For millions of homeowners, it’s an all-too-familiar scene: Your kitchen is so outdated, it could easily pass for a spread in a 1970s IKEA catalog. To boot, the counters are scratched, the cupboard doors are hanging by a thread and the appliances are fast becoming antiques.
It’s time for a change – and a new kitchen can be a great way to give your home a serious spring spruce-up, and make it healthier, too.
But if you or someone in your family has allergies and asthma, there are important steps you need to take.
It’s great to get older (and likely more toxic) materials out of your kitchen – but it’s crucial that you do it carefully.
The first step is to mitigate the demolition dust, which can contain chemicals, molds and other irritants, says Eric Corey Freed, principal with San Francisco’s organicARCHITECT and author of Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies. In order to keep dust from spreading, tightly seal off the area with plastic sheeting. It’s also worth picking up some hairnet-like covers for your air ducts to keep the dust from being recirculated.
Everyone working in the area also needs to wear protective goggles and a ventilating mask. “Guys tend to say, ‘I don’t need that, it’s just a little dust.’ But it adds up,” says Freed. “And it’s not just the heavy dust that you can see – it’s all the fine particulate that you can’t see that you inhale.” (Freed also stresses that if you suspect there is asbestos or lead paint, you need to bring in the pros to do the demo work.)
Mold can also present a serious problem  because moisture often gathers behind sink cabinets, creating the perfect place for mold to breed and set off allergy symptoms during and after a renovation.
“Many owners see mold, spray bleach on it and think it’s fixed,” says Freed. Not so: the affected area must be completely dried out – or the drywall replaced – to ensure it doesn’t grow back. Once the demolition is complete, wet-mop to capture remaining dirt and dust, then flush the space with fresh air before that new kitchen rolls in.
Next Page: Choosing the right cabinets plus ‘cured’ counters that don’t off-gas.
So those old monstrosities are gone and it’s time for a fresh new look. But when choosing cabinets, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Most cabinets these days are made with cheap particle board cores, then covered with a thin wood or synthetic veneer. Trouble is, that particle board is usually held together with formaldehyde-laced adhesives, which can trigger asthma and are also known carcinogens.
So the best option for people with allergies and asthma are FSC-certified wood cabinets, or ones made from bamboo; but if your budget is tight and the big box store cabinets are your only option, look for ones that are formaldehyde-free.
If you do shell out for the all-natural bamboo or solid wood, make sure you also know what’s going on the outside. “I’ve had cabinet makers use sustainably harvested wood, then cover it with an oil-based varnish or lacquer,” says Freed.
“Make sure they finish the cabinets with a water-based, and preferably zero-VOC, product. Otherwise, those cabinets can off-gas for years.”
In the ’70s, plastic laminate counters were all the rage; unfortunately, most of them were a toxic soup of plastic, formaldehyde-impregnated resins and other hazardous glues. What’s taking their place is “solid surface” – a plastic-like product that, once cured, does not off-gas and is safe for people with chemical sensitivities. (The dust from cutting it can be irritating to the lungs, however, so people with respiratory disorders should steer clear during construction.)
Freed also recommends stainless steel counters, as well as natural surfaces such as marble or granite. Just beware that final layer, since stone is usually sealed with a chemical. “There are now zero-VOC cleaners and sealers for natural stone that are just amazing,” says Freed. “They’re so natural, in fact, that one sales guy drank it. To me that’s a pretty good sign.”
Freed’s favorite counter option is IceStone, which mixes pieces of recycled glass and concrete, and has the sparkly, reflective quality of terrazzo. “It’s gorgeous, it’s durable, and it’s all-natural, so it doesn’t off-gas at all,” says Freed. “And you can pick which colors of glass and cement you want so there is an infinite number of varieties.”
Next Page: An appliance that makes a big difference and the big finish
For the most part, today’s appliances aren’t a concern for people with allergies and asthma; however, emissions from gas stoves can trigger asthma in adults and kids with sensitivities.
As a result, a high-quality exhaust fan over the stove can make a big difference – and can also help with the overall ventilation of the home. The key is buying the right one and installing it properly.
Skip recirculating fans, which take the air from the kitchen, filter it, then spit it back into the same room. Instead get one that exhausts to the outside. Choose a fan that’s powerful enough to draw the air out; room size and length of the duct work both play a role. And the fan must be installed at the correct height over the stove. “If your house still smells like cooking when the fan has been on,” says Freed, “then the fan is too far away or not big enough.”
It’s also important to remember that the air being sucked out needs to be replaced, and could be drawing in problems such as smoke or mold from another part of the home. If possible, says Freed, crack open a nearby window so the fan draws fresh air from outside.
The Big Finish
These days, Earth-minded items from bamboo cabinets to no-VOC paints are in vogue, but renovators often pay less attention to the caulking, sealants and other adhesives used in the finishing stages of a kitchen – and for people with asthma and allergies, they can be some of the biggest troublemakers.
“Most people focus on the things that are visible like paints, but in my mind, all of the caulking, sealing and adhesives should be zero-VOC, not just low-VOC,” says Freed.
So finally, your new kitchen is in. But before you fire up the stove and uncork the vino, flush out your home by opening a few windows, turning your thermostat to “fan only” and letting it run for several days, then replacing the air system’s filter. This will remove any residual construction dusts from the system, and keep you breathing easily – not only in your fabulous new kitchen, but all around your home.
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