Healthiest Home on the Block, Part 4: The Living Room

Choosing the right type of paint, color, and decor can create a room full of positive energy—without raising your energy bill.

July 17, 2009

The chemical content of your couch could scare you.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If the kitchen is the heart of your home, maybe the living room is the soul. It’s the place to entertain guests, watch TV, listen to music, or just hang out and relax. With so much going on, it’s well worth the time and effort to make your living room a healthy environment. Here are some suggestions:


The Color. The living room is a gathering space, so it makes good sense to cover the walls with calming colors. Consider browns (security), oranges (fun and joy), and greens (rejuvenating) to create a welcoming atmosphere. Just be sure to pick low- or no-VOC paints. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, can waft from certain paints and pollute your indoor air. Safer paints for your air include Benjamin Moore’s Aura or Eco Spec lines, Sherwin-Williams Duration Home Interior Latex paint, Pure Performance from Pittsburgh Paints, or the all-natural Real Milk Paint.

The Couch. Most couches you’ll find at furniture stores are coated with harmful chemicals like brominated flame retardants. You can get your hands on ecofreindly couches with safe flame retardant properties (wool is naturally flame retardant, for example), but they often costs a minimum of $2,000. If you don’t have that much spare cash, look to IKEA couches and loveseats for a safe, cheaper alternative. You could also consider a natural-fiber slipcover, so you don’t have to have skin-to-surface contact with your couch.

Other Furniture. Entertainment centers and end tables are usually found in living rooms, and if you take a minute to look at yours, you might find that it looks like wood, but actually is made of particleboard. This type of construction often uses formaldehyde-containing glues. Since formaldehyde is a carcinogen, it’s a good idea to find low- or no-VOC sealant (AFM brand sealers are a good choice) to keep the toxins inside the furniture. You can also hunt for used furniture, which may have already released its toxins, at an antique store.

The Air. Since the living room is a popular gathering spot for guests, homeowners often plop candles and potpourri in this room. Candles create a warm glow and atmosphere, but many are petroleum-based and scented with chemical fragrances that could be unhealthy. So if you like candlelight, beeswax is your best bet. Beeswax candles emit a natural, light scent without polluting your home. Avoid all air fresheners—most of them contain carcinogenic ingredients that you won’t find on the label, and can also contribute to allergy and breathing problems.

You can use houseplants to absorb indoor air pollution. Spider plants are excellent at removing formaldehyde from the air, and the following plants are also key pollution reducers: areca palm, Australian sword fern, Boston fern, dwarf date palm, English ivy, rubber plant, and weeping fig.

The TV. Many people opt for a television in the living room, but the type you choose and the way you set it up could help you save money and reduce electricity use. To use less energy, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urges people to reduce the set’s brightness settings, and peruse the TV menu system for energy- or power-saving modes. Because TVs emit electromagnetic radiation—which some evidence suggests could be harmful to your health—try setting up seating arrangements at least six feet away from the TV because levels significantly drop off at this distance.

If it’s time to buy a new TV, chances are you’re eyeing up a flat screen. Be sure to opt for one wearing the Energy Star label, and consider selecting a 27-inch or smaller model, because they use considerably less energy. NRDC recommends choosing LCD models versus plasma ones, because they generally use less energy. And if you can’t donate your old television to someone, bring it to a hazardous waste disposal in your area (call county officials) to dispose of it properly.

The Floor. Most conventional carpets are petroleum-based and laced with chemicals; the backings generally emit VOCs throughout the entire life of the product, and that can lead to lung irritation and allergy problems. Speaking of allergies, carpets are like dust magnets. If you already have carpeting, make sure you suck up the dust often with a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum cleaner. If you’re bent on buying conventional carpeting, ask the store to let it air out for a week or two before you bring it home. That will release at least some of the harmful chemicals. Better choices for flooring include Forest Stewardship Council–certified hardwood, bamboo, cork, or real linoleum (not vinyl!) One of the greenest choices is to use reclaimed hardwood materials, available from wood-salvaging companies such as Aged Wood. If you need something soft to walk on, use area rugs made of natural fibers, without synthetic backing.