In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Design for the Environment (DfE) partnership program.  The program was created to achieve an end: to develop partnerships in the private sector and industry, with environmental groups, and with academia to reduce environmental and health risks associated with chemical pollutants found in common household products and commercial and industrial practices.

Design for the Environment’s work is significant.  Its mission is to test the safety of both traditional and alternative chemicals in a whole range of processes, industries, and products.  And, according to the DfE’s website, the program has been something of a huge success – reducing the use of “chemicals of concern” by hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

To obtain a Design for the Environment seal of approval, the EPA must first vet products according to relatively stringent guidelines and an arduous scientific review.   These guidelines take into consideration human health concerns, environmental impacts, and the performance and cost of traditional and alternative technologies.  Determining whether or not a chemical used for a product is safe(er) for people and the earth is a long process, conducted by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), and organization that has been testing an analyzing chemicals for more than 30 years – so their expertise is substantial.

The OPPT first uncovers masked chemicals of concern – that is, scientists determine if environmentally-hazardous chemicals appear less harmful because they are diluted with water or other less-toxic chemicals.  If the chemical’s effects on the environment and people is not known, they study the chemical structure of the compound to understand its potential effects.  The DfE program then searches for negative interactions between chemical combinations – individual substances on their own may not be toxic, but in combination can be deadly.  Fragrances and dyes are then screened to ensure they will not pose any adverse health effects, including carcinogenic and environmentally-toxic compounds.  Lastly, the product is screened to see if any safer substitutes are commercially available, and economically-feasible for mass production.

There are over 2,000 Design for the Environment-approved products available on the market, with an easy-to-identify seal in place to allow the consumer to quickly and easily identify which products are safest for their health and the environment.  Considering that there are over 60,000 commerically-used chemicals, many of which have not passed the guidelines set forth by the Design for the Environment, seeing a DfE seal on a product really means something – not only that the product is safe, but that the company that produced the product put time, energy, and resources into making it the safest it could be.  This, of course, speaks to the ethical philosophy of the company producing the product.

Green Depot Solutions: Any green product with the EPA’s Design for the Environment seal is sure to be a sound and safe product, and Green Depot in particular produces an in-house line of DfE-approved cleaners and detergents produced locally in the New York City metropolitan area, and with a refilling station located at our flagship store on the Bowery, along with a full range of other green products and sustainable building materials.

safecoat, a toxin-free caulk

A lot of the same harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that we’ve written about being present in paints and household cleaners, are also present in home caulking.

Weatherizing your home is an important way to conserve energy, reduce heating and cooling costs, and staying warm.  Using caulk to plug up cracks and holes is an important part of weatherizing – but using conventional caulk that contains VOCs can be harmful to your health.  Those chemicals offgas into the home environment, and have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure.

As an alternative, one can use green, or toxin-free, caulking.  But how do you caulk your home – where should you use caulking?

Most people are already aware of drafts under their doors, but there are less-obvious gaps that deserve attention.

Places where different building materials meet – like between brick and wood siding, between the concrete foundation of a home and its walls, and around chimneys and fireplaces – are good places to find drafts.

Also make sure to check for gaps and cracks around window frames, doorways, and mail chutes.  Check for places where utility lines come in – by the gas line, electricity lines, and cable TV and phone lines.  Often, utility companies leave large holes where these lines come in where enormous amounts of heated or cooled air can escape the home.  Outlet plates are good places to check as well.

Feel around window panes, which are spots that might seem sealed but could have significant gaps.  Vents of all kinds deserve special attention: dryer vents, air conditioner vents, and fan vents can lack a proper seal with the surrounding materials.  Window unit air conditioners are also a good place to find drafts,  although there are more green products than just caulk available to close these up.

For the very ambitious caulker, there are ways to check for gaps beyond feeling with the hand.  Depressurizing the home by turning off all heating and cooling, closing all windows and doors, and then moving an incense stick around common leak gaps can help determine where there are drafts getting in.

Shining a light from the inside of a house, and having a partner see if any light can get through is a good way to find leaks, too.  And, if you can pull a piece of paper out from between the seams of a closed door or window without it tearing, you are likely losing energy through that gap.

