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Healthy Housing for
Children with Sensitivities

Debra Wright, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
Ed Lowans, Environmental Construction Network
John Nelms, Homeowner
Bruce Small, Green Eclipse Incorporated

Moderated by
Ken Drolet, Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing Incorporated

National Conference on Children with Sensitivities
Allergy and Environmental Health Association of Canada (AEHA)
Ottawa Branch

Ottawa, 31 May, 1 June 1996

Ken Drolet
Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing Incorporated:

My wife educated me in many of the issues and challenges that face people trying to cope and manage with environmental sensitivities, and to get the message out to others. It's my distinct pleasure to be here with a number of other people who have a wide variety of experiences in the field and are doing their part to try to make the world a better place for all of us.

In many of our experiences as we go through life, we're trying to learn from others. If anything, I've learned over the last couple of decades in managing very large projects, it is that you accomplish things in bite size chunks - small manageable chunks - where you can get others to identify with the problem and see that there's progress being made. Each of the people on this panel have in fact been involved in making those strides and, collectively, those strides build momentum and the successes that were talked about by the previous panel. And when you do get that success idea going, it in fact engenders not only a lot of optimism amongst the proponents but also a groundswell in the other people that need to jump on board and to understand what's going on and to support those initiatives.

So initially I'd like to start by introducing each of the panel members in turn, and then I'll ask each of them to give an opening set of remarks. Then we'll take questions from the floor.

First of all, Debra Wright, who is Senior Advisor, Research and Housing Innovation, with the Ontario Region of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. CMHC has been heavily involved in a number of initiatives that have helped in this area for the last several years. Debra has worked for CMHC for 16 years. During this time she has worked in social housing program development, housing policy, real estate, property management, and since 1992, in the research area. As well as her work in research, one of her current projects is the Toronto Healthy House, which will open to the public in September. This house is unique; it is not hooked up to water or sewers, and uses passive and active solar heating. All waste is treated onsite, and the house is healthy for the occupants and the environment.

She is also currently working on the selection of CMHC's new office, and the healthy materials that are being selected for its renovation. There's obviously an interest in all of us to work and live in healthy environments. So she's practicing a lot of that directly.

Her other current project is CMHC's Ontario Healthy Housing Awards Program. This program was designed to recognize builders and renovators who use healthy building materials and systems in an effort to improve occupant health, save water and energy, and have minimal impact on the environment.

The next person is probably very familiar to many of you. He is a subject matter expert in the environment and health consultant area. He's past president of the Allergy and Environmental Health Association of Canada. Ed Lowans is also coordinator of the Environmental Construction Network, and is a member of the Green Coalition. Mr. Lowans consults for a wide range of government, private and non-government agencies on healthy buildings, advanced design, and environmental issues, and he is the author or co-author of several books and numerous articles, including The Clean Air Guide, Building Materials for the Hypersensitive (CMHC), and The Guide to Green Building Materials (Recycling Council of Ontario). His current projects include developing environmental specifications for community health centres and schools, as well as for cleaning and maintenance materials.

Mr. Lowans is a guest speaker at many international health, building, and environmental conferences, and a guest lecturer for professional organizations, medical schools and environmental organizations. We're delighted to have him here today.

The next panelist is John Nelms. John brings a lot of practical experience in coping with a housing environment for his family, and specifically for his wife. In his case, his wife Kitty suffered from chemical sensitivities and they had to have a house built which she could tolerate. At the stage that I believe they started into this, in the 1983-84 timeframe - actually a lot before that - John's message would be that there would be a lot of research involved in finding out what materials could be used and how to cope with all of the problems.

His experience that he's going to elaborate on is how they not only did it but did it in fine style - a wonderful house - but there are many challenges that face people trying to build custom houses to deal with those sort of environments.

And finally, I'm not going to re-introduce Bruce Small, but you also know him as a very knowledgeable person in this area and I want to emphasize that amongst all of the messages that we should gather from this sort of conference is that we all have to tap into the resources that are available: the experts, the expertise that exists. It's an emerging field. We can all learn; we've got to take advantages of the lessons learned.

