The healthy versus the unhealthy home
Let me start by saying that many people live in the kind of homes we’re about to discuss. I call these homes “conventional” because this is the standard way most homes are built in North America. So, if you live in one of these homes and you find the following information disturbing, know that you are not alone.
We all make the best choices we can based upon the information we have. The problem is that a lot of vital information has been kept from us making our choices inherently limited. Through a combination of clever marketing, industries that resist change because of their moneyed interests, and a plain old dose of ignorance, it has become very difficult to know what a modern-day healthy home is. Our thinking on this subject is becoming obsolete.
What you need to know
To rectify this situation you need to know, in common sense language, how your house is built and what it’s built from. I’m guessing that about 90 percent of you reading this article (like myself once) have never had these basic principles explained to you in a way that made sense or was interesting. Until you have this very basic understanding you cannot explore what your house does and does not do for you and also what your house may or may not be doing to you. Herein lie many important clues to improving your family’s health and well-being. So let’s set the record straight and then you can decide for yourself what’s true.
What is happening?
For thousands of years people have built homes that were in harmony with nature and healthy for their inhabitants. Today however we are hearing more and more about sick buildings, about people who have become sensitized to all kinds of everyday chemicals, and about the part environmental factors play in some of our most common acute and chronic illnesses such as asthma and allergies. Some newly constructed homes are even sick before anyone has moved in. Many more homes are developing health problems such as poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and mold problems to the point that all of these hazards are becoming part of our everyday terminology. You may even know someone who has been or is currently faced with such problems.
History of the problem
Let’s take a brief look at what is behind many of these problems. As a result of the energy crisis in the early 1970s, construction techniques began to focus more on sealing buildings tightly to conserve energy. Unfortunately, this solution overlooked the occupants’ need for fresh air and the vital role it plays in our overall health and well-being. In solving one problem, we inadvertently created another.
At the same time the petrochemical industry underwent explosive growth, resulting in thousands of chemicals finding their way into all kinds of everyday products including building materials. Architect Paula Baker-Laporte says “There are now more than four million registered man-made chemicals, 70,000-80,000 of which are in common use. We know very little about the health effects of most of these chemicals and even less about what happens when they interact with one another in an enclosed environment. We do know that many chemicals found in building products, and once thought to be safe, are making people ill.”
This combined effect has created an unnatural world that has been undermining our health. Years later we are finally beginning to understand the real price we have paid.
Visualize if you will a home, tightly sealed so that no air (energy) can escape and on the inside the chemical residues of building construction and of everyday living are accumulating day in day out. It’s rather like living in a pressure cooker and being bathed in a kind of chemical soup all day long. The impact on our indoor air quality is huge. When you consider that the average American spends up to 90 percent of their time indoors, is this what we should be breathing? I don’t think so.
How homes get sick
A home can become sick before occupancy as a result of the building materials selected and how the house has been designed. A home can also become sick after occupancy as a result of faulty workmanship and from the activities of the very people who have moved in.
Your home is a living organism
The best way to prevent problems from happening in the first place is to design a house with health in mind. An architect may spend a lot of time designing the proportions and the look of a house, how many rooms, where to put the refrigerator, and so on, but you’d be surprised how few architects know anything about how to design a healthy house or about the health impact the building materials they specify have on the occupants. Aesthetics are no guarantee of health.
I am no architect, but when I discovered Building Biology and how the health of a building affects the health of its occupants, I began to understand buildings from a completely new perspective that I found fascinating. Anyone with an ounce of intuitive sense can grasp these basic concepts easily. Women and mothers in particular do very well; I think it’s because of our nurturing tendencies. Building biology is a very nurture-oriented science. It all begins with considering your home as a living organism — rather like having another member of the family. After all, doesn’t a home require a certain amount of time, energy, and care, just like everyone else?
From a Building Biology perspective your home is your “third skin,” your outermost layer. Your physical skin is the first layer and your clothes are the second layer or second skin. As you start thinking of your home this way, and how it interacts with you and your family, you realize it’s all interconnected. Everything from the materials used to build your home, to the furnishings inside, to how you care for it, need to be considered in an overall plan for health. You have to think holistically and you have to think in terms of systems. When everything works together to support everything else in this way an optimally healthy environment is achieved. To use an anatomical example, if you were attempting to build yourself a healthy body from scratch, and you could choose each major organ and any supporting systems, wouldn’t you choose the healthiest, strongest organs you could? After all, your body has to last you a lifetime. It would be no use choosing a really healthy heart but then using really flimsy veins and arteries: that system would break down sooner or later with catastrophic results. This is one of the key differences between the conventionally designed homes we see everywhere today and the healthy design.
Let me give you some more analogies to take this idea further. In order for a home to be healthy it needs to be able to facilitate a balanced exchange of air and humidity, just like our physical lungs do. This process is a form of breathing. A breathing home needs to be able to allow humidity and air to move in and out of its walls. Homes need to be able to keep warm or stay cool, just like we do.
