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The Business Forum Journal

 

Living and Working in a Healthy Environment

 

By Steven G. Rush

 

Everyone talks about productivity, profitability, and strategic planning – but all of that is secondary if our workplace environment or our homes are interfering with our ability to live healthy and happy lives.  If you, your family, or your employees are experiencing headaches, allergy symptoms, breathing or sleeping problems, or even more serious ailments such as cancer, it’s possible that your office or home is literally making you sick. 

How did our homes and offices, which used to be refuges, become potentially hazardous?  After the energy crisis of the early 70’s, we tightly sealed and insulated our homes and office buildings to save energy.  Ironically, fresh air was tossed out the window!  At the same time, more and more chemicals were added to our carpets, clothes, and building materials.  Unhealthy chemicals and gasses were released into our newly sealed interior environments.  And of course there is gypsum board – that ubiquitous wall and ceiling material that took the US construction business by storm in the 1960’s and is still the most commonly used wallboard material used today.

How can “civilians”, who don’t have the scientific savvy to figure out the cause of indoor air pollution, know what is causing the problem? Well, when there is a crime, the CSI experts arrive on the scene and use their knowledge and high-tech gadgets to figure out what happened.  They find the clues that the untrained observer does not see.  That is what an environmental scientist does with buildings. He or she will discover the sources of environmental pollution, so that a healthy indoor environment can be restored.

The environmental scientist will use one of the newest fields of environmental sleuthing called Building Science — it focuses on the analysis and control of all of the physical phenomena that affect buildings; it involves detailed analysis of building materials and building envelope systems.

Let us look at a few examples of what can go wrong with our indoor environments, how to detect the source of the problems, and how to fix them.

The Big Four Indoor Environmental Problems:

  • Moisture and Mold

  • Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems

  • Unhealthy Chemicals

  • Electromagnetic Fields 

Below are examples of each of the “Big Four” problems, and how some detective work helped find the problem and in most cases create a healthier indoor environment for five clients who had literally been made sick by their environments (some names and specifics have been changed).  Their stories are examples of how we can monitor, identify and control environmental problems that affect our well-being and productivity in our offices and our homes.

PROBLEM: Mold and moisture.

The Client: Mary is a successful Tai-Chi teacher in Los Angeles.  She has the perfect apartment: large, rent controlled (= inexpensive), in a great part of town.  She only eats organic food, keeps her body in great shape, has no health concerns other than an occasional common cold.  But lately she has not been feeling so good.  One of her clients told her that her apartment smelled musty. 

The Diagnosis: Lots of problems: leaky windows were allowing water to get into the wall cavities, and that moisture led to mold growth — a lot of mold growth. Because of bad drainage around the outside perimeter of the apartment, water was seeping into the crawl space.  Mary was advised to see a doctor. The doctor recommended she either move out or get her landlord to fix the moisture and mold problems. Mary didn’t listen to the doctor, and stayed in the apartment for six more months.  By the time she moved out, she was so ill she could not work anymore and some days she barely got out of bed.  It turns out that Mary is severely allergic to mold.

The story:  Mold has been in the news for the last few years.  Why now?  Why wasn’t it making people sick years ago?  Water has always gotten into buildings, but because we are constructing them so tight now it cannot get out!  Buildings used to breathe.   The ubiquitous use of gypsum board is adding to the problem.  Mold likes to eat the paper backing on gypsum board, so that is where the mold grows best.  Where does the water that leaks into the house end up? In the wall cavities where the gypsum board with the yummy paper backing lives! 

Preventive Measures: Keep moisture out of the house.  If moisture is getting in, depending on the how long it has been wet and what kind of material is wet; remove, replace, or dry it.  If you think you have a problem, have a professional check it out. Once the material has been removed, have a pro conduct air tests to make sure all the mold has been removed, or you may just be delaying a recurrence of the mold growth.  A “pro” in this business is an environmental scientist.  Make sure the “pro” is an independent “detective,” who will give you a professional, unbiased opinion about whether the mold removal contractor (commonly called Remediation Contractors) has done a thorough job, and all the mold has been removed.

PROBLEM: Mold and Moisture – another case

The Client: Kathy worked as an assistant in the accounting department of a large Corporation. She worked in a small office in the lowest level (basement) of the building.   She began to feel sick at work.  She was fine in the morning when she first arrived, but as the day progressed, she began to have allergy-type symptoms --- sneezing, run-down, like she was always on the verge of getting a cold.

The Diagnosis: Her employer agreed to hire an environmental scientist to check out her work space, confident that it couldn’t be an indoor environmental problem that was causing Kathy’s symptoms. Air samples were taken for mold spores. The laboratory report showed elevated levels of a type of mold that often causes allergy problems in sensitive people.  Unfortunately, Kathy’s employer would not pay for the additional inspection needed to find the source of the problem, which was probably moisture contamination in the heating ducts that could have been easily remediated. 

