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Lacquers, chipboard, glue: How to avoid pollutants when renovating

How dangerous are the pollutants?

You shouldn't dramatize the pollution of the indoor air. We live in much healthier air than before. Numerous harmful substances are now banned in Germany. “Nevertheless, the legal requirements are not strict enough,” says Kerstin Effers. The chemist is a consultant for environmental and health protection at the consumer center in North Rhine-Westphalia. She advises being careful when building, renovating or furnishing the apartment in order to keep the air pollution low.

How can you orientate yourself when shopping?

In the case of building materials, it is often not clear to the buyer how harmful they are to health or the environment. "There is no obligation to declare all ingredients and materials used," criticizes Kerstin Effers. And if information about emissions is given for building materials, "then this information is usually only understandable for professionals, architects or civil engineers and not for end users," says Wolfgang Plehn, head of the department for substance-related product issues at the Federal Environment Agency.

A reference point in the hardware store can therefore be reputable seals. Kerstin Effers from the consumer center recommends paying attention to the Blue Angel, the Eco-Institut label or the Natureplus seal, for example. These seals are used to check whether harmful substances are outgassed. And these seals are not only available for building materials for a long time.

What can you do wrong when renovating?

Paying attention to the environmental impact is also important when renovating your own home. It starts with the floor. "Adhesives, for example, can react with the screed - so it can be worthwhile to use ready-made systems that are coordinated with one another or, better yet, to lay them as loosely as possible," says chemist Effers.

She also advises against PVC floor coverings as a matter of principle: the plasticizers contained in them can accumulate in house dust and then also in the residents' bodies. Instead, she recommends materials such as tiles, solid wood parquet or emission-tested cork or linoleum coverings.

But even those who put a real new wool carpet on the tiled floor have bought a natural product - but possibly one that has been treated with pesticides. If, on the other hand, you can afford an untreated wool carpet, you should knock it out while vacuuming and place it in the light: Moths don't like that.

Is ventilation a panacea for pollutants in the air?

"When you renovate and refurbish the whole apartment, of course, a lot comes together, then it can smell unpleasant," says Wolfgang Plehn. He therefore advises choosing summer for renovation work because it is then easier to work with the windows open. "You can get rid of volatile substances by ventilating them."

And even those who use the recommended silicate paints, which contain neither solvents nor preservatives, are permeable to water vapor and do not provide a breeding ground for mold, should ventilate well - because these paints also have to dry.

What should you do without?

Unfortunately, ventilation does not help against everything: Softeners cannot be dealt with in this way. The Federal Environment Agency defines them as “substances that are added to brittle materials to make them soft, pliable or elastic, so that they are easier to work with or achieve certain functional properties.” However, they could escape from the products and thus get into the environment. In the context of house construction, they are not only found in PVC coverings, but also in latex paint or upholstered furniture. “Particularly critical plasticizers are no longer allowed in Germany,” says Wolfgang Plehn, but there are no “legal requirements for furniture”.

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The breakdown products of the permitted so-called DINCH plasticizers "are now detected in the urine of all children examined," explains Kerstin Effers. "According to the precautionary principle, I recommend avoiding such substances in the home as much as possible."

She also advises customers to be careful with all “additional benefits” - such as stain-proof sofa covers, dirt-repellent carpets or flame-retardant curtains - because they could contain harmful impregnation or flame retardants.

Is a pollution-free facility affordable?

If you want to do without all critical substances, it is of course difficult to shop in the furniture discounter.

Wolfgang Plehn points out, however, that solid wood furniture can also be problematic: softwoods release terpenes into the air, oiled wooden furniture aldehydes, which are harmful to health. The latter can, for example, irritate the eyes and respiratory tract or lead to headaches.

Kerstin Effers therefore recommends using used solid wood furniture: "They are then no more expensive than new pieces of chipboard from the furniture market and volatile solvents from paints or wood oils have already escaped."

Stay away from the chipboard - is that still the case?

Wolfgang Plehn from the Federal Environment Agency does not want to demonize the chipboard. “From a sustainability point of view, we cannot do without the processing of wood waste into chipboard. And the panels made in Germany contain much less formaldehyde than before, ”says the chemist.

In addition, according to Plehn, the formaldehyde that is still contained often does not come out of the panels: "If the chipboard is coated, as is the case with kitchen furniture, for example, or lacquered, as is the case with the bedroom cupboard, this is an effective barrier against formaldehyde."

Where can I get advice?

Anyone who would like to know how polluted the new couch or the pre-fabricated parquet may be, can contact the online pollutant advice of the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer center and ask - they will then receive a free assessment of the respective product.