Weatherizing a home – toxin free – can be an incredibly useful way to reduce energy costs, especially as we move into cold winter months!

Radiant heat flooring warms a room by allowing warming tubes just under the floor’s surface to send heat upwards from the floor itself. At this point, it’s one of the most energy-efficient ways to heat a building, standing far ahead of conventional forced-air central heating and radiators. In fact, it so efficient that it’s recommended by the Passive House Institute, which we wrote about recently here.

With traditional forced-air central heating, warm air is blown into the room and immediately rises to the ceiling—making for a lovely warm ceiling (which nobody needs), but cold floors. Radiant heat, on the other hand, takes advantage of heat’s natural tendency to rise, making the best use of its journey upward by starting at the lowest point in the room. This process is generally far more efficient than any other form of heating, heating the room faster, keeping it warm longer, and allowing the thermostat to be set to up to 8 degrees lower than usual to obtain the same level of warmth. This results in not only lower energy bills, but less fossil-fuel consumption to provide the power that most heating systems require.

An added benefit of radiant heat is that it doesn’t dry out the air the way radiators and forced-air central heating systems do, so there’s less need for electric-powered humidifiers. But possibly the best thing about radiant heat is that it keeps your feet warm—no more freezing tootsies when you first get up in the morning!

Among its many other green products related to keeping your home warm efficiently, Green Depot carries various components for a radiant heat flooring system. The Complete Radiant Panel is an easy-to-install, modular panel with heating tubes built in, for quick sub-floor assembly. Warmboard Radiant Heat Subflooring is plywood subflooring with grooves for heating tubes pre-cut, and Tyroc is a super-insulating overlayment for cold, damp concrete floors that you can lay your radiant heat flooring panels directly on top of. And soon to be added to the lineup is NuHeat, a system of soft mats with heating elements built in—sort of like an electric blanket for your floor. Neat, huh?

Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

Across the country, environmentalists are waging campaigns to get people to drink more tap water, to save our environment from the scourge of up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste generated each year by the bottled water industry. According to Food and Water Watch , that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce, and over 80 percent of plastic bottles are thrown away instead of recycled–so drinking from the tap not only saves waste and protects the environment, but helps reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil and offshore drilling, too. So it’s pretty clear: Tap is the way to go.

But there’s a downside to drinking tap water, which is that it’s usually at least somewhat polluted—at least in the U.S. and most of the Western Europe. Some of that pollution is simply left in after insufficient purification by municipal water supply utilities, but some of it is added in by those same utilities in the name of protecting our health–fluoride (to protect our teeth) and chlorine (to kill bacteria and other organisms) are two of the most common additives. Most states require water processing plants to add both to our water, so they’re pretty much impossible to avoid. But they’re both associated with elevated risks for certain illnesses, including cancer, with the evidence for a chlorine-cancer link emerging as the strongest.

Numerous studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and other widely respected medical journals around the world have documented a strong, significant increase in the incidence of bladder cancers among people who drink unfiltered, chlorinated tap water on a regular basis–with higher cancer rates among those who have been drinking it for the longest periods of time.

And bathing in tap water isn’t too much better. We not only absorb chlorine through our skin, but breathe it in as chloroform in the steam from a long hot shower, where it irritates our lungs and can cause asthma. Yes, chloroform is the stuff evil criminals in movies make people breathe to knock them out. And for one more scary fact, a study conducted by Dr. Niels Skakkebaek of the University of Copenhagen documented a nearly 50 percent decrease in male sperm counts in areas of Denmark where the water supply is chlorinated. Yikes.

Fortunately, however, it’s possible to enjoy the environmental (and political) benefits of using tap water and avoid the health hazards of the toxic chemicals in it, by using some form of home water filtration. A wide range of water filtration options can be found among the many other green products carried by Green Depot, ranging from simple filter pitchers to whole-house water supply filtration systems. A popular one among design junkies is the Aquaovo Ovopur system, a nifty ceramic giant egg that uses carbon, ceramics and quartz to remove not just chlorine but a host of other toxins naturally. See it and many more here.