The Result: Kathy left the company and sued her employer.  They settled out of court. The details were not disclosed, but it probably would have been much cheaper for the employer (and better for the entire staff) to remediate the problem, and remove the source of the mold.  By the way . . .  her symptoms disappeared within a few days of leaving the company.

PROBLEM: HVAC

The Client:  Bill and Jen decided to have a baby, after Bill finally felt secure in his new role on a popular TV series.  Almost as soon as baby Jeffrey came home, he became sick with constant colds, ear infections, and bronchitis. By the time he was six months old, the poor little guy had been to the hospital four times! Coincidentally, the master bedroom always seemed to be dusty, no matter how often it was vacuumed and cleaned. At first glance, it didn’t seem like those two problems would be connected, did it?

The Diagnosis:  The furnace was located in the basement/crawl space, with lots of dirt, smells, and yucky stuff.  Usually that is no problem.  But in this case, the last person to service the furnace neglected to replace the door that usually seals the furnace from the crawl space.  It just so happens that Jeffrey slept in a low crib by Bill and Jen’s bed.   One of the vents that blow out warm or cool air into the master bedroom is right next to the crib, about a foot from Jeffrey’s face.  This vent is located directly above the furnace in the crawl space.   

The Result:  The door was put back on the furnace; the ducts were cleaned.  The baby’s health improved and the bedroom was no longer dusty!  Most of the HVAC-related problems are more complicated than this.  Often they involve poor quality filters, disconnected ducts or pressurization problems.  These systems are a very important part of keeping a house healthy.

PROBLEM:  Unhealthy Chemicals.

The Client: George was a healthy, middle-aged researcher who suddenly had trouble thinking straight. This was a devastating symptom for someone who makes their living by finding and analyzing obscure facts!  He also noticed that he was more clumsy and uncoordinated than he used to be.  He had lived in the same apartment and worked in the same place for years, so at first he did not suspect it was related to his environment.  But he started researching his symptoms and found that among other possible causes his symptoms matched exposure to pesticides.  He hired an environmental scientist to make an assessment. 

The Diagnosis:  Shortly before he started having symptoms, George’s wall-mounted AC unit had stopped working.  The building owner sent someone over to replace the unit.  In the process of installing the new unit, the worker made a hole about eight inches in diameter below the new unit.  The hole was never filled in, and the wall cavity was left exposed.  The insulation inside the wall cavity was tested and voila!  Very high levels of pesticides were found!

The Result:  George reported it to his landlord and moved out.  He is getting somewhat better, but some of the health damage may be permanent.

PROBLEM: Magnetic fields. 

The Client: Atefeh emigrated to the U.S. from Iran with her family 20 years ago.  She became a citizen, worked hard, and saved enough to buy a condominium.  She lived there for 12 years but often had trouble sleeping. The last five years she has also struggled to recover from brain cancer.

The Diagnosis:  On the wall outside her bedroom was a row of eight electric meters, which provide the power for all eight units in her building.  The electrical wiring enters the building through the outside of her master bedroom wall - the wall where she lays her head every night to sleep.  This created a very high magnetic field, several times more than the recommended maximum level for a bedroom.

The Story: In some European countries, part of the inspection that is done before an owner is allowed to move into a new house includes testing the magnetic fields.  Permission to move in is not granted unless the fields are low enough.  For more information, see http://www.bioinitiative.org/report/index.htm

The Result: Unfortunately, it was too late.  Atefeh passed away.  Did the high magnetic fields cause Atefeh’s brain cancer?  No one can be sure.  But it definitely is a possible cause.

How are you feeling? How is your family doing?  Are you in the market for a new home or place of business?  Do you want to know if it is healthy?  Or how to make it healthier?   You owe it to your family, your employees, and yourself to ensure the environment is healthy.


Steven G. Rush is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute and is the Founder and Principal of Rush Quality Environments, a green-oriented company that specializes in creating healthy indoor environments.  He graduated from Emory University with a BS in biology and a strong foundation in chemistry and has an MA from Duke University in Forestry, specializing in plant physiology.  Steve was a general contractor for several years.  He is a Registered Environmental Assessor with the state of California and has these certifications with the American Council for Accredited Certification:  Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant, Certified Microbial Consultant, Certified Indoor Air Quality Consultant and Certified Mold Remediation Supervisor. He is a certified Asbestos Building Inspector.  Steve has testified at arbitrations, mediations, depositions and in court as an expert witness concerning indoor environmental issues.  He helps environmentally sensitive clients create healthy homes and workspaces.  He also consults with builders and architects to make structures healthy and green.


Visit the Authors Web Site

http://www.rushqe.com


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