Moving house - things to look for if you suffer from MCS

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(Adapted from an article by architect Nell Blyth, found in the newsletter of the Australia Allergy Association (now, Australasian Society of Clinical Immunonlogy and Allergy), Website: Australasian Society of Clinical Immunonlogy and Allergy).

  • Paragraphs under 'Psst...'-headings are my own comments (SM)

Many CFSs find they are multiply intolerant to things inside and outside their house, and are only consistently well when they live in another environment (such as a hot dry one). For these people the only option is to move. However, they do not want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

The following notes are intended only as a preliminary check-list when deciding whether you should stay in your present house or what to look for in a possible new house. These items are general rules and not all of them will apply to all people and all houses. It helps to know your own sensitivities and major allergens and to test your reactions to particular materials, finishes and environments.

Moving house is hellish as everybody knows. For CFS sufferers the torment is even greater. If one has to move, it pays to give oneself the best chance of finding a healthy new environment. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that most, if not all, CFS sufferers are especially sensitive to their physical environment.

The house site

  • Ridge or hilltop sites are preferable for good ventilation and drainage.
  • Avoid valley or low-lying sites where air movement may be restricted, where pollutants may accumulate, where drainage may cause problems, where mist lies longer. NB small variations in local land slopes (topography) can be important.
  • Avoid densely overgrown, shady sites. More sun means less mould.
  • Avoid damp, badly drained sites. Is it filled land? Could it be over an old creek bed or old dam? What is it filled with?
  • Check whether the house site/or house has been chemically sprayed for ants, borer, or other pests. If so, avoid at all costs.
  • Try to find out as much about the house and site as possible from previous owner(s), the builder and the Council. Remember, when asking for relevant facts do not reveal your situation or your hoped-for answer - you are more likely to find out the truth.
  • Think of noise and light pollution

Adjoining land-use

  • Take a look at maps of the area to locate main roads, parks, land use, etc.
  • Try to avoid industrial areas; especially when they are to the windward side of the house site. Determine the predominant wind directions by looking at trees, vegetation, by asking neighbours or the Met Office. Topography can have an effect on the wind direction and on pollutant concentration - 5km means nothing if the land is very flat. Pollution can still be measurable over very large distances (e.g. 50km). A minimum distance of 2-5km is preferable.
  • Check out possible changes in land use to adjoining or nearby vacant allotments. Land may be zoned industrial.
  • Avoid large concentrations of traffic nearby. Motorways and major arterial roads should be at least 1km distant.
  • Avoid sites where neighbouring sites are heavily overgrown preventing ventilating breezes or sunlight penetration. Parkland or open space to the windward of house site can be useful to reduce the influence of neighbourhood pollutants and to help in ventilation of site. However, watch out for groves of cypress or pine trees, or extensive grassland areas where pollen, terpenes and dust could be irritants.
  • Some residential areas have many deciduous trees and in autumn time burning off can be a problem.

Neighbours

  • Look for sources of pollutants from neighbouring houses and allotments, e.g. incinerators, gas heaters, oil heaters etc. Where are the flues located? Are there chimneys and where are they located?
  • Consider possible pollution from home incinerators, especially burning plastics. For preference, choose an area in which such pollution is illegal, and the by-law is enforced, (check with local Council).
  • Where are the neighbours' garages, driveways and cars? Are they close to opening windows, especially bedroom windows? If you live next door you will be affected, no matter what the prevailing wind direction.
  • Do neighbours carry out noxious hobbies; e.g. fibreglassing, spray painting?

The house itself

  • If looking at a house for sale, ask tactfully why the people are selling. All information can be helpful. Ask how their health is, how long they have lived there? Do they or neighbours or previous occupants have health problems similar to your own?
  • Are animals permitted inside the house? Animal danders can cause problems.

Pesticides and other chemical contamination

  • Have pest control measures ever been used in the house? If so, what was sprayed, when and where? If unsure, have it tested/assayed.
  • Have chemicals, cleaners or perfumes been stored in particular rooms or cupboards? Odours will permeate unsealed cupboards and linings. Such problems may be overcome by resealing surfaces or removing the cupboard.

Damp, cold and mouldy vs. dry, warm and sunny

(Just in case you didn't already have a preference)

  • Avoid musty smelling houses. Mould can be a serious problem.
  • Avoid damp houses.
  • Ensure damp areas such as kitchen, laundries and bathrooms are well ventilated, with complete ventilation to the outside rather than just to their ceiling space. A fan should be used while shower is running to prevent build-up of moisture.
  • Good and properly opening windows and cross ventilation through the house are essential. Rooms with openable windows in two different walls are good for cross ventilation, especially in bedrooms. If only one window, the room should be well ventilated into a ventilated passage.
  • Sun penetration to the house will minimise mould problems - especially to bedrooms.
  • Cellars and basements can be problem areas, especially if the area is not well sealed from the rest of the house.
  • Has the house recently been painted or renovated? Beware, problem areas such as mouldy walls may have been covered up.
  • Check there are good air locks between ensuite bathroom and walk-in wardrobes, so clothes will remain dry. Ensuite bathroom will back-ventilate through the bedroom if it is not well ventilated itself.
  • Wardrobes, especially walk-in wardrobes, should be well ventilated. Apart from condensation forming on cold walls, clothes placed there may be slightly damp, even off the clothes line.

Building materials used?

