L'Association pour la santé environnementale du Québec / Environmental Health Association of Québec

How to Manage – Healthy Spaces


Choosing a Healthy Home

Finding a healthy free-standing home can be daunting and cost prohibitive. Even more challenges are faced when trying to rent an apartment or flat. Landlords can renovate whenever they please, without giving notice. Keeping products used by neighbours at bay can be overwhelming. Common areas in apartment buildings are often dirty, carpeted or cleaned with harsh chemicals.

When renting, a free-standing home is best, followed by a townhouse or flat, since you won’t have to share common areas or an entrance and your unit will have fewer adjacent units. Look for a corner unit. Top floor flats are better for avoiding mould from basements, but have the disadvantage of allowing more emanations from downstairs neighbours’ products. As with everything to do with environmental sensitivities, there are no easy choices.

However, asking the right questions and knowing what to look for can help immensely. Here are some tips to help you on your quest for healthy housing.

Buying a Home

Find an agent who is aware of environmental concerns, or educate an agent you trust. Let your agent know your specific needs: the area that would best suit you, a municipality that regulates pesticides and wood burning bylaws, etc. If you are a delayed reactor, would they consider allowing you to ‘test’ the house for over a week or so?

Choose an area as far away from pollution as possible (wood burning, refineries or other industries, agriculture, golf courses, highways or busy roads, power lines or cell towers) and make sure that you are upwind from pollution. If the house is on a lake, make sure that motor boats are not allowed.

History of property:

  • Is the house in a flood zone?
  • Is the water level high – does the basement get flooded? Is a sump pump operating regularly?
  • Has there been water damage, flooding or leaks?
  • Is there a crawl space under the house? If so, it could be mouldy.
  • Have pesticides been used on the property and/or inside the house, if so, what type, when and for how long?
  • What type of renovations were carried out, when were they carried out, and what materials were used?
  • Is the garage separate from the house (if it is attached, could you seal it off and use it only to off-gas and as a storage area?)
  • What type of heating is used? Make sure that the bedroom is furthest away from the electric panel or electric furnace.
  • Check the type of insulation and beware of asbestos and vermiculite.
  • How old are the windows and roof?

Visiting the property:

  • Request a fragrance and smoke-free environment when you visit.
  • Does the land slope away from the house in all directions?
  • Do the outside walls of the house appear damp or have moss growing on them?
  • Is the caulking around the sinks, showers and baths in good condition?
  • Is there evidence of water damage (mould, mouldy smell, water stains on ceiling or bubbles on the wall, uneven and/discoloured wood, water marks or mould around the windows and/inside cupboards)?
  • Check all cupboards for insects and/or mould.
  • Check that there are no floating floors or wall-to-wall carpets. If so, they may have to be removed. Hardwood floors are preferable.
  • If there is an air exchanger, is the neighbour’s laundry exhaust on the same side as the air intake? Check the direction of prevailing winds.
  • Are there fans in the bathrooms, laundry room, and kitchen for proper ventilation?
  • Do the gutters around the roof work properly, draining water away from the house through the downspouts and drains?
  • If required, is it possible to install an air exchanger with filter and a whole-house air purifier?

Some people choose to build a house or buy an existing house and gut the interior. But environmentally sensitive people must use extreme caution when embarking on such a project. For people on a very small budget, there is now a movement called the Tiny House Movement in which people build extremely small homes, sometimes on wheels. This may warrant looking into.


When speaking to a prospective landlord it is best to explain your condition by saying that you are allergic to perfumes and certain renovation materials.

You can then ask the landlord to air out the unit and refrain from wearing perfume when you visit. All of the questions pertaining to buying a home can be adapted to your situation. You will need to know if there have been renovations or paint in your unit in the last year, and the history of any water damage and repairs. You can ask whether the landlord is planning any major renovations in your unit or the surrounding units in the next year. If so, you can negotiate the use of eco products for the work. Offering to pay the difference in price if necessary, will save you a lot of money and grief in the long run. Some people have successfully included a clause in the lease that required the landlord to notify them if he/she wanted to carry out renovations during the lease. Renovations in the autumn and winter are not recommended. There are now smoke-free apartment buildings. This could save you cigarette smoke coming in from neighbouring units.

