Home & Design September 9, 2008

Looking Back to Move Forward

Reevaluating how we do things for better health in our homes

In the late 19th century, paintings, some as old as 32,000 years, were discovered in the subterranean caves of France and Spain. We now know how their work was made (ochre and other pigments were ground with mortars and pestles), but we still debate what their work meant. Were these images straightforward stories of the hunt, or were the artists trying to make sense of the stars and the natural order of things?

By comparison, we may also wonder at how future generations will view us as ancestors. Most likely, they’ll note that we’re responsible for that ominous blip on the human narrative known as the 20th century, in which we hurtled ourselves into the future like lemmings, propelled by technology and the belief that technology is progress.

Our advances in technology are unparalleled, for now, the aims of which seemed to equalize us. And while some of it did, in fact, make our lives easier, enough of it resulted in pesticides and genocides, mushroom clouds and Twinkies.

Even the American Dream can now be seen as a bit of a nightmare: Henry Ford’s dream married socialism (mass-producing affordable automobiles for every man, woman and child), democracy (with cars, we could now go anywhere, anytime we wished) and capitalism (he became a very, very rich man, and, if you follow the model, so can you).

Ford’s dream, we now know, gave birth to other ways in which to get rich quick. Ford had perhaps the longest coattails the world has ever known, and we rode them into the future, mostly by drilling for oil. With so many new cars on the road, more oil was needed, and so, more explorations for it. And as we kept refining oil, we created more and more by-products which, rather than dispose of, we found uses for, mainly in plastic of any kind, and so was born the most insidious of modern technologies: the seemingly benign and ubiquitous plastic shopping bag.

Petrochemicals harvested in oil drilling also found their way into other new wünderproducts, such as paints, stains and sealers that dry faster and harder than those used by our ancestors.

One of the most obvious principles of survival can be summed up thus: Unless you plan to swallow it, don’t put it in your mouth (and then, not even then). That’s why for the last three decades or so, people once pejoratively referred to as “health nuts” are now seen as beacons of good sense. If we could eat it 100 years ago (which means we’d already been eating “it” for thousands upon thousands of years), it’s safe to say, it’s probably safe to eat now.

We now try to keep our bodies away from anything on which we’ve slapped the Jolly Roger. We choose the farmer’s market over genetically-modified crops. And lead-based paint and asbestos? Well, it all worked well, until it didn’t.

With paints, stains and sealers, in particular, “old” is now the new “new.”

Paints, stains and sealers generally have four elements: resin (a durable hardener), solvent (keeps it liquid until application), pigments (color) and additives (which enhance the three previous ingredients). In the last century, petroleum-based solvents contained such compounds as acetone, lead, methanol and pentachlorophenol, the likes of which we now call VOCs, or volatile organic compounds.

Exposure to out-gassing high-VOCs can cause damage to our livers and central nervous systems, and can cause a different kind of sickness when they’re out-gassed outdoors. High-VOCs bond to nitrogen oxide particles exhausted in auto fumes, which form ground-level ozone, a key ingredient of smog and other forms of air pollution, which of course also takes quite a toll on human health.

While government, from federal to local, does legislate to restrict the use of products now known to adversely affect human health, many contractors and homeowners are taking steps to lower the VOCs to which they’re exposed.

“Imagine if you’re a saucier and you find out that olive oil or garlic or something you use in everything is toxic.” That’s how Tom Walcher, of Fresh Air Finishes, sees what he does when applying finishes to wood. Walcher and his brother, Byron, independent contractors who grew weary of the adverse health effects they suffered from applying solvent-based sealers, developed over almost a decade their own unique way of applying water-based sealers which they say are as strong and as colorful as any chemical-based finish. >>>


They’re not re-inventing the wheel (“It isn’t more difficult, but it is different,” Walcher says), but they found through trial and error that they could match any samples given to them by architects, contractors and interior designers using the safer and cleaner water-based solutions with equal results (strong and durable finishes resistant to chipping and banging).

“We personally didn’t like the process of using solvent-based products, and said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’” Walcher says.

“There’s definitely a big movement back to the very green side of things, stepping back 100 to 200 years, a major return to the old science,” says Mathew Morgan, of Morgan’s Fine Finishes, which is how he says he got his start in the first place.

Morgan and his brother Bret grew up in the small Connecticut town of Litchfield, which boasted, despite its small population (about 4,000 people), approximately 120 antique stores. Under the guidance of their father, the family had plenty of work restoring antiques using Old World finishes. (Warning: if your 150-year-old antique cabinet is refinished with anything other than what was available at the time it was made, it is no longer an antique and, hence, rendered worthless.)

“The trend has really taken off, using old-style finishes that have been used forever, like earth-based dyes and pigments,” says Morgan. “We’re returning to what it used to be 100 to 200 years ago before it all went chemical, and it’s nice to see it trending back. Old styles are just a dream to work with.”

Hailey Paint owner Mike Fehrenbacher says he’s seeing the same trend expressed by his clientele, particularly weekend do-it-yourselfers.

“Some people are concerned about the environment,” he says, “some people are concerned about their own health, and some people just think it’s the right thing to do. Everyone’s aware of it and more and more people are doing something about it.”

Manufacturers, he points out, are helping the movement by offering safer alternatives, filling the niches that have been created by a more savvy and informed consumer.

Heather Hansen is an artist and an independent contractor who creates “true fresco” art installations and restores custom home installations.

When making art, or restoring someone’s home installation, Hansen says, she personally always tries to make the healthiest choices she can for herself. For instance, she uses Old World materials, like mineral dyes for coloration, which are essentially ground stone which results in a fine powder or dust.

“Even though it’s not toxic, dust is not good for your lungs,” she says. “On so many levels you can try to make good choices, and I try to choose materials that are not bad for my body since I have to work so closely with them.”

However, she says, if you really want to be “green,” you have to begin first by thinking green, and thinking hard about it when making choices not just for personal projects and work, but about the quality of how you spend your days.

There’s an old Irish toast that goes: “May you have the foresight to know where you’re going, the hindsight to know where you’ve been, and the insight to know when you’ve gone too far.” This warning, which both empowers the quaffer and places upon him or her a degree of personal responsibility, implies temperance and moderation: stay away from the Jolly Roger.

And there’s the rub. As we begin the long crawl out of our own “stone age,” when we have, in fact, become the ancestors, what legacy will we leave behind?

It took Chad Walsh, a freelance writer living in Ketchum, Idaho, too many years for it to finally dawn on him that his mother’s warning to never put anything in his ear smaller than his elbow was meant to be taken not literally, but figuratively, which meant, since it’s impossible to put his elbow in his ear, her warning was a colloquial way of saying, “Don’t put anything in your ear, ever.”

This article appears in the Fall 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.