Exiled to the island of St. Helena for the last years of his life, Napoleon Bonaparte most likely died from arsenic poisoning. But no one secretly laced the disgraced former emperor's food or drink. Surprisingly, the stealthy murderer may have been his wallpaper [source: Kevles].
That's right. Wallpaper.
In the early 19th century, certain pigments used in wallpaper patterns contained arsenic. A contemporary Italian scientist discovered that bacteria that grew in flour-based wallpaper paste could react with the arsenic and cause it to evaporate into the air [source: Kevles]. Hence, Bonaparte's colorful wall coverings may have paved the way to his ultimate demise.
Wallpaper on the market today isn't packed with life-threatening arsenic. But it does bring up an important point about the effect of wallpaper on indoor air quality. Paint manufacturers are now selling low-VOC paints to clean up the toxins we can literally smell in that distinct fresh paint odor. Combined with the chemical adhesives used to attach to surfaces, some wallpapers have their own set of questionable additives.
One common type of wallpaper we purchase is made of vinyl [source: Bold-Pryor and Lacis]. Fabric-coated wallpaper is also treated with a vinyl or acrylic coating [source: Bold-Pryor and Lacis]. Vinyl (also known as PVC) is a plastic derived from petroleum, and quickly spells trouble for environmentalists. Also, vinyl is known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like certain paints do. These carbon compounds react with particles in the air to create ozone. Solvent-based inks also contribute to VOC emissions, although the VOC levels in wallpapered rooms are usually lower than those in painted ones [source: Carroll].
Perhaps the most significant environmental impact of wallpapers is the source of the pulp that makes the paper. Virgin timber may be stripped in the process, degrading the quality of the surrounding landscape. In response, the Forest Stewardship Council has developed a seal of approval for wallpapers that are made from recycled wood pulp or wood from sustainably managed forests.
But run-of-the-mill recycled paper isn't the only way to green your wall décor. There are a host of items in lying around your house that companies are recycling into chic, eye-catching wallpaper.