Natural Foods Merchandiser

Niche widening for healthy home products

Lisa Beres, an interior designer, began to get sick after she moved into her newly remodeled home. She was tired all the time, her sinuses and throat were irritated, and her menstrual cycle stopped.

"I was driving hours in every direction trying to find someone who could tell me what was wrong," Beres says.

She went to more than a dozen doctors with no results, so she started doing her own research. She realized that she became sick right after moving into her new home, and so she began to learn about indoor air pollution, pesticides and other poisons in the home that would account for her illness. "The more I learned, the more shocked I was," she says. Beres discovered that she was suffering from what many doctors call "sick building syndrome," reacting to toxins in her furniture, cleaning products and personal care items.

The first thing Beres did was to buy an air filter. That relieved some of the irritation in her nose and throat, but soon she began to attack the sources. She bought organic cotton pillows and a barrier to put on her mattress to block any possible contact with formaldehyde, which is used in making many mattresses. As her health improved, Beres became passionate about sharing what she had learned. She became a certified baubiologist, studying the effect buildings have on health, and in 2005, she and her husband launched Green Nest, an online store devoted to natural interior design.

Sick building syndrome is not a new phenomenon, however. In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report for health care professionals concerning indoor air pollution, noting that the air inside homes was sometimes up to three or five times as polluted as the air outside. According to the report, one of the main culprits was volatile organic compounds, which are emitted as gases that can contain harmful chemicals. The reactions to VOCs include sinus irritation, nausea and headaches. One source of VOCs is paint, which can emit VOCs for up to a year. Pressed-wood furniture, permanent press fabric and mattress ticking also release VOCs, including formaldehyde. Pesticides also find their way into homes on nonorganic sheets, towels and clothing.

Entrepreneurs are starting to come forward to satisfy customers who want their environment to be as healthful as the food they buy in their local naturals store. "In the past couple years, more and more people are becoming environmentally conscious and are making the commitment to buy organic and natural with all of their purchases," says Ginny Potts of Boise Co-op in Boise, Idaho.

Like many stores, Boise Co-op carries several natural home products, such as organic cotton towels, full-spectrum light bulbs and air filters. However, with the exception of retailers like Whole Foods, which is planning to open a Natural Living Store in Santa Barbara, Calif., many natural food stores leave it at that. One issue is the cost of retail space. For that reason, natural living stores are flourishing online.

"It would be nice to have a store, but I just couldn't afford space," says Lester Kau, president of EcoChoices, an Internet store devoted to natural living. Beres also points out that she can reach many more people online than she could if she were serving a single community. This new awareness of indoor pollution has created new industries like interior plantscaping. Sabra Dunhan of Color Me Green in Eldorado Springs, Colo., puts together displays of plants, which studies have shown filter air. And Kau notes that more and better products have become available in the past two or three years.

The word about sick building syndrome is getting out in other ways, too. Beres was a guest several times on the talk show "Sally Jessy Raphael," and she has also written a children's book on the subject, My Body My House, (Green Nest LLC, 2006), in an effort to spread the message about indoor pollution. "When I first started looking into this in 2002, it was mostly unheard of, but now, while it's not yet a household word, I think people are much more interested and aware," Beres says.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 70

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