Nursing your health

Charles Enman  - The Ottawa Citizen - Saturday August 7, 2004

Moulds, moisture, dust mites and poor air quality can make some owners sick
"The problems stem from many sources -- home building materials, poor ventilation, even the products used to keep the house clean."

Ah, there's your front door. Peaceful harbour lies within. The larger seas may storm, but at home, your ship finds refuge.

It's supposed to be that way, anyway. But for perhaps half a million Canadians -- those most severely "environmentally sensitive" -- things aren't like that at all.

Linda Nolan-Leeming, an Ottawa interior designer, remembers countless winter nights spent on the living room sofa, as close to the open front door as possible.

"I needed to be near that fresh air," she recalls. "The air in my bedroom was giving me tremors in my arms and feet and up my spine. My heart would race. It was frightening, and only near that open front door could my body calm down and allow me to get a bit of sleep."

Nolan-Leeming is part of the estimated two per cent of the population that have developed severe environmental sensitivities. But scientists estimate that at least 10 per cent of us have some degree of sensitivity, and that percentage is believed to be growing larger each year.

The problems stem from many sources -- home building materials, poor ventilation, even the products used to keep the house clean.

But there's good news. Homes can be "fixed," often at low cost.

Physicians are taking the problem of environmental sensitivity more seriously. Many products for the home are being made to accommodate sensitive people. And experts who can give informed counsel, while not numerous, are out there and eager to help.

Dr. Jennifer Armstrong, one of a handful of Ottawa physicians specializing in environmental sensitivity, believes that a minimum of 12 per cent of Canadians are environmentally sensitive. (Studies in California suggest that 40 per cent of that state's population fit somewhere on the sensitivity continuum.)

"The number of sensitive people seems to be growing and that's only logical," Dr. Armstrong says."Each year, 2,000 new chemicals are produced in the United States, and their effects on humans are mostly not tested. And the additive effect -- their effect in combination with other chemicals -- is never examined."

The more chemicals encountered, the greater the likelihood that a person will become sensitive.

"Pesticides, solvents, perfumes, heavy metals, even the biochemicals from moulds, all add up in one person's body," Dr. Armstrong says.

"Once the exposure load is great enough, the person can reach a breaking point. And once that happens, it's hard to repair these people."

Some develop cancer; others develop sensitivities.

But why sensitivities develop is unknown, Dr. Armstrong says. Put two people in an identical environment and one may become highly sensitive while the other remains unaffected.

If you're sensitive, the life-long goal is to avoid whatever it is that makes you react.

But don't despair, says Virginia Salares, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s building products expert. "With good information in hand, it really is possible to improve the air quality of your home to the point that you can comfortably live in it," Salares says. "In most cases, you won't have to move out."

Contaminants fall into two classes: biologicals and chemicals.

Biologicals come from living things and include pet dander, dust mites, pollens and moulds.

Chemicals derive from building materials, household chemicals and lifestyle choices (a woodworking hobby or a furniture-refinishing business in the basement).

Salares says keeping moisture under control is paramount. Moisture not only encourages the growth of mould, a major biological pollutant, but increases the rate at which chemically treated materials emit gas into the air. (This process is called "off-gassing.")

If your house is made of pressed wood, for instance, you're going to have a lot of off-gassing, and if the interior is humid to boot, that off-gassing will only worsen.

In most homes, Salares says, the basement is the major source of moisture. But there are lots of simple steps to take to reduce moisture to satisfactory levels:

- Don't use your basement as a storage dump. Books, cardboard boxes and clothing, for example, can all absorb and store moisture and invite the growth of mould. When a basement is piled high with "stuff," the air doesn't circulate and moisture is never carried away.

- Don't put carpet on your basement floor. Carpeting wicks up moisture, besides creating a haven for dust mites and other irritants.

- Heat the basement. You may think you're saving energy if you don't, but a cold basement invites condensation of moisture on every surface.

If you've done all this and the basement still seems musty, moisture may be lurking behind the finished walls. Check the baseboards for signs of moisture or mould. You may have to remove the wall finish and clean all exposed surfaces with detergent and water.

Though extreme, Salares says if mould is found, it may be better not to finish the walls since the mould may simply return. Unfinished walls might not please the eye, but they won't infuse the air with toxins.

She believes everyone should have a dehumidifier in their basement. They cost only a few hundred dollars and run only when the humidity increases.

Bathrooms, like the basement, tend to be moist and humid. Again, it's better to avoid wall-to-wall carpeting because it holds moisture and encourages mould growth.

A ventilating fan is a good idea and should be used, especially given how airtight new homes are these days.

House plants add moisture to the air, as does an aquarium. Many pets, all breathing out moisture and dropping dander of various kinds, can present problems, too.

It's up to you to make a choice about what stays and what goes if you want to improve your air quality, says Salares.

"You don't have to take all of these steps, just the ones you're comfortable with. But each one you do take will improve the air quality in your house."

In her own kitchen, Salares, who is also environmentally sensitive, takes great pains in managing the garbage. Meat scraps or anything likely to decompose are kept in a small container in the freezer until garbage day. She puts vegetable scraps in her compost bin every day, never letting them accumulate.

"My kitchen remains very clean, and my garbage bag is made of paper since I never accumulate anything moist in the kitchen."

Pesticides should be avoided as much as possible, Salares says. If the house is kept clean and dry and entry points are sealed, there usually won't be many critters to control. If some are found, traps and baits can take care of them without using toxic chemicals.

Many home products contain chemicals that sensitive people react to, including dust removers, fabric softener, hair sprays and perfumes. Most can be used sparingly or dispensed with, Salares says.

She particularly deplores the use of air fresheners and deodorizers. "They're just chemically simulated odours that don't help the air quality, masking smells you wouldn't have if the house was clean and dry."

In new or newly renovated homes, a lot of the off-gassing comes from materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially formaldehyde. The off-gassing can take up to 15 years, which explains why older homes are often less toxic to the environmentally sensitive than new ones.

During the past decade, water-based paints and finishes have been developed that don't contain these toxic compounds.

Pressed wood, often used to build kitchen cabinets, shelving, tables and other furniture, also contains high levels of VOCs. Fortunately, many suppliers, such as Home Depot, have begun offering products void of pressed wood.

Turning a home into a comfortable and healthy environment isn't complicated, says Salares.

"All you need is a little energy and a little money," she says. "Giving up stuff in your basement doesn't cost anything. A dehumidifier isn't a major expense. And what you get in return is priceless -- a more comfortable home."

Charles Enman is an Ottawa writer.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004