ductwork, hoses, and in many electrical controls and devices.

PVC pollutes throughout its entire lifecycle. The production, use, and disposal of this seemingly innocuous plastic exposes us to dioxin, vinyl chloride, phthalates, heavy metals, and hydrochloric acid. These are all known human carcinogens.

2. Formaldehyde
FORMALDEHYDE is another toxic product, which is present in glues and adhesives, floor finishes, lacquers, and many other building supplies.

FORMALDEHYDE has been linked to “sick building syndrome”. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that it is a probably a human carcinogen as well.

FORMALDEHYDE is a component of interior plywood, veneered or laminated cabinets, particle boards, carpeting, pressed wood, and paneling.

Carpeting, upholstery, and furniture all contain FORMALDEHYDE. It takes up to 6 months for this volatile organic vapor (VOC) to dissipate. It is best to avoid it and buy products that are made with low VOCs.

3. Arsenic
Another important building material is treated wood, which is commonly impregnated with ARSENIC to make it insect- and rot-resistant. It is commonly used for outdoor construction.

Inorganic ARSENIC is a known carcinogen, linked to skin, bladder, liver and lung cancers. Human and animal data suggest that inorganic arsenic is also a reproductive hazard.

4. Lead
LEAD is also present in older homes. It was used extensively in paints until 1978, and still appears in older water main connections.

LEAD has been linked to learning disorders, mental illness, and failure to thrive in children.

5. Asbestos
ASBESTOS, a known carcinogen, was used extensively as an insulator and in roofing, siding, ceiling materials, and in older appliances. As with lead paint, asbestos requires professional abatement.

6. Mercury
MERCURY is found in homes in thermometers, thermostats, and other electrical appliances. It is also present in the water supply in many communities. It is extremely toxic and responsible for birth defects, learning disabilities, among others.

7. Molds
TOXIGENIC MOLD is another concern. It is caused by water damage in sealed walls and roofs membranes which is unable to dry out. It also occurs behind plastic and paper wall coverings and in dark dank areas such as crawl spaces. It can cause respiratory failure and lung cancer.

Water damage should be taken care of immediately, all of the surfaces washed with a 10% solution of bleach and all MOLD disposed of according to municipal guidelines.

8. Radon
RADON is a radioactive gas and a known carcinogen. It occurs naturally, as a by-product of uranium decay in rock and soil.

Radon is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer in the USA. It requires venting to the outdoors.

9. Carbon Monoxide
CARBON MONOXIDE (CO2) is a natural by-product of combustion. It is produced by heating furnaces, fireplaces, kerosene heaters, and plants. CO2 can cause respiratory failure, brain damage, and death.

10. Dust and Particulates
DUST and other PARTICULATES are generated continuously by decaying building materials, combustion in cars, furnaces, and incinerators, by industry, and by nature itself. High particulate counts are involved in asthma, skin disorders, and certain types of cancer.

11. Spores and Bacteria
SPORES, BACTERIA, and MITES are also a concern, as they can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. They are found in carpeting, curtains, dark and damp spaces, in animals, and in some plants.

Our WASTE STREAM also creates opportunities for toxic materials to enter our homes. Construction waste alone accounts for up to 30% of the entire municipal waste stream.


Strategies exist to make your home safe from toxic and harmful materials. They can also be used to make your home sustainable and green. Green architecture involves not only the energy impacts on your home, but on the entire biosphere.

A green home, in turn, reduces your exposure to toxic pollutants and the overall load of toxicity on the environment. It helps reduce exposure, improves immunity, and assists the healing process.

  • Orient your home to maximize natural daylight and passive solar heat. This conserves energy and helps control molds, spores and bacteria.

  • Place windows to provide good natural ventilation. This will cut down on air conditioning loads and keep your home free of indoor gases and particulates.

  • Select a light-colored roof. This will reduce cooling loads and conserve energy. Consider a living “green roof” which consists of an impermeable membrane toped with soil and live plants.

  • Install whole-house fans or ceiling fans to reduce or eliminate air conditioning.

  • Provide combined hydronic heating (hot water heater with hot water baseboard or radiant heating combined).

  • Install daylight spectrum lights with long life. They will cut down on energy consumption and help to address SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Although recommended by other experts, feng shui frowns on fluorescents for energetic reasons.

  • Install high R-value insulation made of non-chlorinated materials.

  • Select Energy Star appliances. These help to conserve energy and, because of new regulations, will also protect you from unwanted EMFs and VOCs to the extent enforced by law.

  • Design water-efficient landscapes based on indigenous plants. This helps to conserve energy and can also help to control spores, mites and allergies.

  • Install water-efficient toilets and fixtures. Consider composting toilets for new installations.

  • Use low-VOC engineered wood for headers, joists, and sheathing. Limit your use of hardwoods and whole-timber construction.

  • Use recycled-content insulation, drywall, and rugs. Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy drapes to control dust, spores, and mites.

  • Use low- or no-VOC paints. Seal cabinets and paneling that contain formaldehyde or other volatile compounds.

  • Avoid chemical cleaners and household supplies. Use color- and scent-free deodorants and personal hygiene products.

  • Ventilate rooms that are used for crafts, woodworking, or hobbies. Repair all water leaks immediately and mitigate mold growth before it happens.

  • Choose polyethylene pipe instead of PVC for plumbing.

  • Use formaldehyde-free or fully sealed materials for sub-flooring, cabinets, and counters.

  • Install smoke and CO2 detectors. Check your soil for radon.

  • Use vented closets, bathrooms, and mechanical rooms. This will minimize bacteria, spores, and molds.

  • Keep dirty clothes, building materials, animal waste, and toxic plants away from sleeping and living areas.

  • Install a water purification system. This will help to minimize your exposure to PCBs, dioxin, chlorine, formaldehyde, mercury, lead, and many other toxins that have already made it into the hydrological cycle.

  • Buy alternative energy. If it is not available in your community, lobby for its inclusion in your energy options. Wind and solar energy in particular are efficient and cost effective. Geothermal energy is another alternative, although from the feng shui perspective it requires special safeguards to mitigate any potential geopathic stress problems.

  • Install you own solar panels for water heating and air conditioning.