July 19th, 2011

Get to Know Your Home: Are There Toxins in the Walls?

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toxins in the walls

Our home was built about 11 years ago. I remember watching it turn from a pile of dirt into a place where we now spend the majority of our time as a family. We watched the foundation go in, the studs go up and the placement of drywall and insulation. If only we knew then what we know now- that toxic building materials were being used in and behind the walls of our home.

We work hard to keep it our home safe and free of harmful chemicals.  We avoid bringing toxins into our homes by taking our shoes off, using non-toxic cleaners, eating organic foods and using safe personal care products.

However, the World Health Organization estimates that indoor air pollution accounts for nearly 3 percent of all deaths worldwide. Turns out there are many other sources which can impact air quality –and many of them are in our walls.


Drywall (plasterboard, gypsum board) is a layer of gypsum pressed between two sheets of paper and is used to construct walls and ceilings in houses.

Issues with drywall

Most drywall itself isn’t toxic (unless it was part of the defective drywall imported into the US from China), but the plaster-like mud substance used to cover seams usually does contain toxins. In a Harvard study done for the EPA, the glue joint compound was found to release as many as 25 volatile organic compounds or VOC’s. There’s more bad news: the release of these VOC’s into the air of your home increases over time.  The higher the temperature and humidity the more VOC’s are released.

Another issue with drywall-if there’s moisture mold can grow on the drywall opening the door to a whole slew of health issues.

On a global level the process of manufacturing drywall is very energy intensive and contributes to as much as one percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Alternatives to drywall

If you are remodeling or building consider a natural replacement for drywall such as EcoRock or Durra Panels. 


One of my all time favorite classic TV shows has one of the most iconic houses — the Brady Bunch. It’s also the epitome of pressed wood-think dark wood paneling. Pressed wood is made up of shavings and chips of wood which are glued together under high pressure. The glue that holds the wood particles in place can contain urea-formaldehyde (popular in home construction in the 70’s).

Issues with pressed wood

Formaldehyde is a  known human carcinogen,  linked to nasal and brain cancers and possibly leukemia. It can also set off watery eyes, burning eyes and throat, breathing difficulties and asthma attacks.

How to reduce exposure

  • Don’t be afraid to ask about the formaldehyde content of pressed wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture before you purchase them.
  • If you live in an older house with pressed wood paneling or insulation, the good news is that it releases less formaldehyde as it ages. Using a dehumidifier and air conditioning to control the indoor temperature and humidity can help. Today, pressed wood products also are more closely regulated to reduce formaldehyde emissions.

toxic fiberglass insulation


Insulation can be made from a variety of materials. Fiberglass insulation, a man-made mineral fiber con­structed from a variety of materials, such as sand and recycled glass, is the most popular form of insulation in the United States. I remember seeing the large rolls of pink insulation before they were placed in our walls and roof area.

Issues with insulation

Over the years health concerns have arisen due to insulation materials such as asbestos and urea formaldehyde foam insulation. Fiberglass insulation is dangerous when the fine glass fibers become air-borne and are breathed in during the installation process-a similar problem discovered with asbestos about two decades ago. Fiberglass insulation can also cause a variety of health problems from skin irritations cancer.

Alternative insulation

Choose insulation with no added formaldehyde. The greenest options for insulation are natural materials such as hemp, coconut fiber or sheep’s wool.

What you can do: healthy home action plan

  • Do Your Part and take charge of your indoor air quality. If you think your air is compromised increase ventilation by opening windows and doors. You may also want to consider purchasing an high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifier that will help keep your home free of toxins.
  • Join Moms Clean Air Force– a group of moms and dads joining together to fight for our kids’ right to clean air.
  • Take action with Healthy Child Healthy World.

What do you do to keep the air clean in your home?

[Photos used under Creative Commons from Brock Builders and Ryan McFarland/Flickr]

10 Responses to “Get to Know Your Home: Are There Toxins in the Walls?”

  1. I don’t even want to know what my walls are made of. That scares me. I live in a warehouse so we have a lot of concrete. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know we have insulation in the ceilings that is exposed but we are currently covering it. We are almost done with that project.

  2. Since we are renters we have no control over building materials but I do have a nice collection of plants indoors that help with air quality (my husband calls it my jungle) and we keep windows and doors open as much as we can for air quality’s sake.

  3. Hi Meg-On a global level concrete isn’t very green. It takes an enormous amount of energy to produce concrete. On a personal level it could be considered green. Concrete is energy efficient and doesn’t have the same level of health risks associated with drywall and pressed wood. I would be interested to know what kind of insulation is in the ceiling? Is it pink? I’ve been reading about your warehouse living and it sounds pretty cool!

  4. Indoor plants are a great way to improve indoor air quality Tiffany. I wish my plant collection would turn into a jungle-my thumb isn’t as green as yours! I love this time of year when the doors and windows can actually be open.

  5. It’s hard to imagine that outdoor air quality even in big cities on smoggy days can be better than indoor air quality. But it’s true, and as a renter I feel powerless to do much more than get an air purifier. Still, when the time comes and I buy my first home I’ll be glad to have this knowledge! Thanks for posting.

  6. You’re welcome Andrea. It is challenging as a renter or a homeowner, but using an air purifier can really help remove some of the toxins. It’s hard to know what’s in your walls as a without removing pieces of your already built home. Doing a renovation or building a home from scratch are really the only ways to know for sure what’s in the walls-because you put it there! This isn’t feasible for many of us. Keep doing what your doing! Another great suggestion from Tiffany was the use of indoor plants.

  7. Hello,
    I have a question?
    I just moved in a fairly remodeled home. I have been itching, running eyes, upper respiratory problems. Some may think its the drywall. But can mold cause this affect also? Thanks

  8. Hi Kathryn, I would check in with your physician regarding your symptoms. Hope you’re feeling better.

  9. I am thinking of buying an old 1940s farm house to remodel. Curious about its potential toxins that was popular in building materials in the 40s.

  10. Insulation acts as a barrier to heat loss and heat gain, particularly in roofs and ceilings, walls and floors.

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About Lori

Hi! I’m Lori, a recovering attorney, writer, and mom to three boys. Join me as I uncover and share the latest info on healthy living. Learn more.

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