First of all, could I ask you, Debra, to speak to us please.

Debra Wright, CMHC:

I'd like to give you some good news. When I first got involved in research in 1992, one of the first things I had to do was give a lecture at a builders association meeting about chemical sensitivities and health. Some of the preamble I got from some of the people before I went to that session was: "Who was this crazy woman from CMHC?" and "What is she talking about?"

I gave my session. It was an hour long. When I finished at the end of an hour, and, of course, I did include the thing about lowered sperm count when dealing with materials, there was dead silence in the room and there were no questions. And I thought, "That's it, I've cooked my goose." Here was my opportunity and I blew it.

At the end of my talk I said that I would be back at our booth, if anybody had any questions. I had people lined up for two hours waiting to talk to me after that session was over.

In the last four years, CMHC has been very active in an educational role with regard to not only the sensitivity issue but also what we call healthy housing, because what we're really saying is that it's healthy for everybody. We need prevention, and it also needs to be healthy for the environment. You've probably heard the expression: "If it's not good for you, it's not good for the environment either."

Since that time the Ontario Association of Architects, the Builders Association, and the various renovator associations have been very active every year in their conferences and their educational sessions. At least half their agenda every year is now based on healthy building materials and systems. We've come a long way in only five years.

I also had the opportunity this week - I spent a few days in Timmins - to work with the victims of the flood up there. There were 120 houses affected, and the message that we were giving them was that it's really important to move in as quickly as possible when you have a flood, whether it's two inches or six feet, which was the case for a good number of people. Mould moves fast. You've got to move faster. Unfortunately the people were devastated with the effects of what would happen, but they were also even more devastated after they learned that a musty basement means you have mould and you need to clean it up. We were able to give them some tips.

We also have some books on cleanup procedures for mould, and cleanup after a flood - they're two dollars - very good guidance if you ever happen to be in that situation.

As was mentioned earlier by several speakers, mould is a much more serious problem than what anybody thought. It now has direct linkages to a lot of ongoing health problems. If you have it in your homes it needs to be attacked. Once you get it cleaned up you need to find out what's causing it and correct the problem as well.

The other project that I'm involved in that I'm quite excited about is the Toronto Healthy House. This house has been five years in development. It will be open to the public September 1 for free tours. The house is totally self-sufficient, which means it's not hooked up to water and sewer, and it uses passive and active solar heating and, as much as possible, benign building materials or non-toxic building materials have been selected, in an effort to show everybody that you can make a house that's affordable and easy on the environment, and also in the long run can save you money. So this is like another offshoot of some of the work that you people have been involved in too, that will affect housing as well.

Ed Lowans
Environmental Construction Network:

I want to just cover some general information and give you some idea of what's been changing in the marketplace. I work primarily in the field, actually working with people who are designing, building and operating what we call built space, which is the bigger picture, as opposed to a room or a building. A lot of things have been happening, both in the research and the application fields. One, is that it isn't quite so hard to get the idea across any more. We actually have a lot of project managers coming to us now - privately funded - who want to incorporate a broad spectrum of environmental issues. That's the first thing that's important. We've been hammering away at it for several years that you can't look at a single issue because you'll make mistakes that will be compounded throughout the process.

So we are able now to talk about a whole range of environmental issues, not just VOCs or particulates, or something like that. It means that the clientele and the public in general are understanding how these relate, and it's much easier to make progress. So it's no longer necessary to fund to get a project under way, although it still really helps because the design feeds have been declining as a percentage of the cost of a building. So it's harder and harder to ask design people to do a lot of additional work when their fees are being cut. But they are interested enough that we are making a lot of progress, but it's going to take a lot of time.

The manufacturers are beginning to get the message that they have to pay attention to environmental issues. Initially that meant that the salesperson had to know what the words were and how to repeat a couple of sentences. We're slowly getting over that stage and they're actually starting to understand why people aren't going to buy their products. So, the range of products that we're starting to have available to use in construction and operation and even clothing and food, etc., is changing quite a bit.