Checklist – to make sure you don’t encounter problems

Check out the area nearby for:

FactoriesProximity to a highway or major artery
Cell phone masts and transmittersHydro transformers
High traffic areas (schools, places of worship,
restaurants, etc)
Prevailing wind direction and what lies up-wind (industrial area, factories, farms, etc)
Gas StationsFarms and golf courses

Questions to ask on the phone before you visit:

Can the person meeting you be scent-free for
your meeting?
Was the previous tenant a smoker?
Were renovations done? What kind? When?Do neighbours smoke? Use incense?
Were pesticides used on the lawn and
garden? What kind? When?
Would they open the window and air the apartment before your visit?
Were pesticides used in the complex? What
kind? When?
Can you rent for one or two weeks to see if you can tolerate the apartment?
Have there been insects, bed bugs in the
flat? In the building complex?
If not, what is the policy for breaking a lease?
Was there water damage in the flat? When?
What was done?
Would they consider using eco-products in the building?

During your visit to the apartment

Check exterior of building –is it run-down? Will they be doing renovations soon? What kind?
Inspect the kitchen, including cupboards
Inspect the bathroom/s
Inspect the floors
Inspect the windows
Inspect the ceiling
Is there good ventilation in the apartment
including the kitchen and bathrooms?
Are there carpets in the flat – especially in
the bathroom?
It is important to know what materials will be used for renovations and if you can tolerate them. Check out the kitchen for bugs, and the cupboards for oil or spice spills. This could cause you to have problems with odours that may not go away. Water stains on the ceiling or floors (buckling floors) indicate that there was water damage and there could be mould. Even if you don’t see or smell the mould, it could be present. You can use a kit to test for mould The bathroom should have no visible mould and all seals should be clean and intact. Check in cupboards under sinks and behind toilets. There should be no mould around windows. Carpets collect dust and mould. Ask if they can be removed – only if you can have ceramic or wood floors. Floating floors are problematic as they contain toxic glues and other chemicals.

If renovations have to be done before you move in, will they consider eco-renovations? You can offer to pay the difference between regular material and eco material. The difference in cost is worth the effort and will prove to be more beneficial to your health.

Finding a Healthy Meeting Place

When you are looking for a meeting place, explain your medical condition to the building manager.

Here is a list of questions that could help you:

The hall/room itself:

  1. Is the floor covered in carpet?
    • If yes, how old is the carpet?
    • Which cleaning product(s) is/are used on the carpet?
  2. If there is no carpet, is the floor made of wood?
    • Has it been waxed or oiled?
  3. If it has been varathaned, when was the last application of varathane?
    • Can you still smell varathane/wax/oil?
  4. Are there deodorizers/air fresheners in the room?
    • If yes, can they be removed before our arrival (about a week beforehand)?
  5. Has there been water damage in the room?
    • Are there water or humidity stains on the walls or ceiling?
  6. Has the room undergone any renovations?
    • If yes, when?
    • What kind of renovation?
  7. What kind of heating is used in the room?
  8. Could the windows be opened to air out the room?

The rest of the building:

  1. How old is the building?
  2. Is there wireless internet (Wi-Fi)?
    • If yes, could it be turned off for the day?
  3. Do you use pesticides in the building? (against ants, etc.)
    • If yes, when was the last application?
  4. Are there air fresheners in the rest of the building?
    • Could we ask to have the air fresheners removed from the bathrooms, halls, and entrance?
  5. Will there be other people in the building the day we will be there?
    • If yes, could we ask them to be scent-free for the day?

Outside the building and surrounding areas:

  1. Are there cell towers or antennas in the area?
  2. Are there high-tension electrical wires in the area?
  3. Is the room near a high-traffic road?
  4. Are pesticides used outside the building?