It’s not easy to know if your home sweet home could be making you sick, because symptoms of environmental illness (a long list that can include irritation of the eyes, throat, skin, and nasal passages, as well as headaches and fatigue) can have many causes. But your house may indeed be the culprit if you notice you consistently feel better outside than indoors, or you start feeling lousy after: moving into a new home; remodeling your current one; bringing in a new piece of furniture; or using a new product.
When 50-year-old architect Paula Baker-Laporte comes home, she pulls off her shoes and enters an airy refuge. Sinking into a window seat, she basks in the New Mexico light that dances across exposed timber frames. She rests her eyes on the greenery of an indoor garden and unwinds as the scent of the evening drifts in.
Life wasn’t always this bucolic. Ten years ago something was wrong, and Baker-Laporte knew it wasn’t just in her head. She felt sapped and exhausted most of the time. She suffered from a chronic cough, recurrent bronchitis, and digestive disorders. Her home offered no respite, and every time she went out on a job–whether to a remodeling project or a house under construction–she felt even worse.
Baker-Laporte’s friend and doctor, Erica Elliott, was stumped. Then, oddly enough, Elliott herself began experiencing similar symptoms. A mountaineer and marathon runner accustomed to vigorous good health, she began feeling increasingly fatigued, compounded by a flu-like malaise that flared up monthly like clockwork.
With the help of a colleague trained in environmental medicine, Elliott traced her own illness to what seemed an unlikely source: the very air she breathed. Whenever the wind shifted outdoors, toxic fumes from the heavy-duty cleaning products used at her medical clinic wafted into her work area; the building’s exhaust was right next to the air intake vent. To add insult to injury, every four weeks a pesticide company sprayed the office baseboards with the neurotoxin Dursban.
As Elliott became more familiar with chemical exposure and its symptoms, she suggested that Baker-Laporte, too, take a close look at her surroundings. Sure enough, the architect soon learned that in the course of her workdays, she was regularly breathing in formaldehyde, a fungicide and component in glues, as well as other airborne compounds that drifted out from new cabinetry, paints, drywall, plywood, and carpets. At last they had a diagnosis: Both doctor and patient were suffering from environmental poisoning. Instead of providing environments that fostered health, Elliott’s clinic and Baker-Laporte’s homes were making them sick.
It was a rude awakening for both. In fact, Baker-Laporte thought she might even have to give up her career. To make matters worse, she was already in the midst of building a home for Elliott. The doctor told Baker-Laporte that they would simply have to change their plans: The Dursban at the office had made her sensitive to all kinds of chemicals, including those commonly found in homes and used in construction materials. “I told her she couldn’t design a regular house, because I couldn’t live in it,” Elliott says.
But instead of giving up on the house or on her career, Baker-Laporte simply redefined her professional identity. “Once I realized these things were harmful not just to me but to my clients, too, building healthy houses became a mission,” she says.
Together the two friends set out on a path that led them to a new way of thinking about where and how we live. Now, nearly a decade later, they dedicate themselves to teaching others how to make their homes into nurturing sanctuaries.
But keeping dangerous toxins out is only half the story. They also emphasize bringing in elements from the natural world that make a home feel peaceful and relaxing. Creating a home, they believe, is like practicing holistic medicine: Just as the best doctors look at the body as an integrated whole, so should we look at the dwellings that contain us.
The quest Baker-Laporte and Elliott embarked upon a decade ago gained new urgency early this year with the publication of two perception-shattering studies. Most of us believe we can keep toxic pollutants out of our bodies if we take care of the basics–eat healthful foods, drink clean water, breathe fresh air. But when researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Commonweal, and the Environmental Working Group tested that assumption by analyzing blood and urine from nine people–all environmental and health activists who thought they led “clean” lives–the results were shocking. The volunteers’ bodies carried traces of literally hundreds of chemicals: 76 linked to cancer, 94 toxic to the brain and nervous system, 86 that disrupt hormones, 79 associated with birth defects, 77 toxic to the reproductive system, and 77 toxic to the immune system. Among them were well-known poisons like PCBs, dioxin, organophosphates, lead, and mercury.
It’s not clear exactly how these low doses of multiple chemicals might affect health. While the hazards of sudden contact with large amounts of single toxins are well known, little attention has been given to long-term, low-level exposure from many sources. But Elliott has a theory about how it might work, based on her experience with patients suffering from environmental illness, which is now her specialty. One toxin builds on another, she says, increasing our sensitivity and making it harder for our bodies to process the damage. Formaldehyde, for example, triggers the immune system to react more strongly to other irritants–as Baker-Laporte experienced each day on the job.
In extreme cases, people can develop multiple chemical sensitivity, in which even minute exposure to chemicals can trigger disabling symptoms such as seizures, loss of balance, and diarrhea. More commonly, though, people find themselves plagued by garden-variety ailments like headaches, sinus congestion, asthma, allergies, fatigue, colds, and flu.
It seems that many of the invaders in our bodies gained entry years ago, the result of environmental exposures to long-banned chemicals. In a much larger study than the one by the Mount Sinai team, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hunted for toxins in the bodies of 2,500 people and found many old-timers, including DDE, a breakdown product of the insecticide DDT, which was banned in 1973.
