YOUR HOME: IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALT
This article is for anyone who is thinking about buying a newly constructed house or remodeling an existing one. Its purpose is to examine the toxicity of standard building materials and the methods and products you can use to help "clean up" your indoor environment.
Wow! A brand new house! It's the American Dream. More like nuclear waste.
Early this summer I broke all promises to myself and made a decision that went against everything I've learned in my research on indoor air pollution and the associated health risks -- especially where my birds are concerned. I bought a new house. A BRAND NEW house constructed according to standard building practices by a reputable local contractor. Houses in this area are at a premium and in the Spring of 1994, when mortgage rates were low, the average home sold within 2 to 5 days of its market debut. A scenario that didn't leave much time for a prospective buyer to ponder a decision. In this case, there were two other purchase agreements ready and waiting if mine wasn't accepted. I had been looking for several months. Looking for just the right house, in just the right location, with all the right amenities, at just the right price. It was an exhausting project and I was tired of asking my extensive list of questions of people who looked at me as if I was some kind of fanatic.
Questions about the age of the carpeting, the manufacturers, what products have been used to clean it and when it was last cleaned, or what kind of paint was used, what brand name, and did it contain mercury-based preservatives (now outlawed). I flatly ignored the Realtor's comments about the "charming fireplace, beautiful yard, etc." and grilled her about radon testing, insulation, sub-flooring materials, and joint compounds instead.
Over the past few years, I have researched the risks associated with the chemicals we are exposed to in our everyday lives and how people become chemically sensitive when their immune and nervous systems have reached their tolerance threshold. The resulting illness, MCS, is debilitating AND avoidable. I am chemically responsive, meaning that I have come close to "system overload" but have not developed MCS and have no intention of allowing that to happen. I am, however, a walking barometer of indoor air quality. Low levels of urea formaldehyde that go unnoticed by other people cause a blinding headache and nausea within minutes. Paints, wall coverings, and vinyl floors that haven't cured or "outgassed" sufficiently turn my eyes into red-lined road maps and my nose into an automatic sprinkling system. Breathing becomes a laborious effort. This condition can be a real nuisance, especially during social conversations. So much for morbid humor.
The existing homes I toured were laden with chemicals added during "normal" cleaning and redecorating over the years. Most of their owners gave the same response when asked about the various products they used, "Gee I dunno what it was called but I'll try to find out and get back to you." Right. I would never hear from them again. My realtor was losing patience and I was losing sleep. Rule #1 kept invading my dreams: NEVER compromise the safety of your birds. NEVER. If I'm the human equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, how much more vulnerable are my birds? A lot more. Their respiratory systems works so fast and metabolize airborne toxins at a rate that makes my system look like a study in suspended animation.
I decided to buy a monster I could see. A new house, with all the ugly chemicals right out in the open. If I could identify them, I could slay them. All it would take was just a little more research and I'd know how to achieve the pristine indoor air quality that was my goal. Oh sure. The human race has blessed our lovely planet with over 2000 toxic chemicals since the 1970's and I had the bright idea that I could determine which ones were in my new home, figure out a plan to eliminate them, and complete the entire project within six weeks. Two days after closing on the property, I realized that I'm not a fanatic after all. I'm an idiot.
I contact avian veterinarians, none of whom had ever done any research on the relationship between air quality and health in parrots and could offer no advice regarding acceptable chemical levels or how to clean up the toxic "mess". They said they were very interested in what I would learn, however, and asked me to contact them with the results of my "study". Study? This was a must do situation with little time for homework and no room for variables or mistakes -- the price was way too high.
It was time to call in the troops. The professionals in environmental detoxification. I began by contacting Robb Bucklin of Diamond Solutions, Inc., an environmentally reponsible company that offers EnviroRite and EnviroPro cleaning products and services as safe alternatives to the "standard" products on the market. He put me in touch with Steve Klosner of Advanced Certified Thermography; a scientist with the knowledge and equipment required to measure chemical levels in the environment. I also called Mike Wilson, an indoor air specialist who markets and installs Van-EE central ventilation systems. Later that week, these three gentlemen met me at the house for an initial evaluation.
