My Family's Battle With Environmental Illness

Add environmental illness to the list of potential hazards from remodeling, or the modern world in general.

environmental illness - illustration of a medical thermometor jutting from the roof of a house

Remodeled lately? Your very own home could be a source of environmental illness.

ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF AND CULVER PICTURES

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Have you heard of environmental illness? Do you have an opinion as to whether it’s real or imaginary? Let me tell you about what happened to my family when we undertook a major remodeling project.

Don’t ask me why the impetus for such things always seems to come right before a major holiday. I'd have to guess that there's something about the panic that accompanies torn-out walls and plaster dust that heightens the emotions of the season. In any event, a week before Christmas 1987 found me and my family with a bare concrete slab for a living-room floor and stacks of furniture for a dining room.

The mission had been simple enough to start with. We were finally going to rip out the disgusting green shag we'd loathed for over eight years. But at the same time, of course, the old nonstructural partition had to go, the new woodstove pad had to be built, the tacky old paneling had to be replaced with new dry wall, and there were new baseboards to install.

In short, this was your average "simple" job. The sort that proved once again that each part of a house is connected to other parts of a house. One that exemplified what Old House Journal calls the mushroom factor.

Anyway, after the inevitable delivery delays and being stood up only once, we finally got the carpet installers in on a Friday, the last day the children were in school before the holiday break. The two men bustled in and out, the door standing open most of the day, hauling in sheets of the thick, pink foam pad that goes below the carpet and, at last, the extra-heavy-pile Berber. We'd opted for the best we could afford, in the hope that the carpet might outlive us, if not our children. Not long after the installers were gone and the doors were closed, our wish began to take on a new meaning.

The odor was sweet, yet with an acrid edge. Pungent but not unpleasant — for the first hour or so. That evening, though, as we curled up on the couch to admire the fruits of our depleted bank account, our symptoms went beyond the olfactory. Runny noses, sore throats, a sort of disoriented lightheadedness that later degenerated into awesome headaches. We assumed we were coming down with a bug and retired for the night to sleep it off.

Not until Saturday morning when I headed for the living room floor to stretch did I begin to piece together what was going on. I'd felt somewhat better upon waking — the bedroom being in the far end of the house from the new carpet — but the headache came back with a vengeance while I lay on my back doing leg lifts. It was clear that our new carpet was making us sick.

The days that followed were full of confusion. Since it was Saturday, the carpet store was closed. In the vague hope that whatever was bothering us might have affinity for activated carbon, I called a friend who uses large quantities of charcoal in his business. We spread more than 400 pounds of the stuff on the floor and left it overnight. By Sunday morning we all felt a little better, so I picked up the carbon. By Sunday night we were even worse. Besides the earlier symptoms, my wife was now intermittently nauseated and had intestinal cramping, the children were behaving poorly and complaining of headaches, I felt nervous and clumsy, and we were all quite irritable. At this point we seriously considered moving to a motel for a few days.

First thing Monday I called the carpet dealer. No, he'd never heard of such a thing happening. And no, it couldn't be formaldehyde; the carpet manufacturer didn't use any. I called the manufacturer anyway, and a technical representative confirmed that they used no formaldehyde in their processes. He did suggest that I contact the pad manufacturer with the same question and check the ingredients of any dirt-resistant coatings applied by the dealer.

Back on the phone to the dealer, I got plenty of assurances about the coating, but he couldn't tell me much about the pad. Seems it was made in England and conformed to all pertinent standards. He promised to get specifications from the manufacturer. Meanwhile, I checked with the library about those standards. Turns out there were none for outgassing of toxic substances; the regulations were strictly for fire resistance. Research had reached a dead end.

Within three days I came down with a virus like none I'd experienced since childhood. My temperature bounced to 104°F on several days, and I was out of commission through Christmas and New Year's Day. We spent the holidays with the windows open and the woodstove going full tilt. Severe symptoms of toxic exposure persisted in all of us for about a month (long after the odor was gone), during which time everyone eventually came down with my bug. Thankfully, no one else got as sick as I did. There is, of course, no way to prove it, but I suspect that we were more susceptible to the infection because of our raw mucous membranes and generally weakened condition.

The dealer never came through with any information on the pad, and his attitude indicated increasingly that he thought we were hypochondriacs. Later that year I came across a review of a lawsuit against a carpet dealer and manufacturer over a similar problem, which we dropped off for his perusal. His look of worry is the only satisfaction we've gotten. Lucky for him that we aren't the litigating sort.

A year later, I've been unable to find conclusive evidence about what made us sick. Because I have the least information about the pad, I'm prone to blame it. But, with the help of experts, I have figured out a few other things about environmental poisoning. For one, our case isn't all that unusual. Remodelers are much more prone to have problems because they get higher doses. New homes usually sit unoccupied for weeks after finish materials go in. I've also learned a lot about sensitization — enough to know that, though I have become somewhat sensitized, it could be very much worse.

Even my comparatively mild experience with environmental poisoning has left me deeply suspicious. Might this have anything to do with my low tolerance for pain medication after recent surgery? Is it a coincidence that I had an allergic reaction to a bee sting last summer? What about the rashes my daughter started getting that we thought were because we'd switched laundry detergents? How else might this be affecting my family that we haven't yet recognized?

I know environmental illness is real because I've had it. And maybe now you wonder if your home is be making you sick. If so, have a look at Do You Live in a Sick Home?