Prescription to heal a sick house

Health: Mold, mildew, dust mites and other pollutants can make you allergic to your own home. Fortunately, the cures are simple and natural.

April 09, 2000|By Connie Koenenn | Connie Koenenn,Los Angeles Times

Mary Cordaro's 1950s ranch house fits snugly into its Sherman Oaks, Calif., neighborhood, a pleasant three-bedroom yellow stucco with gray trim and a large camphor tree shading the front yard.

Nothing outwardly sets it apart from the other houses on the block, but looks are deceiving.

This is a radical house. It's a mold-free, mildew-free, dust-mite-free, lead-free laboratory for healthy living, with air so pure and ducts and filters so clean that a visitor who comes in wheezing with allergies feels better immediately.

It's a work in progress for the soft-spoken Cordaro, 46, a dogged reformer who has spent the last 10 years fine-tuning an environmental-consultant career she backed into while seeking help for her allergies.

Since she and her husband, screenwriter Scott Davis-Jones, bought the house in 1990, she has painstakingly converted it to a model of a healthy home. Along the way, she has developed an inventory of natural furnishings, paints and building products to help her clients deal with allergies and chemical sensitivities triggered by indoor pollution.

"The point is to get [the home] as tuned to nature as possible," she says of her showcase house. "Your house should be a healing environment."

Cordaro is one of a new breed of designers who look at a house, in her words, "as a living organism with interrelated parts, not just a structure to decorate and fill with furniture."

Matt Freeman-Gleason, owner of Environmental Home Center in Seattle, a major supplier of natural building materials, says the number of environmental consultants nationwide is starting to grow.

"Mary has been an early adapter," he said. "She has a really clear contextual understanding of environment, design and material and how to put them together. She knows a lot."

Environmental consultants are on the cutting edge of a healthy-home movement that continues to grow as more Americans fall prey to "sick building syndrome," which was once viewed largely as a workplace problem.

People are discovering that the American home, which should protect them from the stressful world, is not always a haven. Instead, from roof to basement, a home can be an alarming mix of fumes from paint and dozens of other chemical products, carpeting, vinyl, pressed wood, mold and mildew, along with contaminants such as dust and other microscopic particles, often tightly sealed up in the name of energy efficiency.

"Think of it as a toxic soup," says Mary Ellen Fise of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, which has targeted indoor air as a priority. The culprits are not only the plastics, glues and petrochemicals in building materials, but the luxury carpet, the designer wallpaper and the very sheets and comforters we sleep in.

Such materials can generate unhealthy gases, molds and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor pollution levels can be anywhere from two to 100 times higher than those found outdoors, as residences are increasingly sealed for air-conditioning.

For some people, that's not a problem, but for others, the house they live in is literally making them sick. The American Lung Association puts allergy sufferers at 40-plus million, a rise of almost 15 million since 1995.

Cordaro, whose Integrated Environmental Solutions takes a team approach to solving allergy problems, thinks a homeowner-education effort is in order.

"My clients are a lot of desperate people, and by the time they call me when they are sick with allergies, it's almost always too late. The new coat of paint or the adhesives in the framing or whatever is making them sick is already up."

When she and her husband (a nonsufferer) bought their house, it was a chance to change her environment. She slowly began renovating, combining everything from the ancient art of feng shui to recent advances in the building sciences.

And though the house is still a work in progress, Cordaro says she is entirely well, except for an "occasional sensitivity." The clients she works with are encouraged to take a tour of the Cordaro house, (leaving their shoes at the door) for an overview of what goes in, and comes out, when a healthy house is created.

"The first thing people notice is that there is no carpeting anywhere," Cordaro said, opening the door to a Shaker-simple living room with white walls, natural wood floors, a fireplace flanked with bookcases and wood blinds at the windows.

Instead of carpet, with its thousands of surfaces to trap and hold household volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the floors throughout are maple hardwood finished with a nontoxic, water-based environmental sealer.

Throw rugs throughout the house are "green" cotton (undyed, untreated and unbleached) and silk.

There's a definite serenity to the airy, beamed living room, with its art-lined walls and large piano (Cordaro is an amateur musician), but most of the eco-features have to be pointed out.

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