  • Floor surfaces: hard, easily cleaned floor surfaces are preferred; e.g. tile, slate, polished, oiled or sealed timber. Timber floors may be sealed with two pack polyurethane1 or flood coated with internal flooring oil (cottonseed based). Soft floors, such as cork, are sealed with single pack polyurethane and this may cause some problems. Glazed ceramic tile is preferable to something that has to be sealed (e.g. slate). Instead of sealing slate, it may be oiled (e.g. paraffin oil and natural turps) which prevents other grease splashes showing. Scatter rugs can be removed for easy cleaning.
  • Carpets and underfelts might be rubber or foam-backed and/or treated with chemicals such as pesticides. Hair underfelt is better than these. Particle board flooring may cause problems, especially if new and unsealed. Some water-proof varieties may be satisfactory.
  • Avoid exposed particle boards in cupboards, inside as well as out, especially in new cupboards.
  • What type of paints have been used? In general, water-based paints do not seal in chemicals from the underlying material (e.g. particle board). If these materials are unavoidable then oil-based paints or two-pack polyurethane may seal them.
Note: always test an adequately cured sample of paint or finish for your own sensitivity. 'Natural' (oil) paints are usually terpene based. All painting is best done in summer time when drying can be accelerated by high temperatures and the house can be more easily ventilated.
  • What type of insulation has been used? Avoid U.F. foam (Urea-formaldehyde). Consider not just the insulation fibre but what (if anything) has been used to bond the fibre; e.g. tough-skin batts. This concern can be modified by how well contained the insulation is; e.g. with foil, wall structure and finish. Intactness of containment is important; loose type fibre insulation can cause problems if roof space and eaves are open vented and if wall vents are nearby. Seagrass may be best in an open-vented eaves house. It is wise to use insulation as this reduces condensation problems by maintaining the internal temperature, as well as reducing heating bills.
  • Avoid soft plastic and vinyls, especially in heated rooms or bedrooms.
Note: frequent airing and vacuuming, especially of bedrooms, will minimise dust mite problems. A ducted vacuum system is preferred as overall dust levels can be reduced over time in the house.

Heating

  • What is the heating system? Oil, kerosene, gas and briquette heaters are sources of pollution and dust and should be avoided.
  • Blown air heating systems can cause circulation of house pollutants and dust. They are better blowing from above (ceiling installation) than from below (floor), collecting less dust, dirt, mould in the ducts. Check that the heat exchanger is not cracked. Is there a return air filter? Is it washable? A low, even, constant source of heat is better than intermittent heating. This minimises condensation problems and possible moulds.
  • Portable column heaters or circulating water with panel radiators or skirting convectors (and heated slabs if the floor finish is appropriate) are suitable.
  • Avoid electric heating coils under carpet, as pollutants from underlays or carpet can be vaporised.

Psst...

(The accompanying article is very helpful but not complete. Some points of importance that may have been overlooked by the author include:

  • Under-house garages can cause problems. Better to have your car in a detached garage or carport. Certainly it should not be under your bedroom.
  • If a place has ever been commercially fumigated, we believe you should not buy it. (Unless you can be convinced that the chemicals used were safe or have completely gone.) Find out whether Borafume 'borer bombs' have been used, as these contain the dangerous chemicals, Lindane and DDT.
  • In general the best homes are those that are not 'new' for new houses will still be 'outgassing' and not 'old', for then they may have more mould and damp problems - and you will be able to find out less about their history.
  • Several ANZMES (The Associated New Zealand ME Society - please see Associated New Zealand ME Society) members have reported severe problems on moving into houses with bare pine timber walls. Presumably the problems are either in terpenes (natural turpentine-like chemicals) from the wood, or in the coatings used to 'seal' the wood.
  • Electro-magnetic pollution may have to be considered, including local transformers, pylons, neighbours' television sets (especially if your are buying a flat or unit), and possibly other factors as well. Possibly transmission lines, e.g. microwave links etc. (Many people have troubles with fluorescent lighting.)

Which home?

As with so many things it is a matter of care and, eventually, some sort of compromise. If you are moving you must think very carefully about all the possibilities and take your time. The editors, who moved home in 1985, viewed hundreds of homes in several localities before finding the 'right one'.

Among several pitfalls which we encountered were believing initially that a 'few acres out in the country', where we could grow much of our own food, would be safe and clean. Eventually we realised that wherever the land was good enough for use to grow anything then it was either already being used for horticulture or was under threat of such use, with the guarantee of pesticide drift, contamination of drinking water etc.

Our eventual choice has turned out to be the right one, a two storey place, near the top of the hill in an outermost suburb which has hilly, non-horticultural land around. Although we are not on a very quiet street - which would have been ideal - the section is well above road level, and the upper floor, containing the bedroom, is well away from the road. At night, a replaceable security/mosquito screen door makes it possible to breath the freshest of air.

For further information about healthy alternatives to wall-to-wall carpets visit Healthy Flooring

Psst...

  • Polyurethane
Eds: Polyurethane reference to one- and two-pack polyurethane is important. Most people in this country think of polyurethane as being the clear material which is applied like paint. This is one-pack polyurethane and has the serious disadvantage of taking months or years to 'outgas', as the solvent gradually gasifies leaving the hard residue. By contrast two-pack polyurethane is usually applied by professional applicators, and produces extremely toxic gases during the first 24-48 hours. However, because the two chemicals which are mixed together to form a solid non-volatile compound, it is soon possible to live safely with this floor covering.
  • Particle board
Another author, Harold Buttman, writes: "Particle boards, pressed wood products and plywood should, categorically, be avoided wherever possible, as they are probably the worst source of indoor pollutants. Although outgrassing formaldehyde may reduce with time, it takes many years before the process is complete".
From Harold E Buttram (MD), Chemicals in the Home, Part V: Control Measures, 20th Century Living, March/April 1988. Please see Harold Buttman's website for contact details.

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