Home Planning for Health: A Good Investment
Book Review by Sarah
Are you about to renovate your kitchen, prepare a room for a baby or build a new house? Whether your project is big or small, purchasing (and reading) The Healthy House: How to buy one, how to build one, how to cure a sick one (4th edition) by John Bower before you start may be the wisest investment you make.
"Our homes may be our castles," says Bower, "yet they hardly protect us from indoor air pollution. The atmosphere inside most houses is typically 5-10 times worse than the outdoor air." The average North American spends 80-90% of time indoors - at home, school, or work. Young children, people who are sick and the elderly may spend most of their time in just one location, the home.
When we think about fixing up a home, we think about how we want it to look and how much we can spend. Health is usually not a major consideration. Professional Builder magazine found that most homebuyers would be willing to pay more for a healthy home. But where to start, what are the priorities?
"If you don't have any severe health problems, eliminating carpeting, the worst manufactured wood products and combustion appliances that don't have sealed combustion chambers will be a significant step toward cleaner indoor air," Bower writes. An excellent section by architects Bruce Coldham and Mary Kraus lists 22 building choices and evaluates the healthy choice versus the traditional choice taking into account cost and how much health benefit they give. Looking at the chart, it is clear that some options give a lot of health bang for few bucks, such as low toxicity paints and electric stoves. Central ventilation systems and wood flooring are more costly but also have significant health benefits. Other choices, such as low toxicity insulation or natural exterior stains may cost a lot and have little effect on indoor air.
Healthy building and renovating take
more thinking and planning on the consumer's part. It's the same
as other ways of keeping your body healthy. At this point in the
building game, no one can do it for you. If you wait until the last minute
you may be stuck with unhealthy materials. There are increasing numbers
of people knowledgeable about healthy housing and more sources of healthy
materials. Bower incorporates essays from 50 healthy building experts in
the 2001 edition.
He prioritizes four healthy design principles:
eliminate (get rid of the worst pollutants), separate (create a barrier
between pollutants and the living space), ventilate (a proper air flow
provides oxygen and dilutes the moisture and pollutants which result from
normal living) and filtrate (air filters can purify the air further for
people who need an especially clean environment.) He stresses that
ventilation systems and air purifiers can't act as substitutes for eliminating
You may need to ask a lot of questions to find out what is actually in a material. Bower explains how to interpret a manufacturer's safety data sheet (MSDS) and what information you won't find there. Labels and MSDS's won't necessarily tell you all you need to know. Some places allow plywood to be labeled as "Solid Wood". A consultant writes of his search for a least toxic insulating material for a chemically sensitive customer. He brought over a bag of mica, to which the customer reacted severely. A long discussion with the manufacturer finally revealed that when the mica was dried it was treated with pesticide, which was not on the label. The amount was such a small percentage of the product that labeling was not required.
The Healthy Home is written for both the healthy and the chemically sensitive. Bower's wife Lynn has severe chemical sensitivities. Much of Bower's expertise in healthy housing came through his efforts to build a home where Lynn could regain her health. Detailed information on the three healthy homes which they built is included in the book. Lynn has written a companion book, The Healthy Household , which contains detailed information on products found inside the home.
For the environmentally sensitive, there's a wealth of helpful hints scattered throughout the book. Nova Scotia's Robin Barrett of Healthy Homes contributed a detailed section on how to self-test to determine if you can use a product without reacting. There's information on where to find formaldehyde free particle board, a less toxic PVC glue for plumbing and inert materials you can use for closet shelving which won't off gas into your clothing. One of the hints I found most useful was to test materials which are going to be used together as a "package", e.g. drywall, joint compound and paint. Each product might be tolerable separately, but when used together they may react with each other and become intolerable. Testing can help to find this out before they are on the walls.
The Healthy Home is encyclopedic in scope. Bower looks at virtually every component which goes into a house, from concrete to roofing, plumbing glues to smoke detectors. He evaluates the potential hazards of each and identifies the least toxic options.
Topics range from the common to the obscure. Are ozonators healthy? How do you renovate safely if you have old lead paint in your home? What windows and doors are healthiest? This book will answer your questions. It will even tell you how to make your own additive free tile grout.
There are detailed sections on six common
pollutants: lead, asbestos, radon, mold, and Volatile Organic Compounds
(VOC's), and how to identify and deal with them.
Whether you are healthy and want to stay that way, or have allergies, asthma or chemical sensitivities, this book will help. You will be more able to make informed choices, identify potential problems, and deal confidently with tradespeople and contractors. The information it provides will help you know what questions to ask and give you the confidence to insist on products and methods of work which will result in a healthier home.
The Healthy House by John Bower (ISBN 0-9637156-9-0) is published by The Healthy House Institute, 430 N. Sewell Road, Bloomington, IN 47408 USA, phone/fax 812-332-5073. Bower's website at www.hhinst.com includes information on other Healthy House publications, and numerous articles on the subject.
Sarah Dursley is environmentally sensitive and appreciates the importance of a healthy home.
For more on healthy housing, see these individual's stories:
Barb Harris is severely chemically sensitive and approaches home removations with extreme caution ...