Also, the research is starting to change quite dramatically. In the last year there have been about 20 or 30 international research initiatives just to look at chamber tests for VOCs alone. So the data base - the information that we have to deal with - is growing very fast. It used to be that people like Bruce [Small] and I could talk to the other three or four people in North America who dealt with this stuff, kind of on a first-name basis. Now you need a computer just to keep track of who's doing what across North America and Europe.

I just came back from China, and even though they have severe financial considerations, they're actually quite concerned and surprisingly proactive. Standing in my hotel room on a high floor, I could see 100 high-rise buildings under construction at the same time. And there were approximately the same number elsewhere in the same city that I couldn't see. That's the kind of building boom a lot of people here would like to see for economic reasons, but when you consider that those buildings are being put up rapidly with building materials that might be a problem, we have the chance to look at each building and make some changes in the next building. They're doing a hundred at a time.

The other thing that's changing is that the traditional concentration of what was a pollutant and why you would be worried about it started with smoke stack emissions and outdoor air quality. Most of the research that's been done recently has changed that emphasis and people are starting to understand that indoor contaminants and exposures have a much greater impact on your health overall, and that the types of contaminants are also changing.

VOCs have been the focus for quite a while now. Particulates and things were the previous focus. Now we're getting much more into biologicals, particularly moulds and fungi. The range of effects that they have is broad spectrum where we were looking at single cause and effect considerations, which is where the older orthodox medical and scientific establishment would be, in a world where we have a hundred thousand chemicals in circulation. Any fool can do the mathematics and figure out that it will be hundreds of years before we do all the testing on an individual basis.

A very small percentage of materials have been tested in any comprehensive way for their health effects, let alone their environmental effects. With a biological, for instance, you can have toxicity, allergenicity, and hormonal effects. You can have a whole range of different categories that you can study from a single thing like one mould. And so the breadth and depth of the work that we have to do is really moving very fast, and the kind of information we're giving out to people is moving very fast. Debra just came back from where they're having the floods in Timmins, and they were giving out information on how to deal with the toxic effects of the mould that had only come out of the laboratory and been announced within days or weeks of that event, so things are happening very fast.

What we're really working on, besides just demonstrating working with the design teams and the product people to get them to change the way they work, is persuasive evidence. You heard a lot of discussion about that today. Whenever we can document something in an acceptable manner, for whatever group we're trying to impress, whether it be the courts, which have different requirements than the medical associations or different requirements than the scientific community, we have to work with all of the data that we have to try and find persuasive evidence and to write it in a manner that's acceptable to them.

If you simply rewrite a document you'll often find that you can get something done that you couldn't get done if you called people names and stood in their face and that sort of thing. So as much as the research we do and the demonstration we do, we also have to write things and develop materials so that people can understand it. And that's basically what agencies such as the AEHA are doing, trying to make it understandable.

John Nelms

My wife Catherine became very ill in 1976, so we go back quite a while. After repeated pesticide and fungicide exposures while we were living in an apple orchard - great place to be - we moved to an apartment and the subsequent exposure to pesticides used on silverfish resulted in her becoming bedridden.

She was diagnosed as environmentally hypersensitive in 1977 by Dr. John Maclennan. At that time we moved to the country, to a small bungalow, with hardwood floors and electric heat. It was our belief that we would build our own chemically sensitive house someday, when we had the time to do all the research that would be necessary to undertake such a project.

However, the issue was forced on us by the fact that the farmer who lived behind us was going to plant corn and use herbicides on his crops. He, of course, had no desire to listen to our pleas nor did he want to understand what our problems were.

First, we did persuade him, somehow, I'm not sure how, not to use herbicides for one year, so we had a moratorium for one year to research and build a house.

We began our intensive research into the materials that were necessary to build our house. Thankfully we had already purchased a 25-acre parcel of wooded land not far from where we lived. This turned out to be a blessing because, during the building process of the house, we found that it was necessary to visit the site every day.

