Minimizing Indoor Air Pollution

A spouse's heightened sensitivity to toxic fumes prompted one family to build a house that produces minimal indoor air pollution.

| March/April 1989

  • indoor air pollution - illustration of house
    The Bower family needed a home that was free of indoor air pollution.

  • indoor air pollution - illustration of house

Our house was designed to minimize indoor air pollution. While such a house is probably a good idea for most people, it was an absolute necessity for my wife, Lynn, who is extremely sensitive to the many pollutants that our society takes for granted. She cannot tolerate such things as exhaust fumes, household cleaning products, synthetic fragrances, and printing ink. Scientists are in agreement that these substances are toxic in high doses, but the growing segment of the population that exhibits symptoms at low doses was largely unexpected.

In fact, a commission at the National Academy of Sciences recently estimated that about 15% of the U.S. population may have increased sensitivity to low doses of pollutants. Symptoms vary tremendously depending on the individual and the toxin. In Lynn's case, diesel exhaust fumes cause her speech to become slurred, while gasoline exhaust results in hyperactivity. Polyethylene sheeting, also a petroleum-based product, can trigger instant depression. Other exposures bring on other symptoms.

In 1976, Lynn and I bought and remodeled a multistory house built in 1850. The building had asbestos-cement siding and lead-based paint — typical pollutants in old houses. We gutted the interior and brought it up to 20th-century standards by adding such things as synthetic carpeting and new cabinets containing particle board. By the time we were finished remodeling, she was confined to bed. Her system was overwhelmed, and practically every organ in her body was affected. Today, though her health is much improved, she remains sensitive to many things and, as a result, is severely restricted in what she can do.

Getting rid of all the toxic cleaning products under the kitchen sink was easy. Buying 100% cotton clothing without any chemical treatments was more involved. Finding a building site 500 feet away from traffic fumes and agricultural chemicals took time. But the real difficulty came in actually building a home she could tolerate.

Many building materials release a variety of chemicals into the air as they age (this is called outgassing), and these fumes bother many sensitive people. New-car smell is a result of outgassing of upholstery and plastic. Formaldehyde is one of the major gases given off by carpeting, hardwood plywood, particle board and some insulations. Lynn is even bothered by the natural aroma of softwood framing lumber. Asphalt fumes from roof shingles are also a problem, as are most paints.

Though many experts blame high levels of indoor pollution on the trend to seal houses from air leakage, we decided to build our house as tight as possible. Every house needs fresh air. Some builders rely on random infiltration, but we have the advantage of being able to control and filter our air supply. Our house is well enough sealed that practically all exchanging air passes through a charcoal filter fitted to a heat-recovery ventilator capable of changing indoor air once per hour. Stale air registers are located in the kitchen, bathroom and all closets, and fresh air enters through a grille in the central hallway. In this way, good air circulation is assured, and all rooms are vented to the outdoors.

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