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Back Decks: The Safe Way to Work with Woods, Stains

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Hankering for a handsome back deck? Here’s the low-down on the healthy way to work with woods.

With the long, lazy days of summer finally here, there’s nothing like chilling out in the backyard or enjoying a barbecue on a sunny deck. You want your outdoor spaces to be beautiful, welcoming, serene – but especially for people with asthma, allergies and chemical sensitivities, many of the materials used to make everything from dramatic decks to neighborly fences can put a serious damper on summer fun.

So how can you stop those reactive storm clouds before they roll in?

Blowin’ in the Wind

Most of us understand the need for healthy indoor air quality, especially for people with allergies and asthma. But if you have off-gassing materials outside the home, those fumes will just drift away, right?
Not so fast, says California green architect Eric Corey Freed. According to the organicARCHITECT founder and bestselling author, many of the chemicals we find indoors, including formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can be found in the engineered woods, stains and other materials we use outside – and the problem is blowing in the wind.

“Usually we don’t build decks 40 feet away in the backyard; normally they’re attached right to the back wall. It is better that it’s outside and it will off-gas faster in the sunshine, and the wind will carry a lot of it away. But still, it’s right there,” says Freed.

“And usually there are open windows and open doors, so it’s very easy to bring it in.”

Freed says there are a couple of key culprits. One is the older type of chemically treated wood used to make decks, fences and garden borders, which is so laden with toxins that it requires gloves to handle safely. Another is the formaldehyde that can be found in plywood and engineered woods. The VOCs in exterior paints, stains and sealants can also be a major issue.

True Colors: Non-toxic Painting

“I’ve discovered that a lot of clients are very chemically sensitive to these things and they may not realize the source of it, so they touch it and it’s absorbed through their skin,” says Freed.

“Or it off-gasses and they don’t understand why their eyes are watering or their throats are closing up when they’re standing on their decks.”

The Right Stuff

When building decks, fences, sheds, playgrounds and garden beds, it’s important to protect wood from rot and infestation - but it turns out that some garden products have a few dirty secrets of their own.

Widely used to pressure-treat wood since the 1970′s, chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, is a toxic mix of chromium, copper and arsenic that is now banned for residential use in most jurisdictions. Of the newer and far safer chemically treated woods on the market, Freed recommends Alkaline Copper Quaternary, or ACQ wood, which also contains the chromium and copper – minus the arsenic.

Even better, he says, is composite lumber, which is made from a mix of sawdust and recycled plastic. Not only are the materials light on the planet because they are readily available – the plastic comes from recycled bags and milk jugs – but the plastic acts as the binding agent, so no formaldehyde or other off-gassing glues are required.

“What you have is lumber that is splinter-free, maintenance-free, you don’t need to reseal it every five years, and you could even recycle it when you’re done,” says Freed. The only downside is that the boards get hotter than wood, so they’ll be toastier on the feet if they’re sitting in the sun. “But it doesn’t off-gas, and you don’t absorb anything through your skin when you touch it, which is what I like about it.”

Also keep in mind that some woods, including western red cedar, redwood and Brazilian walnut known as Ipe (pronounced ee-pay), are naturally durable and resistant to moisture. So they will require less treatment with chemicals, and are great for the outdoors.

Next: Woes with Woods

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