We recently had the good fortune to speak to Curtis McKinney, Team Leader for the Chicago Greencorps. Each year Greencorps hires roughly 70 people into its nine-month green industry training program, with a special emphasis on weatherizing homes for low-income people and senior citizens at no cost to the homeowner. Thanks to the efforts of Curtis and Joe Silver, the manager of our Chicago location, Greencorps and Green Depot have a strong working relationship.

Green Depot: Hi, Curtis!  Great to talk with you today.  I was wondering if we could start off by having you tell us a little bit about Greencorps – how long has the program been around, and how long have you been working with Greencorps?
Curtis McKinney: Well, I’ve been working with Greencorps since 1996, so I’m going on fifteen years.  The program itself was started in 1995.  It’s a training program.  We’re a job training program that started off by training people in things like remediation, weatherization, tree care training, and other things like that. We also try to teach some life skills.

GD: Do you mostly work with volunteers?
CM: No, we’re mostly a hired staff.  Greencorps is a program through the City of Chicago, and the Department of the Environment.  We also work with the Safer Foundation [a re-entry program for ex-offenders] – they do a lot as one of our training partners.  Safer handles a lot of the social services that we provide.  We’re also partners with WRD Environmental which helps us with funding and management. Lately we’ve been classified as a reentry training program, so that’s how they like to characterize our program.

GD: Could you tell me about your work with the weatherization program?
CM: What we do is we work with low-income homes and senior citizens, and we renovate their homes.  First, we do an energy audit of the home.  From there, we go in and we try to fill as many air holes and leaks as we can find.  We do caulking, windows, doors, window plastic if we need to, and blow-in insulation in attics. The weatherization stuff we do is low-cost weatherization.  The most expensive thing we do is the blow-in insulation, which is not really that difficult to do.

GD: As far as insulation goes, do you mostly focus on attics or do you do walls, as well?
CM: Yes, for insulation we just do attics, and all the material we use is environmentally-sensitive.  We used recycled newspaper insulation, that’s been ground up really fine.  We use low-VOC caulking and the toxins and smell from that is very low compared to conventional caulk.  We also use blue jean insulation to plug some of the larger holes – that insulation is made from recycled blue jeans.

GD: Are there any other parts of the home you focus on, specifically?
CM: Well, we also feel around doorways and doorways.  We try to close off fireplaces – to make sure the flues actually close.  This year, we’re installing what’s sort of like a balloon to fill the chimney.  We reach up inside the fireplace, and blow the balloon up, and it totally blocks air from coming inside.

GD: And you guys get your green products all from Green Depot?
CM: Yes, we probably get 90% of our material from green depot for the program.  Everything from thermostats to blue jean and recycled paper insulation, the caulking, window film, door strips, foam weather stripping, hot water tank covers, chimney buckles, we pretty much get everything – actually, it may be more like 95%.

GD: And you’ve been working with Joe Silver, of the Chicago Green Depot location for a while?
CM: Yeah, absolutely.  We’ve been working with Joe for three to four years, maybe longer.  At first they Joe was supplying the city for the weatherization fair and made the home weatherization kits that we’d hand out to citizens.  Back then, someone from downtown was sending out kits to people to do themselves, but then we changed it and started to install them ourselves.  That was where the weatherization part of Greencorps came form – the City.

We still make home weatherization kits; that’s another one of the programs we do through the Department of Environment.  We make the kits for them, and they distribute them through the school system, where they train the teachers on how to use a lot of the materials in the kits, and then the teachers give them out to the community so they can weatherize their own homes.  We get the materials for those kits from Green Depot.

GD: This all sounds great!  Thanks so much for speaking with us.  Anything else you’d like to share about the program?
CM: You know, it’s just a really good program that the city has going. So far we’re in our 4th year of doing weatherization in people’s homes and it’s something that’s going to continue into the future, and that’s a good thing.  When Mayor Daley looks at what we’re doing, he sees good things.  The program really is a success for the city.

You can find out more about the Chicago Green Corps and the weatherization program by visiting their website, here.