Conventional paints, glues and some materials all have a little secret and it involves smells and other invisible fumes. As paint and glue dry they go through a chemical process where monomers combine to create polymers. This can be visualised as short pieces of string combining with others to create long pieces. These polymers give the paint its finish and strength, however what happens to the monomers that cannot find a partner? Well they are gassed off along with the evaporation of the solvents that are used.
So when painting there is a haze of chemicals being released into the atmosphere of the home. These are collectively known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These compounds are associated with a range of health problems including headaches, nausea, asthma to name a few. No wonder that Painters and Decorators, as a profession, have one of the highest incidences of breathing related illnesses.
The worst of the paints are those that have the highest VOC rating. The VOC rating is closely associated with the levels of oil content. Natural paints though can contain oil, but they are natural oils, ones that our bodies and the environment are already used to. So for example, by squeezing an orange we give off VOCs but the environment can process these chemicals and hence they do not pose any real risk to us. However, most conventional paints use man-made chemicals that are alien to the environment and our bodies and so we cannot cope with them as well.
So do not be fooled by VOC ratings on paint. VOC is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of chemicals and their effects vary. Always go for the natural products as these will have a much lower long term impact on health.
Some products like foam, pvc and mdf (basically those materials that have synthetic glues, blowing agents in them or that degrade over time) can also off-gas chemicals into the internal environment. So for example MDF and chipboards off-gases formaldehyde, polyurethane foams (found in mattresses, sofas etc.) off-gas isocyanate for at least 6 months, PVC is high in toxins and dioxins, such as lead, cadmium and phthalates (linked to DNA damage) and mineral and glass fibre insulation may be carcinogenic due to their effect if breathed in.
Worst of all is that these chemicals stay in the home environment specially where we have well draught proofed houses. So best to avoid these materials and just use natural products. Also you can get zero VOC paints from companies like earthborn. These amazingly include eggshell paint in the form of ProAqua Eggshell.
To help reduce internal chemicals building up why not grow some spider plants as they are excellent absorbers of airborne pollutants.