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Building biology: Could your home or office be making you sick?

Thursday, March 09, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: building biology, home safety, toxic chemicals

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Have you ever heard of building biology? It's "old news" in Europe, says Building Biology Environmental Inspector Bruce Rundlett. However, in the United States, we're just beginning to realize that there are eco-safe, cost-effective ways to prevent "sick building syndrome" and its impact on human health. Asthma, multiple chemical sensitivity, allergies, cancer and many more illnesses can be traced to unsafe building conditions. Moreover, we can prevent them by looking at home and work environments from a holistic perspective -- in other words, by incorporating building biology into our national building codes.

Building biology has its roots in the unhealthy aftereffects of war. After World War II, Germany tried to reconstruct its buildings as quickly and cheaply as possible, leading to widespread disease and additional financial burden on its already fragile healthcare system. Soon, Germany realized that using more expensive but safer building materials results in long-term healthcare savings, thus creating the field of Bau-biologie, or building biology.

Pioneered by Professor Anton Schneider, Dr. Hubert Palm and Alfred Hornig, building biology eventually developed into specific guidelines on how homes and workplaces should be built in Germany. These guidelines are based on several fundamental principles of building biology, which are, according to Humabuilt Healthy Building Systems:

  • Using natural and unadulterated building materials.
  • Filtering and neutralizing air pollutants.
  • Using wall, ceiling and floor materials that allow air diffusion and are "hygroscopic," meaning that they naturally regulate indoor humidity.
  • Reducing and hopefully eliminating electromagnetic radiation (EMFs) from wiring and appliances.
  • Using radiant heat and incorporating as much solar heat as possible.
  • Producing, installing and disposing building materials in a way that does not contribute to environmental pollution and high energy costs.

Today, architects and healthcare workers throughout Europe know and employ these principles, but it's still taking time for building biology to catch on in the United States, despite the fact that German architect Helmut Ziehe brought the study of building biology here two decades ago, back in 1986. Along with translating Professor Schneider's writings into English, Ziehe founded the International Institute for Bau-Biologie and Ecology (IBE) in Clearwater, Florida. IBE offers the only building biology certification programs in the United States, leading to careers as building biologists or building biology environmental inspectors.

Rundlett went to IBE, and he and other building biologists are trying to raise awareness of this specialized science in the United States. At the First Annual Arizona Choices Exposition in Tucson, Ariz., Rundlett increased consumer awareness of building biology through his Nov. 11 lecture, "Is Your House Making You Sick?" His main focus was on indoor air quality, because we breathe 5,000 gallons of air daily and spend 90 percent of our time indoors.

Whereas building biology prescribes using materials that allow for air diffusion, U.S. builders tend to construct what Rundlett calls "tight houses," leading to insufficient air exchange. Unfortunately, this means that the toxins we have in our homes stay in our homes. Mold, toxic gases from ranges and heaters, EMFs from manmade appliances and wiring, fabric dust, skin cells, pet dander, environmental tobacco smoke and many other air pollutants stay trapped in our homes, where they may make us sick. Even when we remove the sources of these pollutants, the pollutants themselves linger, sometimes for years. Environmental tobacco smoke, for example, can take up to two years to remove, while cat dander can take up to a year and a half, according to Rundlett.

Unfortunately, very fine inorganic particles generated from industrial processes can and do get in our homes. Sometimes, they get in through air exchange, carried worldwide and into our air supply by the wind. However, we ironically bring some of the most toxic pollutants into our homes ourselves. This includes the allergen and known carcinogen formaldehyde, which is found in particleboard, carpet pads, new furniture and new permanent-press clothing. Not even products labeled as "nontoxic" are safe, according to Rundlett, as there is no legal definition for "nontoxic" in the United States. "Toxic" is defined as a substance that kills 50 percent or more of test animals, but this means that something that kills 40 percent can legally be called "nontoxic."

Is the air in your home making you sick? Take a look at these symptoms of poor indoor quality:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Lingering colds
  • Skin rashes
  • Headaches
  • Clouded thinking
  • Dizziness

Elderly people, children and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk from these "sick building" effects, but they can affect anyone. For that reason, Rundlett concluded his Nov. 11 lecture by giving some helpful hints for making your home healthy:

  1. Use cotton shower curtains instead of vinyl because vinyl releases carcinogenic phthalate gases for as long as the vinyl maintains any flexibility whatsoever.
  2. Don't use commercial air fresheners, which are neurotoxins. Lab mice exposed to these air fresheners exhibit nerve damage and sometimes die.
  3. If you have an attached garage, leave the door open or your car parked outside until it cools off.
  4. Soak all new permanent-press clothing in water and two cups of powdered milk and then wash normally. This helps remove formaldehyde.
  5. Check for natural gas leaks often
  6. .
  7. Buy a HEPA air filter. Your furnace's air filter won't keep the air you breathe clean, as it allows 92 percent of dust particles to pass.
  8. Buy a HEPA-filter vacuum. Standard vacuum cleaners allow 70 percent of dust particles to return to the air.

Building biology may still be a relatively obscure science in the United States, but by following Rundlett's advice, you can help make your home safer no matter where you live.

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