We read volumes of material on house building, but at that time, in 1983, there was very little written on housing for the chemically sensitive. The first hurdle was how to find a good contractor. All the material we read clearly stated that you cannot trust your contractor or sub-contractors. Now this was in 1983. I think the times have changed because the awareness of chemical sensitivities is certainly more prevalent and you now can find people who understand your problems and are willing to help or have empathy towards what you are trying to achieve. So it's not as major a problem I would think now, but still, finding a contractor who you can trust and rely on to do as you ask him to do is one of the biggest hurdles that certainly we had. I don't know if it is right now.

Anything could end up being hidden in your walls: cigarette butts, etc., and materials are substituted constantly without the owner's knowledge, which is why you have to have a contractor you can trust.

Here's an example of what we were dealing with at that time. A friend of my father's suggested a builder who we were told had built houses for people with allergies. We had a meeting with this builder and found out that his expertise in this field was that he had installed an electric air filter on the heating system.

During this time we had many long discussions about the house with a friend who is present here today - Bruce Small. We've known Bruce for many years and he was building Sunnyhill at that time. I ended up at a home show in Ottawa and, as I was walking through the show looking for different types of materials and ideas for building our house, I came across a builder whom I recognized from an article I had read in a magazine. I entered the booth and viewed the various houses that this contractor had built. He specialized in building energy-efficient houses with aspects my wife and I wanted to incorporate into our house as much as possible. However, he was busy with other people. Just as I was leaving, he asked if he could help me. I spent the next hour talking to Oliver Drerup, explaining what our problems were, and what kind of house we had to build. His genuine enthusiasm made me know that I had found the right person to build our house, and we had.

Now we had a contractor. We proceeded to work with an architect on the design and launched full time into searching for and testing all building materials. You have to recognize the fact that nobody had done this for us. This was something we had to do right from scratch, and it was an interesting experience. What it involved was getting products and bringing them to my wife's bedroom and having her physically test them. And we had some interesting experiences with various products.

Glasspad is a very compacted insulation. It's basically the same as pink insulation that you see, but it's very much more compacted. I got a one by one square foot sample of this from a builder, walked into my wife's room, and I don't think I got within 15 feet of her and she broke into tears and said: "Get that out of here!" Other words were used, I'm sure. It was an immediate response!

Up until this time the people who were involved with Oliver Drerup were kind of thinking that - as we've probably experienced it - we were a little crazy. When they heard that my wife had rejected this material which they felt was inert, they had a "freakout". However, they did want to find out what was going on, so they contacted Fiberglas Canada. They found out that Glasspad has something in the neighborhood of 1600 times more binder or glue than the standard insulation. So this opened their eyes a little bit to the fact that we were not fooling around, and that my wife was reacting to very serious situations with products.

Another product was vermiculite, which is supposed to be an inert substance. However vermiculite at that time they used to put, I believe, a fungicide into it to prevent mould; and, of course, my wife reacted very quickly to that also.

However, we got through the process of picking out the materials, which was a long involved process. As I said, and Oliver's patience was tested as many products which he perceived and many other people would perceive as inert were rejected by my wife.

The very first thing we actually erected on our property was a sign created by Oliver Drerup which made it very clear - it was the size of 4'x4', very large, and you couldn't miss it - that anybody coming on that property must check with the building contractor or subcontractor about bringing any new material into our house. And it was very well managed by our contractor, and we actually got this house built, believe it or not, where my wife could, did and has for the last 11 or 12 years done very well in it.

The exterior is a wet dash stucco with a metal roof. The interior walls are a mixture of plaster and white silica sand. There is no paint whatever in the house. HaIf the floors are ceramic tile and concrete and the other half are ash hardwood floors. No particle board or plywood was used anywhere in this house. The heating is hot-water baseboard heaters supplied by an electric hot-water boiler. The ventilation was custom designed as the technology was not available at that time. We are now building a new ventilation system because the technology has improved tremendously over the years.

Living in our specially-built house, eating organic foods, nutritional supplementation and a detoxification program have resulted in a major improvement in my wife's health, to the point that at age 35 she was able to have our daughter Emily, who is now six years old. Right now at this very moment she is preparing for her ballet recital.

