Sick Buildings

Take two aspirin and build me in the morning

by Michael Braunstein

My house was built in 1907. The Titanic had not yet sailed in 1907. In 1907, Thomas Edison was just getting into the swing of things as an inventor and the primary source of lighting was sunlight or gas fixtures. To that fact, the light fixture in my bedroom is actually a converted gaslight. Radio was a pipe dream and horseback was still the main mode of personal transportation. Think this over: the wood used in this house came from trees growing during the lifetime of Abraham Lincoln.

Trees alive during the Civil War; consider what that means. Those trees were alive and growing in a time before internal combustion engines, air pollution, radiation and about 99 percent of the chemicals in the world. Nowhere in the wood of those trees would you find PCBs, DDT, formaldehyde, arsenic, lead or toxic hydrocarbons. They are as close to virginal as a tree may get.

Why should it make any difference that the wood in my house came from 1860 trees? Well, those chemicals mentioned and many, many more like them, are in new wood found in houses built now. More importantly, none of those chemicals is good for you.

Even that would pose no problem if the chemicals remained in the wood. But they don’t. Volatile toxins from new wood disperse into the air around us. And when it’s the air in our house, we get to breathe those toxins.

“All I need is the air that I breathe…” Seeking to disengage from and dominate nature, builders and architects have begun erecting edifices that isolate us completely from the outdoors. In many newer commercial buildings, windows are sealed, triple-paned thermal glass. Air is recycled through climate-controlling units, regardless of the climate outside the building. The unfortunate result is that we aren’t getting enough fresh air.

In the early and mid-1900s, building ventilation standards required about 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each occupant. When the fuel crunch, real or contrived, happened in the 1970s however, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided down to 5 cfm per occupant. Though meant to be energy-efficient, these buildings virtually trap us inside with every possible pollutant that is introduced to the interior environment. The same is true of most new home environments, too. Building designs decreased the fresh air coming in and construction materials increased our exposure to toxic chemicals.

What’s that smell? So what are all these chemicals that our newer homes and offices are built with? A variety of contaminants and chemicals that humans have never had to adapt to or live with before the 20th century permeate the materials that surround us. Unfortunately, most of them are odorless and undetectable by human senses.

Formaldehyde is the most common toxic pollutant in the home. Formaldehyde is used in permanent press fabrics, carpets, building materials, flooring and seeps into the air from pressed fiberboard furniture. It’s even in your toothpaste and the vaccination shot your infant got. Plywood material, including cabinets, paneling, walls and anything made of plywood will emit formaldehyde. It is carcinogenic and one of the greatest of indoor threats, especially because it is so pervasive.

Volatile organic chemicals (VOC) are toxic chemicals present in everyday items such as household cleaners, fabrics, carpets, adhesives, paints, clothing, cosmetics and other goods. It is not a trifling problem. The EPA estimates the exposure to these poisons to be five times greater indoors. Benzene, methylene chloride and perchloroethylene from dry cleaning agents are carcinogens. The EPA even recommends refusing your clothing at the dry cleaners if it smells of chemicals.

75 percent of American homes have used a pesticide (like Raid, flea powder, mothballs) indoors in the past year. That alone cannot explain the high levels of deadly pesticide pollution in homes. Most comes from stored containers. After all, if a chemical was designed to destroy biological life, be it a snail or a cockroach, it likely isn’t going to be all that healthy for you or your family. The active ingredient in mothballs is often found in air fresheners. Imagine, that little thing you plug into the wall is doing a lot more than freshening the air in your house.

Remedial solutions To clean up the air in your home, start by eliminating the gallons of paint, poisons and chemicals stored in the basement or under the sink. You know the ones. They usually say “Use in a well-ventilated area” on the label. And, yes, they include hair colorings and nail polishes. Take them to a suitable dumping location (see www.underthesink.org for locations in Omaha.) Then consider healthier alternatives next time you clean house. There are natural cleaning agents (vinegar, baking soda come to mind) and natural ways to keep moths away (herbs such as thyme or cedar chips) or repel other insects.

Keep your home clean and well ventilated. Dust and dander buildup supplies a breeding ground for bacteria and mites, mold and mildew. Low humidity can keep it under control. Mites desiccate in low humidity. Washing bed linens in hot (130°F) water kills them.

Avoid dry cleaning. Most clothing recommended for dry cleaning is just as easily hand washed. If you must dry clean, hang the clothes on a porch or ventilated area to dry thoroughly. Same with new plastic items. Haven’t you ever noticed that “new toy” smell that plastic gives off?

Buy some plants. A NASA study found that plants not only produce oxygen but they also remove harmful chemicals from the air. Spider plants, aloe vera and philodendron can remove up to 90 percent of formaldehyde from the air in a given space. Start with as few as ten plants for your house and you will purge the air naturally.

The Environmental Protection Agency describes symptoms of sick building syndrome as acute discomfort; headache; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue and sensitivity to odors. In many cases, the symptoms disappeared when the people left the building. It seems that the answer may really be to avoid using the chemicals in the first place.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit HeartlandHealing.com.

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