An estimated 60 million Americans battle with allergies and asthma, and interior designer Robin Wilson understands the issue all too well. A sufferer since childhood, Wilson’s mission now is spreading the gospel of eco-friendly design as key to managing the problem. Her new book, Clean Design: Wellness for Your Lifestyle, is a field guide to creating a healthy home.
Here, Wilson, who has worked on projects for both President Clinton’s Harlem office and the home of environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., explains the smart way to manage asthma and allergies in a New York apartment, why pillows are a serious culprit, and the best trick to clean your baby’s stuffed toy.
What are the worst offenders in the home for those who suffer?
The most obvious is dust and dust mites. People should use a HEPA-filtration vacuum, so dust does not recirculate into your space. Also pet dander. If you have an indoor pet, keep them off the furniture and your bed if you can, and vacuum regularly.
How can you reduce triggers in a small New York apartment?
Take off your shoes when you get home. When you trek grime, dust and pollen inside, if you have a pet they're now laying in it and bringing it into your bed. If you have a baby, they're on the floor rolling around in it.
Is there such a thing as asthma- and allergy-friendly furniture?
Buy furniture that has no flame retardant chemicals and no formaldehyde-based glues. Leather furniture is great [because there are less places for dust to get trapped]. If you want fabric upholstery, slipcovers are ideal because they can be washed.
Best way to clean surfaces?
Ignore the commercials that say "smell" your way to clean, with chemical cleaners that may smell of lemon or pine. You are just adding toxins into your home. Clean with baking soda, vinegar and lemon.
You suggest wall- to-wall carpeting is a problem.
Hardwood and rugs are best. But if you have a wall-to-wall carpet you can’t get rid of [then] vacuum weekly and have it shampooed once or twice a year. If you own your home, use rugs or carpet tiles. That way you won’t be dealing with dust burrowed deep into the fibers.
People think of their bedrooms as a serene place, but it can be the enemy of better breathing.
If you can, paint your bedroom with a low- to no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, and put rugs on either side of the bed so they can be cleaned regularly. If you like candles, use a soy candle, it does not emit a lot of smoke. Hypoallergenic pillows are essential too.
You have serious rules about pillows!
One thing I always ask is: When was last time you washed and replaced your pillow? If you haven’t washed it, your pillow probably weighs more now because it’s full of dust mites and pollen. My rule is every three weeks wash the hypoallergenic zippered pillow cover. Every three months, wash your pillow in a commercial washer and dryer, and every three years replace it.
For parents, best way to make a nursery eco-friendly?
Makes sure the room is painted with low-to-no VOC paint, and if you can, put carpet tiles down, that way you can wash the tile where accidents happen! And pair a non toxic crib mattress with cotton sheets.
Are fabric toys an issue?
A tip I learned from a doctor is to freeze your baby’s stuffed animals once in while. Some stuffed toys you can’t wash, so put them in a Ziploc bag, freeze it for 48 hours, then shake the toy in the bag. The ice crystals that shake off contain microscopic critters the eye can’t see.
How eco-friendly is your own home?
I live in New Jersey, 20 minutes from the city. We are renting, but looking to buy. I have a two- year-old, and I suffer from asthma and allergies, so I worked with the building manger and had the apartment repainted with low-VOC paint. My daughter’s room is meticulously kept clean, and because there's wall-to-wall carpet in place, we put a mat down that she plays on.