On top of all the toxins we have little control over, many other contaminants come from household products we bring into our homes every day. According to the EPA, indoor air can be more polluted than the air on a busy city street. And in some areas, common household products such as cleaners and cosmetics are second only to automobiles as a source of air pollution. “We’re actually poisoning ourselves in our homes and our workplaces every day,” says Elliott.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to build a house from scratch, you can avoid many of the toxic offenders. The two friends’ first “holistic home” was the house Baker-Laporte had begun building for Elliott. They had already bought cabinets, so they used a nontoxic sealer to lock in fumes from the processed wood. Elsewhere in the house they chose untreated wood–no preservatives–and nontoxic finishes, such as paints that don’t emit volatile organic compounds. Slowly, the health-friendly building took shape: They used tiled floors in place of carpets that would trap allergens, and created an entryway where people could remove their shoes to avoid tracking in particles from the outdoors. They added a drain in the laundry room floor to guard against mold.
But here’s good news even for those of us who aren’t building a brand-new house: There’s a lot we can do, too, to reduce our exposure to toxic products. Elliott helps her patients identify–and find substitutes for–the many offenders in their homes. These days, environmentally healthy home products abound for virtually every room in the house.
A healthy home, however, requires more than just the absence of certain bad actors. In creating Elliott’s home, the doctor and Baker-Laporte also thought carefully about elements to invite inside, such as light, fresh air, and greenery. They considered how to enhance the relationship between the living space and the New Mexico landscape they loved, and how to intertwine the inside and the outside in ways that support well-being. Glass doors, for instance, open onto a beautiful garden. “Nature really is healing,” says Baker-Laporte. “A house can provide an opportunity to connect with it.”
Sarah Conn, director of the Cambridge-based Ecopsychology Institute at the Center for Psychology for Social Change, would agree. On a very basic level, she says, sunshine and fresh air are mood boosters: “People can be nourished in a way that reduces depression and anxiety.” Conn, who teaches sustainable design to architects, believes that even if you’re in a fifth-floor apartment, you can take advantage of the healing aspects of nature by bringing it indoors.
Start by focusing on air and light. If you can, throw open your windows to allow fresh air to flow through the rooms. That will help to disperse any indoor air pollutants that have built up in your home. And start collecting houseplants, which can soak up toxic gases as well as please the eye.
We also need sunlight to thrive. Indeed, we’re hardwired to respond to it. So find ways to bring more of it into a room. If a skylight is out of the question, try placing mirrors where they’ll reflect an outdoor view or a beautiful plant. “This puts you more in touch with the cycles of nature,” Baker-Laporte says. “The space becomes more alive.” Mirrors will also reflect light and make a small space feel larger, adding to the feeling of comfort and ease. Move a comfy chair closer to a window to give yourself a place to bask. (Who knows, all this might even give you a brainpower boost: In an Orange County, California school, student test scores jumped 12 percent after natural light was introduced into classrooms.)
If the views outside your windows aren’t as refreshing as you’d like, it’s easy to dress them up by planting clambering ivy or flowers outside, or in a pot inside. If a vista is truly uninviting, tape some handmade Japanese paper, which looks beautiful when illuminated, to the inside of the glass.
And don’t neglect the obvious: The busier your life, the more important it is to have at least one place in your home–whether it’s just a corner or a whole room–that’s a soothing place of respite. Bring in a tableau of natural objects that make you feel good–seashells from a favorite beach trip, say, or stones collected on a hike–and arrange them on a shelf or small table with plenty of space around them. If there’s room for a tabletop fountain, so much the better. Spending a few quiet minutes each day in a place that brings you peace can do wonders for your spirits.
Just ask Baker-Laporte, who’s infinitely happier and healthier in the all-natural home she has since built for herself. Since moving in, she says she has reaped a sense of well-being that grows stronger every year. Comparing her life now to her earlier one, she says, “It’s like night and day. You can’t feel peaceful if your body is at war with its surroundings.”
What You Can Do
For a detailed look at common sources of indoor air pollution, their health effects, and solutions, check out The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. This report, from the EPA, can be found online at EPA.gov.
If you want to measure pollutant levels in your own home, contact your state or local health department for a list of companies that provide testing.
Send Toxins Packing
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do to lighten your chemical load is to dispose wisely of any toxic products you’ve collected over the years. Pull on the rubber gloves and bring the containers down to your local hazardous waste collection center. Call 1.800.CLEANUP or check www.cleanup.org for locations.
Clear the Air
It’s not something most of us give a lot of thought to, but stuffy, allergen-laden indoor air can drain both your energy and your spirits. Here are a few tips from Elliott and Baker-Laporte to help you breathe easy at home.
- Make use of bathroom and kitchen fans to keep air moving. If your fans are so noisy that you never use them, look into replacing them: Many inexpensive new models are whisper-quiet.
- Consider getting rid of carpets, particularly wall-to-wall types, the next time you’re redecorating. Older carpets will eventually stop emitting fumes, but even regular vacuuming won’t be able to collect all the dirt, dust, and microorganisms residing there. Tile, cork, hardwood, and bamboo are all good flooring alternatives.
- Upgrade your vacuum cleaner to one with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate arrestance) filter, which can collect mold and dust-mite droppings and won’t belch them back into the air the way other models can.
- Retrofit forced-air heating or cooling systems with an intake to pull in fresh air and a HEPA filter to trap pollutants.
- Replace the filters in any air-handling system regularly; check and promptly repair any damaged flues, chimneys, or ductwork.
The quest for a squeaky-clean home can create more problems than it solves, since conventional cleaners tend to be loaded with chemicals. Luckily, many products are available in natural food stores (and sometimes even mainstream ones) that rely on natural substances to fight grime.
By Sally Lehrman,
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