Thinking this way creates a whole new relationship to how things are supposed to function within our homes. It makes it more personal and easier to understand once you have got the basics. And guess what? You’ve already got most of the basics because you have your own body as a study guide! For example, don’t you feel better when you get some fresh air and sunshine? Well, so does your home. Doesn’t high humidity or low humidity affect how comfortable you feel? Well, it affects your house this way too.
This is how I propose we learn about our homes, how to live in them, and how to take care of them. You may even discover some intriguing things about your own health along the way. In fact you might find it an interesting experiment to use a personal health problem you may be currently challenged by and identify the parallel in your home and see if it needs fixing.
What do we mean by faulty workmanship?
Once an architect has designed your home and all the specifications have been made (which building materials and systems are to be used), then it’s ready to be built. Now your home passes into the hands of the general contractor, the builder, and the sub-contractors. What they physically do or do not do when building, often determines if a home will be healthy or sick.
For instance, the average home often contains multiple tubes of commercial adhesives. But have you ever read the label on a tube of adhesive? Builders and subcontractors use these products on a daily basis without giving a thought to the impact on their health or the future health of the soon-to-be owners of the house they are building.
The use of toxic substances in construction is standard. The average person (builder or homeowner) lacks a background in chemistry and operates under the false assumption that in order for building products to be allowed on the market, they must be reasonably safe. This form of faulty workmanship falls under the category of ignorance. Try walking down the aisle of your local home improvement store where the adhesives or paints are and turn the containers around so you can read the warnings on the back of the label. Don’t be surprised to see warnings such as, “This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.” Does this sound reasonably safe to you?
Other forms of faulty workmanship can result when general contractors and builders are trying to save money or time. It’s not unheard of that one specified building material gets traded out for a cheaper one that’s poorer quality and won’t last as long. They know, but you don’t! Or the sub-contractor runs out of glue and goes down to the local home improvement store and grabs any old commercial glue off the shelf without reading what’s in it and then uses that in your new home. Often these problems arise from a workman being rushed to finish his job and get on to the next one. Someone higher up the food chain wants to make their profit quickly. We are the ones shortchanged and left with what can be dire consequences down the road.
But what about building codes, aren’t they supposed to protect us? Building codes are basic guidelines to ensure a home is sound, but that does not necessarily mean that it’s safe for human health. Code is mostly about making sure the structure isn’t going to fall down or that the wiring will not set the house on fire. Building inspectors are often very busy and only give visual inspections. For example, electrical inspectors don’t usually use equipment such as a multimeter (an electrical measuring device) to check if the electricity is actually flowing where it’s supposed to, i.e., inside the wires. A poorly wired house can lead to all kinds of health problems from headaches to heart palpitations. Most of us, who are not electricians by profession, have no idea our home may be sick in this way because these things are invisible.
How do we pollute our own homes?
Then there are the many ways we pollute our own homes simply by living in them. Part two of Homes that Heal covers this in more detail. There was a study done in Canada where the Indoor Air Quality of six newly constructed homes was checked before the occupants moved in, and then again at one month and then six months later. As would be expected, at first there were very high levels of volatile organic chemical (VOCs — see Appendix A for definition) from the building materials used, such as the toxic chemical formaldehyde. But one of the most significant findings was that at six months the occupant related sources of VOCs were predominant. The occupants themselves became the primary source of pollution! It’s ironic that so many of our attempts to keep our homes clean or to have them look a certain way, actually make things much worse because of the type of products and furnishings we are using. Fortunately, much of this is easily resolved with the right information.
A Word of Encouragement
Turning your home into a health haven is a process, just like raising a child or caring for a family member. It takes time and effort and no one may ever pat you on the back or say thanks, but you will know you did your best, and that goes a long way when you have some of life’s most important responsibilities on your hands, such as raising your children and shaping the face of the future.
According to the American Lung Association “Eighty-five percent of Americans don’t realize the air in their homes may be a health hazard.”
Since World War II the production of synthetic chemicals has increased significantly. In 1945, the estimated worldwide production of these chemicals was fewer than 10 million tons. Today it is over 110 million tons.
According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, nearly half of all Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease and one fifth have two or more chronic illnesses. The annual medical costs of treating chronic diseases are expected to double to almost $1.07 trillion dollars by 2020.
According to Asthma in America, there are currently 14.6 million Americans with asthma, of whom 4.8 million are children under the age of 18. In 1994, 5.8 percent of children under age 5 had asthma (as reported by a family member), a 160 percent increase since 1980!5
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2000, 1,220,100 people were diagnosed with cancer for the first time and 563,100 died from it. It is estimated that environmental factors account for 72% of cancers.
Indoor pollution is estimated to cause thousands of cancer deaths and hundreds of thousands of respiratory health problems each year. In addition, hundreds of thousands of children have experienced elevated blood lead levels resulting from their exposure to indoor pollutants.