No paint on the walls. No carpets on the floors. No TV in the living room. Or the bedroom. Or the kitchen. No TV anywhere in the house.
Kathy Hemenway’s home in Snowflake, Ariz., is a refuge from the gases, chemicals and electromagnetic fields that are nearly ubiquitous in our 21st century world.
Her chemical sensitivities began when she was just a kid. “I couldn’t figure out why people liked perfume,” she says. “It gave me a headache. And fabric stores gave me a sore throat.”
Those problems grew more severe in adulthood, so she started making small changes -- using natural, fragrance-free shampoos and soaps; avoiding air fresheners, fresh paint, pesticides and lawn-care chemicals; and becoming super-diligent about housekeeping, but only with natural cleaners such as baking soda and vinegar.
Then she started moving -- from homes with carpet to homes with hardwood floors, then from Menlo Park, Calif., where she was a successful software engineer, to Santa Cruz and a home with all the other safe stuff plus fresh ocean air.
But after an accidental exposure there to nearby lawn chemicals, Hemenway began to have trouble breathing and even more trouble sleeping. She grew agitated, jittery and depressed, and felt as if she were in a fog, she says. She also became sensitive to many more substances than usual and had to use an oxygen tank to recover from even mild exposures, such as breathing exhaust fumes on the freeway. She wound up at the Environmental Health Center in Dallas for treatment, which included oxygen therapy and sauna sessions (for detoxification), a special diet (rotated every four days) and nutritional supplements she took orally and intravenously. After that, she says, “I was desperate for a safe home, and that’s when I decided to go to the safest place I could find.”
She found Snowflake.
“It’s hard, frequently devastating, to accept that you’re never going to get better unless you move to a whole other environment,” Hemenway says of her leap 10 years ago. But, she decided, the quality of her life depended on it.
The house she built in this remote high desert town is not only a no-paint, no-carpet zone, but also a no-plywood, no-particleboard, no-tar paper zone. And no pesticides were used on the foundation or on the land before the foundation was laid.
The exterior of the house is made of masonry blocks, and most of the interior framing is made of steel. So is the roof. The floors are glazed ceramic tile throughout the house, and in the bedroom the walls and ceiling are too.
The house has radiant in-floor heating instead of forced-air heating. “It doesn’t blow the dust around,” Hemenway says, “and you don’t have the combustion byproducts of a forced-air furnace.”
And not to worry -- she can watch TV. But to avoid its electromagnetic field, she keeps the set in a barn about 200 feet from the house and records programs there, then brings the DVDs inside and plays them on a projection system.
Hemenway is one of millions of Americans who believe that sprays meant to freshen the air actually pollute it, that chemicals meant to beautify our yards in fact poison them, and that many of the products and materials that make modern life fast and convenient also make people sick. They cite studies connecting a host of suspect substances to a host of human illnesses, from headaches and sniffles to immune disorders and cancer.
Most people can’t move to Snowflake and build “safe houses,” of course (and if too many of us did, we’d mess up the air quality anyway). Fortunately, most are not as sensitive to environmental pollutants as Hemenway, whose condition is recognized by many -- but not all -- medical professionals as “environmental illness.”
Still, a connection between health and the environment is widely recognized in the medical and scientific communities. More than 30 years ago, for example, the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory was established at UC Irvine especially to study the connections between air quality and health. Raising awareness of these connections empowers people, says Robert Phalen, the laboratory’s founder and current director and also a professor of medicine.
“Within the last year or two, there’s been a tremendous awareness about green buildings -- and healthy buildings too,” says Peter Sierck, the principal of Environmental Testing & Technology in San Diego, which specializes in testing for mold, moisture, electromagnetic fields and general indoor air quality.
But some researchers worry that consumers’ fears are getting ahead of the scientific evidence. Some have ripped out carpets to avoid chemical releases or renounced miracle fabrics in favor of natural fibers.
Many people have concerns about perfumes, shampoos, soaps and other products that produce odors, says Dr. Ware Kuschner, an associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine who practices at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He does research on the health effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution. “But the link between exposure to these products and serious adverse health effects is often quite tenuous.”
That’s because the harm a substance can do generally depends on how much of it you’re exposed to and how long you’re exposed to it -- as well as how sensitive you are.
Knowing whether to be concerned, or how much to be concerned, isn’t easy. Scientists at regulatory agencies spend years making official risk assessments.
Still, it’s possible to set some priorities, and you probably shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about things that are very unlikely to happen, says Dr. Philip Harber, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at UCLA. “Many more people die of drowning in a swimming pool than die of exposure to mold. . . . It’s really important not to overlook the obvious.”