Have the Healthiest Home on the Block: The Patio

Enjoy the outdoors on a nontoxic, earth-friendly deck.

June 9, 2011


There is nothing quite like lounging on the patio on a sunny Sunday morning, newspaper or magazine in one hand, coffee in the other, with birds singing all around you. No matter if you live in the city or the country, or somewhere in between, the deck or patio connects you and your home to nature, which studies have shown can decrease your stress and increase your attention span.


Whether you’re looking to build a deck or patio from scratch, want to make better use of your outdoor space, or just need some new outdoor furniture, these tips can help make your decisions ones that are healthy for you, your family, and the environment.

Build it green
If you’re building a deck, look for untreated wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). That means it’s taken from a sustainable timber operation that meets forest management standards. Cedar is a good choice because it is naturally weather resistant. Also consider plastic lumber made from recycled content. Just make sure to look for types made with UV stabilizers that will keep the material from breaking down, and select ones made completely from No. 2 (HPDE) plastics.

Install a thirsty patio
Instead of paving or putting down concrete to create an area for patio furniture, either just let the area stay grassy, or choose gravel, stone, or permeable pavers that will allow rainwater to soak through. Turf, concrete, and asphalt create a huge volume of runoff that drags pollutants into your drinking water supply and overwhelms stormwater systems. Surround the space with plants native to your area to help control runoff, and enjoy the beneficial bees and other insects that will pollinate your garden—don’t squish or zap them, they’re good news.

Seal in toxins in an older, pressure-treated deck
Copper arsenate pressure-treated wood was banned in 2004 because of health problems linked to the arsenic it can release, but if your deck was made of this type of lumber, there are a few things you can do to keep it from leaching the toxic heavy metal:

1. Keep your vegetable garden away from the deck area, and replace it with native plants that you won’t eat.

2. Always use a tablecloth when eating on a treated picnic table or surface.

3. Seal the wood with low- or no-VOC water-based paints or sealants. Avoid types that say they are antimicrobial or will prevent mold or mildew growth. These contain other harmful chemicals.

Sit on something natural
Furnishing your patio or deck can be tons of fun, but just take extra care to avoid chemically treated furniture, or seating and tables made from wood harvested in ways that destroy our forests. Target, Pottery Barn, and many other major retailers are now carrying FSC-certified patio furniture, often made of eucalyptus, a durable hardwood. But don’t be fooled into buying products carrying the Sustainable Forestry Initiative label. Major environmental groups have claimed that those products come from forests that are not well managed, and the certification is an attempt to greenwash, that is, mislead consumers that the product is truly green. If FSC-certified wooden furniture is too pricey, look for furniture made from recycled plastic, which is very durable. Just make sure it doesn’t contain any No. 3, or PVC, plastic, which has been coined “the poison plastic” because of dangerous chemicals used in its production that leach from PVC products.

Be wary of “water repellent” fabrics
Stay away from outdoor cushions and pillows that are advertised as being water repellent. They contain a Teflon-like chemical called PFOA, which have been linked to infertility problems. Instead, look for hemp cushions, which are naturally water repellent and resistant to mildew. Hemp hammocks are also a good choice for ecolounging. Or keep furniture under a roof, or covered, or store the cushions in a nearby container when rain threatens.

Plant in pots
Even if you’re not that into gardening, growing plants in containers on your deck or patio space can add natural ambiance, as well as yield some succulent veggies and fragrant herbs without requiring a lot of weeding. Plants also help keep the air clean. And there’s nothing quite like pulling mint from your herb garden and dropping it in your iced tea.

Grill green
If you’re in the market for a new grill, choosing a propane-powered model will let you grill with the fewest environmental downsides—unless you get your electricity from a renewable resource like wind or the sun; in that case, go with an electric grill. Charcoal is particularly polluting, unfortunately, because of the soot it produces; it’s also terribly wasteful in terms of the energy used to make wood into charcoal. If you have to use the stuff, at least buy natural charcoal that’s not soaked in chemicals, and light it with a chimney starter instead of dousing it in petroleum fluid.