Safe at Home : Respiratory Problems Stem From Dust Mites, Old Carpeting and Toxic Paint on the Walls

<i> Klein is a free-lance writer in Monrovia</i>

In early 1988, Allen White’s asthma was so severe he could not walk six blocks without huffing and puffing.

But by April, 1989, White said, he had recovered enough lung capacity to pass the grueling physical tests required for a job on an alpine ski patrol team. He currently has no asthma symptoms.

What caused White’s dramatic recovery?

His cure was simple: He changed his address. No, he didn’t trade smoggy Southern California for an isolated mountaintop in a faraway state.


White, like growing numbers of people across the country, became convinced that high levels of indoor pollution inside his Hermosa Beach home were making him sick.

“That house was full of dust mites, old carpeting, animal danders, stale smoke and had a poor heating system that pulled filthy attic air into the house,” White said.

A contractor himself, White researched indoor air quality, attended seminars put on by the American Lung Assn. and bought a home that he has remodeled extensively to make sure it is as pollution-free as possible.

He believes living there has cured his asthma, helped solve his wife’s infertility problems and contributed to the health of his once-chronically ill daughter.

It may be hard for Southern Californians to buy, but some experts think that the air inside our homes can be more hazardous to our health than the oppressive brown haze we breathe outdoors.

A five-year study completed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986 showed that levels of some pollutants can be five times higher inside houses than they are outside. The results were the same whether tests were done in homes in urban New Jersey or rural North Dakota.

The major culprits were toxic compounds found in lead paint, plastics, cigarettes, building materials, consumer products and tap water.

Linda Mason Hunter, an architecture and home writer, has published a book, “The Healthy Home,” that includes the results of three years of research she did on indoor pollution. She asserts that chemicals found in dangerous levels in modern, American homes can lead to chronic illness and even death.

“Cancer is the only major disease that existed at the turn of the century and has increased over the years,” Hunter said. “Scientists believe that 90% of our cancers may be environmentally caused, and I think it’s only logical many of the causes come from our modern lifestyle.”

David Bierman, a Berkeley-based environmental toxicologist who is in the business of diagnosing and treating sick homes, agrees.

“Indoor pollution--caused by toxic chemicals, gases, molds, fungus and compounds like radon and asbestos--can contribute to headaches, upper respiratory problems, constant allergies, insomnia and fatigue,” he said.

Since the 1970s, when homes began to be sealed up for energy efficiency, problems with indoor pollutants have become worse, said Bierman, because air circulation is restricted and harmful toxins can build up.

Any concentration of chemicals or bacteriological compounds is most harmful to children, Hunter said. “It’s true for everything because children are smaller, their respiration rate is faster and they’re taking things in at a faster rate.”

Those who would first be affected by indoor pollution are people who spend the most time in the home, she said. She acknowledges that many medical professionals dismiss people who complain about the symptoms of environmental sensitivity as attention-starved hypochondriacs.

But she feels that many of them have legitimate problems. “I have talked to people who have had to move because they were debilitatingly ill, and children who were threatened with life and death sicknesses,” Hunter said.

“I don’t mean to scare people into thinking that’s the norm, but all of us live with things inside our houses that are harmful for us, harmful to our own personal health and also harmful to the environment.”

Seemingly innocuous products--like pressed wood furniture, air fresheners and moth balls--are jam-packed with chemicals that give Bierman and other environmental scientists the shudders. Many products routinely used in homes, or widely used before studies found them to be hazardous, can be cancer-causing or have mutagenic potential, the experts say.

Our sealed-in lifestyle can also cause problems with natural compounds, like mold and dust. A few years ago, Bierman investigated the home of a woman and her daughter who had chronic respiratory problems.

“They were both very allergic to mold,” he said. “I tracked the source down to a leaky plumbing fixture that was in a bathroom behind the kid’s bedroom wall. The mold had grown inside the wall and they had to tear out the whole wall but that helped them appreciably.”

Most of his clients complain of difficulty breathing, feeling fatigued and chronic headaches, Bierman said, and some suffer from problems with relatively simple solutions, such as the family that used a wood-burning stove but did not ventilate it adequately.

But so far, whether the problems are simple or complex, the awareness of indoor hazards has not filtered down to the public at large. While potential home buyers routinely take walk-throughs of their new home to ascertain the stability and integrity of the structure, plumbing and fixtures, few take the time to do an environmental assessment of a home before they buy.

One new home buyer who was extra cautious was Roman Silberfeld, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in toxic substance and product liability cases. When he bought a 40-year-old Encino home in 1986, Silberfeld took the traditional buyer’s walk-through a few steps further, making a thorough survey of the house’s potential for indoor pollution problems.

It turned out to be fortunate he took extra precautions.

In the ceiling Silberfeld found 30 feet of ducting that was covered in crumbling, chipping asbestos.

“Friable asbestos three feet above my head was not what I wanted me or my children exposed to,” said Silberfeld, 41. After having the ductwork tested, to ascertain that it was indeed asbestos-covered, Silberfeld and the home seller split the $2,500 cost of having the duct removed and replaced with ducting not containing asbestos.

Just to make sure, they had the air in the house tested after the job was done to make sure toxic asbestos levels had disappeared before the family moved in.

Extremely fine, sharp asbestos flakes can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer, asbestosis and other serious health problems. Yet the original owners of the home had no idea they were exposing themselves to health hazards just by living there, Silberfeld said.

Bill Kelly, who works for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in El Monte and recently authored a book on indoor health hazards, notes that while there is a great consciousness of hazards like asbestos in commercial property transactions, most home buyers are not aware of potential environmental pollutants when they sign off on a deed.

Along with lurking health problems, indoor pollution brings economic considerations with it as well.

Kelly advises new home buyers to have asbestos and other home testing done before they purchase. If there are potential problems, either material that needs to be removed immediately or that could be dislodged in future renovations, some financial consideration should be built into the sales price.

“Don’t set yourself up for a surprise after you move in. Once a test is done, you’ll know how to negotiate price and whether you really want to buy the home or not,” Kelly said.