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Is your home making you sick?

Monday 29 November 2010

DomainFrom The Age's home section, Domain:

Is your home making you sick?

Toxic environments
November 20, 2010

Marianne Baker et al
Building biologist Marianne Baker visits Melissa Brown and her children
at her Pascoe Vale home. Photo: Wayne Taylor

When your nest is a health hazard, who you gonna call? We talk with the experts on dwellings that can make you sick.

Building biologist Marianne Baker cheerfully acknowledges that some people feel compelled to move house after she has paid them a visit.

Ms Baker assesses houses for potential health hazards, including concerns about the proximity of power lines, indoor air quality and mould problems.

For some people, the results of her assessment can lead them to move out temporarily to allow volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) such as paints to disperse to safe levels, or sell up and move out, particularly if they're worried about the magnetic fields of power lines.

Marianne Baker et al
Photo: Wayne Taylor

"Sometimes the readings are fine, sometimes they're not," Ms Baker says. "More often, the ones I've done haven't been fine from a precautionary perspective."

"They are all within the Australian guidelines but, given that these people have young children and want to minimise their exposure, often the readings are a little bit higher than we would like.

"One family had a home that had a substation on one side and they were very close to straight power lines on the other side of the house."

"We've said that for children, from a precautionary perspective, we don't want the levels above one milligauss [the unit of measurement for electromagnetic fields]. Their levels were about 3.5 throughout the house and they had a young baby. So, they were going to move."

Ms Baker has been a building biologist for the past four years, holding a nationally recognised diploma of building biology.

She says people are often prompted to request her services after having health problems that cleared up when they were not at home.

"With mould, it's often respiratory problems and fatigue," Ms Baker says. "You think you're sleeping well but you're just tired all the time and your medical or health practitioner can't find a reason.

"If you're better away from the house and as soon as you come home you're ill again, then you know it's something to do with the house."

She says the type of health problems people have often provide clues for her investigations. "If it's more neurological, then it could be more of the EMF [electromagnetic field], radio-frequency stuff," Ms Baker says.

"But if it's respiratory, often the first thing I would think of is mould or air quality.

"Then you start asking questions. Has the home been flooded? Have there been water leaks? Is there visible mould anywhere?"

"And if we keep getting negatives there, then we might start asking about dust or VOCs. Have you done any heavy renovation recently? Have you done the floors? Have you got new carpets? Standard carpets can have a lot of VOCs."

Building biologists use "precautionary" levels to judge the safety of radio and electromagnetic frequencies, which are much lower than the Australian guidelines.

Ms Baker says it is a controversial area because there is no absolute proof of adverse effects at levels below the guidelines set nationally; however, it is becoming more accepted that it is sensible to be cautious, particularly in light of an increasing incidence of diseases such as leukaemia in children.

"The precautionary level is designed to protect you from long-term exposure ... just to protect them in case it's found in the future that it's dangerous, just like tobacco and asbestos," she says.

Associate professor Peter Williams from the faculty of architecture, building and planning at the University of Melbourne, says that while building-related illnesses such as legionnaires' disease are well recognised, sick-building syndrome is harder to prove.

However, he has no doubt buildings can cause symptoms such as eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, dry mucus membranes, fatigue, headaches, infections that narrow the airway, coughing, hoarseness, wheezing, general hypersensitivity, nausea and dizziness.

Professor Williams says some people who have approached him for help have been on the verge of suicide.

"It's a bewildering business, as I say," he says. "Some people — a very small percentage — of the population can become really very desperate over it."

He agrees with Ms Baker's "better to be safe than sorry" approach: "I don't think there's anything terribly complicated about this ... it's just commonsense."

"There are vast numbers of VOCs in a range of building materials and they can be in a cocktail of contaminants that can impact people." These include formaldehyde, a substance suspected of causing cancer.

Professor Williams says poor air circulation and mould can cause problems and central heating is a leading culprit because it can singe tiny airborne dust particles that are then blown throughout the house.

"For the best part of 40 years, I've encouraged people to specify hydronic systems of heating, rather than the ducted hot-air systems," he says.

"If you've got dust and dirt in the air being blown around, then it's likely to impact on susceptible people. You know: itchy eyes, asthmatic effects and respiratory effects in one form or another.

"Really, we are talking about sensible things: keeping the interior of a building clean and dry; providing reasonable good levels of clean-air circulation; being sensible about the material specifications for building and furnishings."

Andy Mobilia, a salesman with Lewis Realty, estimates nearby power lines would be a turnoff for about 60 per cent of potential home buyers. However, he says houses will still sell as long as the owners have realistic expectations.

"It all comes down to money," he says. "If people are fair with pricing, you can sell a house pretty quickly. You just can't expect it will sell for the same as a house that is not close to power lines."

Building biology tips

  • Use corded rather than wireless appliances
  • Use hydronic rather than ducted heating
  • Service your air-conditioner regularly
  • Air your home regularly
  • Avoid buying next to a substation
  • Keep indoor plants
Marianne Baker et al

On hold for rethink

Melissa Brown happily admits to spending a lot of time on the phone but the social mother of two is planning to move the base unit of her digital phone to her garage after a building biology assessment noted it emitted potentially hazardous radio frequencies.

"The slave unit generally doesn't give out anything except when you are using it; the main unit is the one that is like having a mobile phone mast in your house," says building biologist Marianne Baker.

With the base unit mounted on a wall near the bedrooms, Ms Brown is in no doubt it will have to be moved "because that's where we sleep and the boys are there 10 hours a day".

Ms Brown will also be rearranging her youngest son's room after learning one corner was subject to high electromagnetic readings from the fridge in the adjoining kitchen. "I will move that cot away from the wall, definitely."

Another potential hazard came as a surprise — high electromagnetic radiation from the microwave. "That is a worry, knowing how high the readings are and how close I am and the boys are when I'm using it," Ms Brown says. "I hadn't really considered that."

Armed with her new-found knowledge, Ms Brown says she will act to make her home safer, though the restrictions of a corded phone are unthinkable: "I'd never get anything done."

The above, with comments, originally appeared here.



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