Experimental home for people with chemical allergies is beset by irritants

April 23, 1995|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Special to The Sun

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Inside the nation's first subsidized housing for the chemically sensitive, the molecules are flying.

Once hailed by some as a sanctuary for people allergic to the chemicals of modern life, while ridiculed by others as a nonsolution to a nonexistent medical problem, the experiment at the trim, gray-and-white apartment building known as Ecology House has turned into something of a disaster.

The 11-unit building, built last year in a San Rafael residential area with a heavy contribution from the federal government, was the idea of a concerned local group.

The plan was to construct apartments that had minimal amounts of toxic glues, paints and sealers, so that extremely allergic individuals could breathe freely.

A "sniff team" sniffed, and sometimes slept with, hunks of gypsum board and plaster that were to be used in construction to detect offensive odors. A sophisticated water-filter system was installed, along with tile floors and high-powered ventilators. Even the flowers in the courtyard were scent-free.

But according to residents, paint and plaster fumes have caused one tenant to move out, another to sleep on the balcony and a third to drag her futon into the bathroom to sleep. Two-thirds say they are sicker now than they were to begin with, all because of the hasty, easily avoided use of toxics, they say.

"I'm not a scientist, but I think the walls are the biggest contributor," said Jan Heard, a former post office letter carrier who said she became disabled with multiple-chemical sensitivity. Since moving into Ecology House, she has used an oxygen tank to breathe.

"No one is able to sleep in their bedrooms," she said.

For those who argue that multiple chemical sensitivity is an unproven illness, the apparent failure of Ecology House is further evidence of the subjective nature of the disease.

Dr. Wallace Sampson, former chairman of a California Medical Association committee on health education, said the Department of Housing and Urban Development never should have funded $1.2 million of the project, about two-thirds of the construction cost.

"The grant was given despite scientific evidence that there probably is no such illness as environmental illness," Dr. Sampson said. "When it didn't work, they blamed the building. This was predictable."

He said he believed 90 percent of the cases of environmental illness are examples of a "somatization disorder" in which a person blames external causes, such as chemicals, for internal problems, such as depression.

"It's not to say they don't feel ill, but in all likelihood it is not due to external events," said Dr. Sampson, a professor at Stanford University Medical School. He said the illness is "psychologically contagious," spreading from one person to another.

The other 10 percent of the cases, he said, were of "undetermined" nature.

Yet thousands of people say they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity. Most of the residents at Ecology House say they had at least one severe exposure to a toxic substance, such as polluted ground water, and afterward became severely allergic to everything from fabric softener to perfume to new paint.

In its most serious form, the illness is recognized as a disability by the Social Security Administration and HUD under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The concerned Marin County residents who came up with the idea for Ecology House are among those who are most dismayed by the tenants' complaints.

"Probably about three people are extremely happy and like being here," said Katie Crecelius, spokeswoman for the nonprofit corporation that owns Ecology House, which now houses nine low-income tenants. "The rest have some degree of dissatisfaction.

"We've always known we could not build a building that everyone with multiple chemical sensitivity could live in. We're saying, 'Hey, here's the product.' We tried very hard to make it as safe as we could but if it isn't safe, you need to move."

When Ecology House opened last fall, nearly 100 people from around the country applied in a lottery for the small, one-bedroom units. But even before the first tenant moved in, problems were apparent.

The first difficulty was the white baked-enamel kitchen cabinets, which gave off a distinct paint odor even to the noses of the nonchemically-sensitive.

Bruce McCreary, an Arizona electrical engineer who consulted on the project, said the developers accepted a slightly lower bid for the baked-enamel cabinets instead of powdered enamel cabinets that emit fewer fumes. Pressured to get tenants paying rent by Nov. 1, the developers installed the odoriferous cabinets anyway, he said.

"They had a fantasy that somehow the cabinets would miraculously get better," said Mr. McCreary. "If it's a baked enamel and it's bad, it's going to be bad for a long time."

The problem became compounded when tenants began to suspect that the fumes from the cabinets were sinking into the walls, which were themselves suspected of emitting a toxic odor.

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