We opened the front door and the toxic fumes washed over us like an airborne tidal wave. I couldn't go in until all the windows were open and the house had aired out. Even then, I couldn't remain inside for more than a few minutes at a time. So much for the "new house smell" people rave about. My "team" spent four hours testing, measuring, and planning their attack on the toxic waste site that was to be my home. One test was conducted with a Tif-Meter, which is a combustible gas detector designed to measure the VOC's (volatile organic compounds) in a variety of materials. This portable device looked rather like a stainless steel wand with an electronic device attached to the handle. The nozzle end of the "wand" was inserted into the carpet fibers and sent signals to the electronic portion which measured the chemical levels contained in the carpet and pad.
It had a built in alarm that was triggered if the readings went to the high end of the spectrum and into the danger zone. Tick, tick, tick, SCREEEEEEE !!! The sound was piercing and almost continuous as random checks were performed throughout the carpeted areas of the house. This was drama an Amazon would love, if he could still breathe. Despite the dismal failure of the house to pass ANY of the tests conducted, the three men remained confident they could create an indoor environment that would be cleaner than 90% of all the homes in the country. ALL of the homes, not just the new ones. They reassured me that when they were finished, we would open the front door and smell NOTHING. At that moment, with the chamical load levels in the house as they were, it seemed an untenable challenge which left me feeling skeptical, trapped, and scared. I toyed with the idea of becoming a street lady with parrots -- it certainly seemed a safer environment than the one I had opted for.
The team's battle plan was based on three key points: outgas (extract) whenever possible, seal off when outgassing is not possible, and always provide optimum ventilation. As a result, the following steps were taken in the detoxification process:
Sweet success. On the day we finally occupied the house, I opened the front door and was greeted by clean, fresh, SAFE air. People with no idea of the flurry that occurred during the weeks of preparation, almost always make a comment like "Gee, this doesn't smell like a new house -- I usually get a headache after I've been in a new house for awhile." (No kidding.) Now Gabby (my Moluccan Cockatoo), Harley (my Macaw), Ivan (my Schnauzer), and I can look out over the pond and enjoy the abundant wildlife and the antics of the water birds while we breathe fresh indoor air free of unpleasant weather conditions and mosquitoes.
Author's Note: Because the materials required to build a healthy house from the ground up are not readily available (yet), the overall cost is approximately double that of a conventional home. The process used to clean up a conventional home constructed with standard building materials is only a fraction of the total investment. (Left "untreated", standard building materials require about 5 years to outgas on their own.)
It's also interesting to note that a well-known national home building corporation has inserted a clause at the end of their purchase agreement that states if an occupant of one of their new homes becomes ill due to formaldehyde poisoning, they (the corporation) will assume no liability for related health care expenses.
(Manufacturers of Safe Products for Cleaning and Remodeling)
Bioforce Enviro-Tech Inc.: EnviroPro cleaning services and EnviroRite cleaning products.Write to:701 N. 7th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55411
Advanced Certified Thermography (ACT)Steve Klosner, telephone: (612) 436-5120
Wilson Ventilation Services: Van-EE Ventilation Systems
Mike Wilson, telephone: (612) 827-0118
AFM Enterprises, Inc. (paints, finishes, sealers, cleaners)Telephone: (714) 781-6860 or 781-6861, fax: (714) 781-6892
Livos Plantchemistry (paints, finishes, adhesives, cleaners) Telephone: (505) 988-9111
Sinan Company: Auro Products (paints, finishes, adhesives, cleaners) Telephone: (916) 753-3104
Borax, Shaklee, and Bon Ami also manufacture safe cleaning products that are readily avialable in most areas of the country.
"Healthful Houses" by Clint Good, published by Guaranty Press, about $20. In addition to detailing every facet of building a healthy house from the ground up, the author lists the brand names of safe products that are available for building, remodeling, and maintaining a healthy house. He also explains why to use them versus standard products, and where to buy them. This book is a 10!
"The Nontoxic Home" and "Nontoxic and Natural", both by Debra Lynn Ladd.
"Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes" available through the NCEHS (The National Center for Environmental Health Strategies). NCEHS members receive a newsletter "The Delicate Balance". For more information, contact consultant Mary Lamielle at (609) 429-5358.
If you're interested in additional reading and more in-depth information about birds, check out The Pet Bird Report! It's published by The Pet Bird Information Council and contains a myriad of interesting tidbits, articles and important information to keep you up-to-date.
If you have questions or would like to subscribe, contact:
Sally Blanchard, Editor
2236 Mariner Square Drive #35 Alameda, CA 94501-1059(510) 523-5303
Fax: (510) 521-6475