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Originally published August 17, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified August 18, 2012 at 12:24 PM

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Designer's specialty: toxic-free interiors

According to the women's health-advocacy organization Silent Spring Institute, the home is up to 10 times more toxic than the outdoors because of the number of chemicals found in widely used products such as furnishings.

Los Angeles Daily News

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LOS ANGELES — Whether it's a worn vintage sofa, antique bed or flea-market impulse buy, if the framework is solid any old furnishing can be reused, reinterpreted or re-purposed in unexpected ways — an eco approach showcased throughout the work of suburban West Hills-based interior designer Alison Pollack. But it's not simply for the sake of being green that she does this.

"My concern is toxicity in our indoor environment," says Pollack, who specializes in creating refined yet healthful interiors for homeowners with autistic children, elderly parents with respiratory problems, or those who are chemically sensitive themselves.

According to the women's health-advocacy organization Silent Spring Institute, named after Rachel Carson's watershed book about the indiscriminate use and effects of chemical pesticides, the home is up to 10 times more toxic than the outdoors because of the number of chemicals found in widely used products such as furnishings.

A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found that toddlers often have three times the level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, and California children have some of the highest levels.

In response to the growing body of evidence suggesting these chemicals harm human health and the environment, Gov. Jerry Brown has directed state agencies to revise flammability standards in upholstered furniture.

The Silent Spring Institute finds these chemicals are linked with adverse health effects such as asthma, cancer and thyroid disorders.

In updating a 1950s ranch-style home in West Hills for a couple, for instance, she gave new life to an antique Chinese opium den daybed, another unused piece, by topping its hard cane surface with a custom mattress made of toxic-free materials and covered in linen.

A pair of low 1950s dining chairs with hand-turned legs were refinished in silver leaf and given a new textile with button tufting, and a sleeper sofa was reupholstered.

"We do our best to try to get people to re-cover," Pollack says.

"Sometimes, if we can do nontoxic fillers such as 100 percent natural latex foam and wool and cotton but their budget calls for a conventional fabric, then at least we've done what we can. And if they go with a natural fiber like, say, a wool or cotton or linen that doesn't contain flame retardant, they're way ahead of the game."

Here are more tips for creating a green and healthy home:

Shop for a fixer-upper

Hit a garage sale or flea market for an old solid wood or cane piece and fix it up.

"Now mind you, these things have finishes on them," Pollack warns. "So before you do any stripping on the furniture, I would recommend a lead test, which you can get at Home Depot."

The LeadCheck Instant Lead Testing Kit comes with eight disposable swabs that turn bright pink when they come into contact with lead. It retails for $24.94.

If lead is detected don't disturb it.

"You don't want to start sanding on something that contains lead because you'll ingest the dust," says Pollack, who instead recommends painting over the existing finish or leaving it to a professional refinisher.

Clean the air

with plants

A quick way to spruce up your environment is with indoor plants, including English ivy, banana leaf and orchids.

Not only do they improve appearances but they filter the air, eating up pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene and converting them into harmless substances.

NASA scientists discovered this during the course of a two-year study on plants and air quality. They found one houseplant for every 100 square feet is all it takes to fight pollution. The more plants, the better.

Think green with rugs

Go with easy-to-clean and resilient rugs. Pollack likes Flor brand modular carpet tiles because they're made of synthetic fiber and backing that can be reclaimed by the company at the end of its life through its Return & Recycle Program for use in other products.

The squares go down on any hard flooring indoors and can be assembled to create custom rugs, runners or wall-to-wall carpet in a variety of textures, patterns and colors.

"When you use all the same tile pattern, you can't even tell they're tiles," she says. "You can mix and match to create a crazy-quilt effect. You can buy it by the tile to create a 3-by-5 rug in front of the door, and if you get twice as many, then you can switch out the design."

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