Healthier materials give house owners a breath of fresh air HOME SICK

January 04, 1994|By Joe Kilsheimer | Joe Kilsheimer,Orlando Sentinel Staff writer Wayne Hardin contributed to this article.

Can your house make you ill? Some scientists say the place you call home can make you sick if you are allergic or susceptible to any of the hundreds of chemicals that waft through new and old houses.

But experts also say new help is available for chemically sensitive people in the form of less-toxic building materials and construction techniques that seal out airborne pollutants. Furthermore, the experts say, living in a "healthy house" could alleviate the symptoms of hay fever and asthma in some people.

"Indoor air is often a lot more polluted than the air outside," says John Bower, founder of the Healthy House Institute in Unionville, Ind., an organization devoted to teaching people how to avoid indoor air pollution. "And the harmful effects . . . can be a lot worse than people realize."

Among the common, indoor air quality concerns are formaldehyde, paint solvents and dust mites. In some areas, radon, asbestos and lead dust in older homes also are worrisome, says Mr. Bower, a mechanical engineer who became interested in the topic in the early 1980s after discovering that the materials used in a home renovation project made his wife sick.

In Maryland, radon and lead dust in homes are major concerns, says Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment. He says asbestos is "not as big an issue as the other two."

Studies involving heavy exposure of radon over time have linked the invisible, odorless radioactive gas to lung cancer.

Mr. Sullivan says state officials estimate that roughly one in five homes in Maryland may have radon above the safety level recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA guidelines suggest action to reduce the gas when it reaches that level in the air, or 4 picocuries per liter.

"You can plot on a state map areas most likely to have high levels, but the message we try to get out to people is that it's in all parts of the state," he says. "Testing should be done no matter where you live."

Lead poisoning, flakes or dust, from paint with high lead content, is most common in houses built before 1950. The lead content in paint was lowered "somewhat between 1950 and 1978" and reduced to a "trace" after that, Mr. Sullivan says. Severe lead poisoning can be life-threatening, and lower levels can cause retardation and learning disabilities in children and affect growth rates.

"Maryland has a substantial amount of housing stock built [when] the paint was in use," Mr. Sullivan says. "It's not just in the city."

The department calculates that Baltimore has 205,000 houses built by 1950, and more than a half-million exist statewide, he says.

Body went haywire

One person convinced of the hazards of indoor air is Cathy Altig, 37, of Sorrento, Fla. Ms. Altig says her old house helped make her sick, but her new house is helping her get better. Ms. Altig grew up with the sniffles, the result of minor allergies that annoyed her more than anything else. But four years ago, her body went haywire.

"I woke up one morning, and I had numbness on both sides of my face. I was nauseated. Everything I ate made me sick. I had trouble breathing," Ms. Altig says. "Eventually, my hair even started falling out."

An array of doctors and specialists were unable to pin down what was causing Ms. Altig's symptoms. But after being sick for 18 months, Ms. Altig says, she began to realize the problem was with her environment. She discovered she had developed a syndrome called multiple chemical sensitivity.

"After I had been sick for so long and no one seemed to be able find out what was wrong with me, I started doing some reading on my own," she says. "And I began to realize what was making me sick were the ordinary chemicals that were in my house and that are present really everywhere in society."

Ms. Altig says she started to recover after she threw out all the household cleaning products and pesticides in her house and stopped having a lawn service treat her yard. She started eating organic foods instead of prepared foods that have chemical preservatives.

"I immediately got better, but after a while I hit a plateau," Ms. Altig says. "And I realized that I wasn't going to recover unless I completely changed my environment. And I couldn't renovate my old house enough to do the job. I had to have a new house."

Ms. Altig began a quest to discover how to live in a less-toxic environment. She discovered that there is an abundance of chemically inert building materials that cut the exposure to low-level chemical fumes and airborne allergens from outside.

Three months ago, Ms. Altig and her parents, John and Delores Tanner, moved into their "healthy house" near Sorrento, an unincorporated community in Lake County, Fla. The three-bedroom, two-bath house sits on a large lot in a rural subdivision where all the homeowners have at least 2 1/2 acres.

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