My daughter has done very well. She is a perfectly normal child. The only known allergies she has are to strawberries and raspberries. She has not, at age six, had one antibiotic; she has never needed it. She has had her colds and flues like every other normal child. She is healthy. My wife, being the perfectionist that she is, when she did get pregnant with our daughter went on a very strict rotation diet. She is also a vegetarian, which is even more interesting when you're on a rotation diet. She did this for the benefit of our daughter Emily. It's had an effect, I think. The house is a major factor. And she has no chemical sensitivities that we know of except for maybe she does get a little hyper from red dyes which we try to stay away from. She is a very healthy little girl and we're quite pleased with the whole situation. We think the house is a big benefit to it.

Bruce Small, P.Eng
Green Eclipse Incorporated:

There are many issues to tackle to design residential space properly for children with sensitivities. The basic strategy consists of minimizing exposure to particulates, biological agents such as mould, bacteria and dust, volatile chemicals and even trace odours, and electromagnetic trigger agents. This alone, however, does not create a home that is tailored to a child's particular needs, and that will be adaptable enough as the child grows older.

One factor to take into account is that the rest of the family may not be sensitive to environmental exposures, or may be less sensitive than the child who may be receiving medical attention because of his or her environmental reactivity. Some 15 per cent of the population in North America is estimated to have some significant sensitivity. Approximately 41 per cent of North American households contain at least one member who can be considered sensitive. This means that almost every second home contains someone who is sensitive. It also means that there may be many homes where sensitive individuals may be present, but in which they are a minority. Designing a home to respond to everyone's needs can be a challenge. Dividing a home into distinct zones that are separately heated and ventilated can provide the flexibility needed to accommodate family members with widely varying levels of environmental sensitivity or hardiness.

The physician may help to determine an appropriate environmental strategy to address a child's sensitivities. This may include modifying the home considerably to provide a margin of safety against adverse chemical and other environmental exposures outside the home. Depending on the particular array of sensitivities, different factors in the child's environment may be more or less important. One child may require a meticulously dust-free environment to stay symptom-free, while another may have little difficulty with normal house dust, but rather could be very reactive to the odour of cleaning compounds and perfumed personal products.

It can make sense to concentrate on those environmental factors which, if controlled or avoided, will afford the greatest margin of safety. At the same time, when other factors can be minimized at a practical cost, it can make equal sense to buy a little insurance by reducing all potential environmental factors, allowing for possible changes in a child's reactivity over time, and recognizing that total load can be important even if some factors do not trigger immediate symptoms.

For a child, it can be very important to appear normal among his or her peers. A strategy which is sufficiently stringent at home may allow a child a wider array of activities outside without triggering symptoms, whereas a strategy at home that inadequately reduces exposures may leave the child more vulnerable to outside exposures, and therefore unable to participate as fully at school or in the neighbourhood among peers.

Children tend to be involved in a world of play involving toys, stuffed animals, dolls, games, presenting the child with a complex set of chemical and particulate exposures. Parents may find that if treated early enough, a child may become used to playing with alternative materials (wood and metal, for example, instead of plastic) and may be satisfied with "alternative toys". Other children will feel left out, through peer pressure, if they cannot partake of toys that are popular with friends. Arranging convenient storage so that it is at least theoretically possible to keep some toys confined while others are receiving attention may help to minimize the child's exposure to contaminants. Ventilated play areas can also make a big difference.

Two periods in particular present design challenges which cannot be avoided if the basic trigger avoidance strategy is successful. One is the transition from childhood to adulthood, with a period of changing interests. During this period the toys may change, and the type of activities may be more consistent with exercising more independence. A child who was content to stay with the family while younger may be eager to spend time at summer camp or in canoes and tents with his or her peers. There may be more school trips and other excursions such as music exchanges with students in other cities or countries. Each new activity may present an environmental challenge to overcome, and the successful home will have prepared the child by allowing a sufficient margin of safety to help bring the sensitivities to a manageable level before this stage of independence begins.

In addition, children may go through periods where their long term ecological management appears to be threatened by their short term success. If they feel better and their bodies become somewhat less sensitive, they may want to expand their activities into areas that present greater environmental hazards, now that they can do so with less penalty than previously. Being able to allow expanded activity without expanded exposures can be tricky both from the physical side and in negotiations.

