Talking health with Living Rooms owners

Originally Published in the Kingston Whig Standard, Saturday April 20 2013Exposure to toxins in personal care products, clothing, furniture and building materials is a topic on many people’s minds these days. We are exposed to countless manmade chemicals that pollute not only the environment, but also our very bodies. No one knows what the health effects of these multiple exposures are, but information is starting to trickle in. For example, a 2012 study found that the higher a child’s blood levels of flame retardants, the more likely he or she was to perform poorly on IQ and motor skills tests.

If I had kids, I would not want them held back because of something I might have been able to prevent. And, regardless of whether or not I ever had kids, I don’t need anything dropping my IQ!

These concerns were what first brought me to Living Rooms a little over a year ago to buy some paint for my house. What I found was a very safe paint, and a couple of guys that know a lot about how to create healthy homes. Brothers John and Michael Sinclair, co-owners of Living Rooms, are absolute treasure troves of information. In honour of Earth Day, I bring you an interview with them that I hope will make you feel a little safer in a chemical-laden world.

Andrea: First of all, what is Living Rooms? It seems like what you offer is unique in Kingston.

John: Livings Rooms is an ecological living and building supply store. We carry products for the home that are healthier for people and the planet. Our main focus is on building supplies.

A: Where did you get the idea to open Living Rooms?

J: We used to paint and do historical refinishing. Our customers were asking us about the products we were using. For example, an expectant mother wondered if she should leave while their house was being renovated.

A: That’s interesting because pregnancy is a time when a lot of people re-evaluate their health habits. Are there any other times when people are likely to find your store?

J: Yes, but it’s not so happy. A lot of people come in when they have developed certain health issues, like multiple chemical sensitivity or cancer.

A: What’s the connection between our health and our homes?

J: We live in a system of homes: bodies, houses, the larger environment. Each of those environments has a direct impact on the other.

Michael: The health of your home directly effects your body, and the planet. Some days, the air quality in your house can be as bad as Shanghai. Our approach comes from a personal health perspective — the environmental bit happens by default. If it’s good for your body, it’s good for the planet.

A: Is there some way of measuring indoor air quality?

J: There is a home inspector in Ottawa who calls himself the House Doc. He can run tests for chemical off-gassing, radon, and mould. Mould can be worse than the worse off-gassing and it can be completely hidden. He will come to Kingston.

A: What are some of the worst offenders in a typical house?

M: Mould for sure, especially in Kingston because of the humidity and basement flooding. Formaldehyde off-gassing is also a common problem. Building supply companies are not obligated to tell you what’s in their products and therefore they add all kinds of chemicals to make their product perform better, especially preservatives, VOCs — a barrage of chemicals. It doesn’t have to be that way.

A: Do the healthy products perform poorly?

J: The real natural option actually tends to be a better performer. In Michigan, there is a subdivision that has been more or less evacuated because the houses are no longer fit to live in. It needs to be completely redeveloped. The houses are only 50 years old. Compare that to Nebraska where there are 200-year-old strawbale houses.

M: It’s a common misconception that it costs more and performs poorly. Take linseed oil paint as an example. It’s meant to be a 50 year paint. Conventional paint usually fails after 5 years in the outdoor context. With the linseed paint, you’re looking at re-painting once a generation.

A: If someone is interested in making their space more healthy, do they have to do a complete overhaul of what already exists?

M: Most products we have are more retro-fit, or will fit into retrofit easily. You don't have to tear your house down and start from scratch.

J: You can also seal over existing substrates that might be off-gassing. SafeCoat Paints and sealers prevent the harmful chemicals from entering the living space. You don’t have to rip out your kitchen or tear your walls down.

A: What is your favourite health-related product?

M: Sheep’s wool insulation. It’s a natural fire inhibitor. It’s also used in mattresses — it’s the only natural fire retardant.

J: We’ve been amazed at house useful it is. All of your bedding has to be fire-treated so everything gets sprayed unless it’s wool. Michael was in Europe recently and they actually had wool mattress in a hotel. They’re thin but incredibly comfortable.

A: You’ve been to Europe recently? Tell us about some trends from the world outside Kingston.

M: In Austria and Germany, the stuff that we have at Livings Rooms is available in every store. The Germans have been looking at indoor air quality since after the Second World War.

J: They are 30-40 years ahead of us. There’s an economic push that leaves us where we are and there is also inertia built into the building code. Large building material companies have lobby groups that impact the building code. They influence what's available to us.

A: Do you work closely with any of the builders or designers in Kingston?

M: A few. We work more with end users — people who like to DIY.

A: Ok, for the DIYers out there, what is your best tip for having a healthy home on a tight budget?

M: The coatings are the most cost-effective entry point. Think unconventionally — for example, used materials are cheaper and no longer release as much chemicals as new stuff. The more creative you are, the more options you have. You can even get a couch from the Salvation Army and rebuild with it good fillings and coverings.

A: Sounds fun. Thanks for sharing some of your extensive knowledge. How can people find out more if they are interested?

J: They can check out our website at www.livingrooms.ws, or pop in and see us at 12 Cataraqui St.

A: Thanks guys!