Surviving Illness from Home Renovations

by Danita Dubinsky Aziza
UPdate Winter 1997

There is nothing uncommon or particularly bizarre about a thirty-two year old married professional woman with two young children wanting to own a home.

In March 1993, my husband and I purchased our first home.  It was an older home built in the 1940’s and as my husband was a particular fan of the popular television show, “This Old House”, we took to the task of transforming the home into a modern home of the 1990’s.

We moved into our completely renovated home at the end of May.  Up until this time I was an ideal friend of OHIP, never seeing a doctor except for my yearly physical.  I worked part-time for the City of Toronto as a consultant, raised two children with my husband and generally led what I had always considered a very fortunate life.

In June, after having lived in the house for two weeks, I developed a feeling of pressure under my right eye.  My face felt as if all the pores had closed and I awoke in the morning with a feeling of light-headedness that would come and go throughout the day.  My family physician did a thorough physical and ordered all the necessary blood work.  Fortunately there was nothing wrong, but why was I feeling so awful?

As the weeks wore on my symptoms expanded to tingling in my fingers and feet, somewhat blurred vision in my right eye, and unexplained bruises that would appear on my body.  I was unable to sleep at night and I would feel either very tired, or somewhat hyper and unable to slow down during the day.  Obviously concerned by my symptoms, I was referred to a number of specialists including an Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon and a Neurologist.

I remember July 3 as being an extremely hot and humid day.  It was to be my daughter’s third birthday party.  I awoke that Sunday morning with the awful sensation that I was dying.  My arms and legs felt like they weighed ten tons.  I was nauseous, my stomach ached and virtually every part of my body felt horrible.  After consulting my family doctor, I was rushed to the nearest Emergency Room.

After another thorough examination and more blood tests, the doctor announced that I might be suffering from a Post Viral Syndrome.  A CAT Scan was scheduled for the following week, with assurances that there was probably no need to worry.  It seemed that my life was falling apart and no one could find any reason for it.  My nights were sleepless.  I had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.  I was dizzy during the day and irritable most of the time.  My appetite decreased and it was a chore to maintain my professional obligations at work and manage my family’s routine.  Those close to me as well as sme of the doctors I had consulted believed that my symptoms were caused by stress.  My symptoms were neither imaginary nor a result of stress.

As the weeks progressed, the mystery surrounding my illness increased and my symptoms worsened.  I lost a great deal of weight, had no energy to keep up with my children and had to reduce my work hours.  A friend of my husband’s family suggested that I was having a reaction to the materials used in the renovation of our home and she recommended that I leave the house.

My husband and I immediately dismissed this theory.  Then slowly I began to fit the pieces together.  I traced the symptoms back to the time I had moved into my home.  Even though my husband was away on business, I packed up my two children and went to stay with a friend.

As I began to spend more and more time away from the house I started to feel much better.  Yet, each time I returned to sleep in the house, my health would deteriorate.  I was now convinced that the house was the source of my health problems and decided that I needed an environmental consultant to test my house.

Our contractor was contacted immediately and he assured us that only the highest quality materials were used in the renovation of the home.  He was cooperative in helping us find an environmental tester to come and examine the house.

For several months my family and I had to find alternate living accommodations.  Meanwhile environmental consultants examined our house and carried out tests for formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, mold, radon and lead, to name merely a few.  Using sophisticated equipment, it was finally determined that there were large amounts of volatile organic compounds in our home’s indoor air.  These VOC’s were being released from several of the building materials commonly used in home renovations.

Once we isolated this as the cause of my illness, we employed a number of techniques to lower the chemical levels in the indoor air.  These techniques included a rigorous ventilation program where industrial fans were placed at windows throughout the house.  As well we had to seal all newly painted surfaces with products purchased from the United States and thoroughly wash all the walls and floors in the home.

As a result of my initial over exposure to the volatile organic compounds I developed multiple chemical sensitivities and had to resign from work.  Although we were not initially aware of it, my husband and children had also reacted to the chemical overload.  It was evident from our time living outside the home that they too had suffered reactions that manifested themselves as chronic ear infections, hyperactivity, stomach problems and chronic colds.

Although successful in reducing the chemicals in the air to negligible levels, I was advised that if I wanted to get well I could not live in the house.  It was suggested that the house be put up for sale.  Extra precautions and costly measures were taken to ensure that indoor air quality would not present a problem to potential buyers.  After having owned the house for one year and residing in it for about three months the house was sold.

We also discovered, through our reading and research, that because our homes are tightly sealed many pollutants fill our indoor living environment.  Researchers estimate that the air inside our homes can be 5 to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air.  Such pollutants come from many of the commercial cleaning supplies we use to clean our homes, the products we use to renovate and construct our homes as well as from mold and fungi that are commonly found in damp and humid areas of the home such as basements and bathrooms.

As we began to learn more and more, friends and friends of friends began to seek our advice and many asked that we visit their homes to inspect the quality of their own home environment.  Moreover, the expertise we had developed in dealing with a variety of indoor air problems gave us the background needed to solve cases such as ours and we have come to realize that, in fact, it may not have been necessary to sell our home.

The past two years have drastically and dramatically changed my family’s life.  We have suffered ill health, financial loss, the loss of many of our material possessions.

Probably the most difficult to deal with however, was the skepticism we encountered from the medical profession, acquaintances and friends.

But we are lucky.  We are lucky because we have learned a tremendous amount about the home environment, the chemicals we are exposed to every day and how human health is severely affected by the air which fills our homes, offices and schools.  We have not had to alter our lifestyles drastically to regain our health, but we do take certain precautions to avoid exposures to a number of home maintenance and renovation products that we had previously used without a second thought.

We are lucky because we have survived a terrible ordeal.  This ordeal, however, could have been easily prevented if we had known then what we know today.