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Color Me Greeniful
By Lynn Thorne, washintonpost.com

When Sarah Roberts set out to decorate her newborn's nursery, she wanted the best -- not just for her baby, but also for the environment.

"I was bound and determined to make the baby's room as healthy as possible," Roberts said. Her Takoma Park office, The Center for the New American Dream, had just finished a huge renovation using organic ingredients, and Sarah was eager to apply the same earth-friendly techniques to her own home.

Roberts is part of a growing number of people who are seeking environmentally friendly ways to decorate. Why go green in your condo? Indoor air is three times more polluted than outdoor air, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is considered one of the top five health hazards.

"Our greatest exposure [to toxins] is in our home," said Debra Lynn Dadd, author of "Home Safe Home." The exposure is from the products we use day in and day out. "Some of the worst are our paints, carpets and furniture. They're large entities so we're exposed to many chemicals at the same time."

Wall Greens. Paints and finishes are among the leading offenders because they release low-level toxic emissions called VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air for years after application. But now there are myriad sustainable materials that look good and won't make you sick.

Try Earth Plaster, which gives your digs an adobe-type effect. It absorbs sound, is dust-free, and can "breathe" with changes in the temperature or humidity. It's available at greenbuildingsupply.com and americanclay.com. If you paint it, you'll want an eco-friendly choice like Benjamin Moore's Eco-spec, YOLO Colorhouse (yolocolorhouse.com), Rodda paint's Horizon line (roddapaint.com) or Safe Coat (safecoatpaint.com), all of which are low- or no-VOC paints.

Floor Bored? Bamboo goes beyond Tai Shan's diet. As a floor, it's fun, functional and rapidly renewable. There are two basic kinds of bamboo flooring: solid, which must be nailed or glued down, and "floating," which clicks together. Color choices range from very light to medium shades of brown. Steve Simonson, CEO of iFloor.com, said bamboo's a terrific environmental choice because its use has so little effect on the tree.

"It can be harvested every five to seven years," Simonson said. "You don't have to clear cut the forest. And because it grows through a root system, like grass, you don't even have to replant it."

Cork is also a fantastic flooring alternative. Besides being a renewable resource, it's hypoallergenic and extremely comfortable to walk on (think Birkenstocks). It provides terrific insulation over a cement sub-floor, blocking out the cold and the heat. It's also known for its sound absorption (so you can sing your heart out and your neighbors won't hear a thing). Local dealers include Dominion Floors (dominionfloors.com) in Arlington and Carpet Factory (carpetfactory.com) in Bowie. Color choices are more limiting than bamboo -- you'll end up with something roughly the color of a cardboard box.

While both bamboo and cork flooring have positive implications for the environment, they're still that: flooring. "I like to remind people that it's still a floor," said Simonson. "The laws of physics still apply. It will scratch and dent. It will do the same things as other types of floor materials."

If carpet's more your bag, you can still go green. Interface, Inc. manufactures a new zero-emission carpet; the company also makes "squares" so you can replace only the worn or stained part of your carpet without having to toss the whole thing (interfaceinc.com). In the same vein, Milliken developed the Earth Square renewed carpet, which is PVC-free and includes a patented installation system that works without adhesives, floor sealers or primers (milliken.com).

Counter Proposal. Granite is a popular material these days, but occuring naturally doesn't mean it's a green material. According to Miranda Magagnini of IceStone, a recycled product manufacturer, a large percentage of natural stone is imported from other countries, so "you're using massive amounts of fossil fuels to move huge blocks of stone around the globe."

Brooklyn-based IceStone (icestone.com) makes countertops, showers, and other products using up to 75 percent recycled glass with infinite color possibilities. Locally, Dal-Tile in Dulles carries Terra Traffic and Terra Classic, both ceramic tiles made from recycled materials (terragreenceramics.com). Blazestone Tiles, made by Bedrock Industries (bedrockindustries.com), come in glossy or matte finishes and are 100 percent recycled glass. (Available at Jud Tile in Vienna.)

Green Light. By exchanging energy-hogging incandescent light fixtures for newer, sleeker, more compact fluorescents, you can save energy and money. (Visit kichler.com for some options.) You can also consider CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light) bulbs, which last up to 10 times longer than incandescents but use 50 to 80 percent less energy.

Sit on It. Mattresses, sofas, and many other types of furniture are commonly made with chemicals like formaldehyde, urethane foam and latex, which are not only bad for the environment but are linked to health problems like allergies and asthma. Furnature.com offers pieces made without chemicals, dyes, toxins or polymers. Beanproducts.com uses pure hemp, organic cotton and other natural and recycled materials to make a full line of furniture and accessories.

Sarah Roberts plans to renovate her kitchen next and will use more sustainable products in the process. She says she knows her 4-month-old son, Nathaniel, will benefit. "From the very beginning we're trying to teach him how to live more sustainably and to think about the environment. We're starting his life off with a good lesson."

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