Ventilation and storage are two key strategies that allow some of the flexibility that these situations demand. If there are places in the home that items can be stored such that no odours from them enter the general indoor air, then hobby materials that can be tolerated on a periodic basis can be stored safely and ventilated to the outside without affecting anyone in the home, provided there is enough room in the home for this strategy.

Changing economic and social circumstances can also wreak havoc with a home environmental strategy, unless the design foresees a need to accommodate such changes. For example, consider a home where standard high-emitting materials are chosen for interior finishing, but they are offset by extensive central charcoal air filtration to remove odours. At the time of design, there might have been enough funds to consider low-pollution material, or a central air filter, but not both. Such a home will not help a family weather a recession, particularly if family income were to drop during such a period. Not being able to afford replacement filter media will leave a family without an environmental strategy at a time when the overall stress would require even more careful environments.

The bottom line in complex design is co-ordination and integration. Many factors must be taken into account at once in order to make things work. The goal in designing healthy housing for a child with sensitivities is to return the child to full working order as quickly as possible, and to enable as normal and as full a life as can be achieved without triggering chronic illness. Design for a family with varying degrees of sensitivity requires sufficient zoning and ventilation to allow everyone else to lead normal lives, in addition to the sensitive child.

Ken Drolet

One of the things that's come out is that we need to take advantage of not only the experience, the expertise, the body of knowledge that's available, but we've got to try to anticipate changes. We're in an evolving area and we certainly need to be open to ideas, but try and think ahead. We can't just concentrate on today's issues. We've got to plan for tomorrow as well.

Questioner #1: We have a house built in the 1920s. How do we identify somebody who could assess the quality of our indoor environment? There are a number of people who claim to have credentials. How do we make sure that we get somebody that's highly qualified?

Bruce Small: Ask them the most detailed questions using your own language for sensitivities and see how many of them respond knowing what you're talking about. If they don't, be suspicious because the kind of inspection that you'll need for a family with sensitivities is an order of magnitude different than the kind of inspection someone may want in order to find out about carbon dioxide levels in an office or things like that. You'll want subtle exposure levels and they really have to understand what you're talking about. If you get suspicious that they're trying to sound like they know what they're doing and they don't, you're probably correct.

Debra Wright: If you have a copy of The Clean Air Guide from CMHC, one of the major tips in there is to close all your windows and doors. First, put your garbage out. If you can, stay out of your house for eight to ten hours, and if there's more than one person in your family, that's even better. Open the front door, walk in the house, and follow your nose. Your nose is actually a lot more sophisticated than a lot of the testing equipment that's out there and that will direct you to where there's a problem in your house. Now it could be some old carpet that's deteriorated. It could be a leak that's behind a wall. It could be a number of things. That could be a good first start before you go out and spend a lot of money.

Ed Lowans: If they're trying to sell you tests, little kits and things like that, or you get quick and dirty answers, if there are hundreds of thousands of variables, you know, five-, ten-, twenty-dollar tests and there are three or four of them, that's definitely not the person you want to talk to. That's the person you want to stay as far away from as is humanly possible.

Debra Wright: People think that they need formaldehyde tests done because so many people are allergic to formaldehyde. The test will tell that you have formaldehyde readings of "x", but it won't tell you it's that chair you bought six months ago that's giving you the problem.

Questioner #2: CMHC has developed or has started courses for people to go into homes to do environmental testing. If this kind of test is standardized, and under CMHC, then it should be pretty reliable. Anyone looking for someone, call CMHC in your area.

Debra Wright: The first course is starting in June, and from there they will have to go on an apprenticeship program before they can be recognized as being able to go into homes and look for problems for people who are chemically sensitive. But there are definitely some experts who are out there already.

Questioner #3 (to John Nelms): You have hardwood floors. What did you put on the floors? Second question, for anyone in the panel, do you want to talk about radon gas and basements?

