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Building material toxins a growing concern

By: Beth Kevit//November 1, 2013//

Building material toxins a growing concern

By: Beth Kevit//November 1, 2013//

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By Beth Kevit

Angie Cummings stands in front of the home she and her fiancé are remodeling as a clean home Thursday, Oct. 31 in Sussex. Cummings lives with multiple chemical sensitivity which makes living in a normally constructed home almost life threating. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)
Angie Cummings stands in front of the home she and her fiancé are remodeling as a healthy home Thursday in Sussex. Cummings has multiple-chemical sensitivity. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Angie Cummings’ chronic sinus infections started eight months after she moved into her first home.

She constantly used antibiotics, Cummings said, and doctors were flummoxed. A process of elimination left her five-year-old house as the only probable culprit, she said.

So Cummings tore out carpet, laid down laminate flooring and insulated the basement with spray foam.

“I basically drained our savings,” she said, “trying to fix the house.”

It did not work. She moved out.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know then what I know now,” Cummings said, “and we ended up making it worse.”

She said she now knows she has multiple-chemical sensitivity, a condition characterized by negative reactions to, among other things, emissions from building materials. She can get the shakes and headaches or, in some severe instances, near blackouts after walking into buildings.

She said she once had to crawl to get out of a building.

“If I go into a mall,” Cummings said, “you can guarantee I’ll be sick in the next day or two.”

She is using that awareness while renovating a Sussex home. Cummings said she researched alternative materials before approaching contractors but struggled to find someone who understood the difference between her request for a healthy home and the better-known green home.

Green, she said, does not guarantee healthy.

Then she found Brookfield-based Source 1 Project Solutions Inc. Driving home from meeting company President Jonathan Synovic, she said, she cried in relief.

Tighter buildings

Synovic said Source 1 has offered healthy-home consultancy services for about two years by studying building materials and the chemicals they contain. In September, Source 1 made the consultancy the company’s primary focus and is developing a healthy-home certification program.

Healthy homes, on average, cost about 5 percent to 10 percent more than typical homes, Synovic said, adding that the market for healthy houses is growing. That growth, in part, can be attributed to the increased popularity of green building, he said, because it makes the toxins in materials more noticeable.

Alan Ruesch, owner of Brookfield-based Gross Heating Inc., is installing the HVAC system in Cummings’ home. When energy efficiency rose in popularity, he said, building envelopes were tightened. That meant toxins emitted by building materials, which used to escape the home, now had nowhere to go.

“You make these homes too tight,” Ruesch said, “then they don’t become healthy homes.”

Those toxins, Synovic said, can come out of the simplest materials. A home improvement store, for example, might sell one type of plywood that contains formaldehyde and another that does not.

“They’re sold right next to each other,” he said, “and no one knows the difference.”

A Source 1 Project Solutions sign stands in front of a home the firm is remodeling as a clean home Thursday, Oct. 31 in Sussex
A Source 1 Project Solutions sign is in front of a home that the firm is remodeling as a healthy home Thursday in Sussex.

Demand for air purifiers, Ruesch said, has increased. So too has the demand for the type of ductwork, which he is installing for Cummings, that lines wall voids with metal. Calls are on the rise for energy-recovery ventilators, which use stale air to heat or cool outside air as it enters a home but does not transfer particulates, he said.

Allen Rathey, president of the Healthy House Institute LLC, a Boise, Idaho-based educational group, said he believes Synovic’s business model will succeed.

“Green,” he said, “is starting to come into a state of maturity.”

Rathey equated energy-efficient homes to jars, and their tenants to insects. When children collect bugs, he said, they poke holes in jar tops to let air in.

“You knew enough to ventilate that environment,” he said. “Well, now mankind in general is realizing how smart kids are.”

Green group adapting

Green building certification programs, Rathey said, are beginning to incorporate more healthy-living aspects, but the niche market already exists because contractors can adapt more quickly than national groups, such as the U.S. Green Building Council.

“They are doing, I think, what they can,” he said, “but it’s a big ship to turn, and the market forces are tough.”

Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services for Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. Inc., said the USGBC is promoting nontoxic building materials through the next version of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. Miron’s Lake Mills Elementary School replacement project is a test for LEED v4, which launches in November.

LEED v4 will track all material emissions, Lehman said, unlike the past version, which measured only volatile organic compounds. The new version introduces environmental product declarations, she said, which would disclose which building materials contain toxins.

But, she said, that effort faces resistance.

“The heartache that most manufacturers are having is their recipe, if you will, for a lot of their products is very proprietary,” Lehman said, “and they don’t want people to know what’s in their products.”

Jonathan Synovic, president of Source 1 Project Solutions displays a sample of cork flooring which he often uses in his projects Friday, Nov. 1, while at the firms office in Brookfield.
Jonathan Synovic, president of Source 1 Project Solutions, on Friday at his Brookfield office displays a sample of cork flooring that he often uses for his projects.

Mark Collatz, director of regulatory affairs for The Adhesive and Sealant Council, said his members are concerned about the new disclosure requirements.

“No company,” he said, “wants to have an entire list of the chemicals, the chemicals in their product, available to their competitors.”

A chemical’s inclusion in a product, Collatz said, does not always mean that chemical poses a health risk. But that distinction will not be made, he said, putting adhesives at a disadvantage in the LEED process.

“There’s not going to be anybody,” he said, “that’s going to be able to qualify their products.”

Cummings said her only concern is finding what qualifies for inclusion in her home. She has read technical fact sheets, she said, for all the materials, which include insulation made from recycled denim and porcelain floor tiles.

Every worker in her future home knows the rule, Cummings said, to consult with her on any change, no matter how small.

“At the end of the day, I’ve got to live in this house,” she said. “And if they put something in this house I can’t live with, I’m in big trouble.”

 — Follow Beth on Twitter


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