My Family's Battle With Environmental Illness

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

| March/April 1989

  • 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.

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

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.


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