John Nelms: The best product we found was a standard polyurethane we used, but it took two months of gassing out with air purifiers in the house before my wife could move in. We do not allow people in our house with shoes on. The floor has stood up very well in the last 12 years. It is an ash floor because oak floors when they get exposed turn black.

There are new products that you will find in the new CMHC book that my wife feels good with after about two weeks. It took us 13 months to build our house. Two months of that was letting the house air out after the use of polyurethane on the floors.

Ed Lowans: I brought a sample of bamboo because it's quite different. This happens to not be wood, and it's non allergenic compared to most of the woods. In the process of trying to figure out what to put on bamboo, we did another round of calling to all of the paint manufacturers, and the latest generation - the third generation - of waterborne coatings is now available. So we're in the midst of testing that whole new generation of products, and they're 100 per cent urethanes, but they're water borne and so there's no solvent in the conventional sense.

Up until now we've had to use combinations of acrylic and urethane but they're much softer than traditional urethanes and that's why it was difficult to get them into the marketplace because any pro who was going to guarantee the durability of the finish wasn't going to be happy, and neither were you if it wore off. It took ten years to go through that whole phase.

In terms of radon, don't trust anyone who is selling you tests. The only test you probably should look at in a home is a radon test, and you can get a small unit for about $25 that you place in the basement, BUT you must follow the instructions. One of the problems with testing is that if you don't use the proper method, the value of the test is low. And you usually have to do radon tests twice a year: once in summer conditions and once in winter conditions because they're very different. It's fairly easy to do something about radon, and you must consider that there are a lot of soil gasses as well as radon and sewer gasses, all coming out of the same places, usually the floor drain, for instance, and you can use a very sensitive instrument. The little hairs on the back of your hand are much more sensitive than the other instruments that we have to play with. And then you can feel for a draft. And what's coming out of these is not something to have in your house whether it's radon or not and, you want to seal off all the cracks and fissures.

Questioner #4: I found this interesting because I have MCS and I'm in the process of trying to fix up a three-year-old house that has formaldehyde ridden particleboard counters and floors, carpets and underpadding, paint and just about the whole ball of wax.

How can I test prefinished materials for flooring?

Bruce Small: The supplier will probably have a sample they can give you. A square foot is a good size because it will allow you to test it not only in a clean room, but if you think that it's going to be okay, then double test it by sticking it beside your pillow at night. We've had lots of success with prefinished hardwood.

Ken Drolet: In Barrhaven we spent a lot of effort choosing a wood that was acceptable to a lot of sensitive people. It turned out that basswood was the wood that was used, because it was not going to be a problem. But prolonged exposure turned out to be a problem. Long exposures and very controlled duration tests are important if you are extremely sensitive. Shorter tests may not give you the indicator that you need.

Ed Lowans: Some prefinished materials do have a bit of wax in them and that's one that you don't want to have because you can't fix a later problem by putting a new coating on top, it won't stick to the wax. Make sure that it's not one that has wax.

Debra Wright: If you're going to get a sample, make sure it's a new sample and not one that's three or four years old.

Questioner #5: Radon - I've seen some tests that suggest that using HEPA filtration has very effective capture rates on radon decay products, but these radon products, do they re-evaporate back to radon gas and have an impact?

Ed Lowans: They used activated carbon to see how much it will take out. After a while it no longer takes out radon. Ventilating and sealing the basement is a better solution.

Bruce Small: The radon can be a proxy for soil gasses in general and getting it at the source makes a lot more sense than trying to filter it out. You might also contact Doug Walkinshaw who has both kits and major construction procedures for doing sub-slab ventilation to depressure under the slab.

Questioner #6: It's important to consider how materials are stored during construction. If materials are sitting onsite with dust all over them....

Ed Lowans: Cross-contamination is a key issue. It's fine for adults to talk about all this stuff, but if children talk about symptoms we often discount it and you usually can find that if you pay attention to children and if you talk to them like adults they'll talk back to you like adults and they'll give you pretty valuable information. It's important not to discount a lot of what children say. If they say they've got aches and pains for certain reasons or in certain places, or when they have certain foods, it's all valuable information. You just have to figure out whether in the long run it's consistent.

Ken Drolet: Thanks.

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