What’s Making You Sick?
The Science and Art of Investigating Sick Building Syndrome
By Susan Browne Rosenberg, CIH, CIEC (expired 02/2020), CHMM
March 10, 2017
I recently spoke to the Indio Rotary Club about Healthy Home Inspections and told the story of my friend with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). According to the COPD Foundation website, COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. This disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness. http://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Understanding-COPD/What-is-COPD.aspx
My friend asked me to take a look at her home in Palm Desert where she felt her symptoms were exacerbated inside her residence. The house was built in the 1970s. First, we eliminated mold as a potential cause because there were no signs of water intrusion and no plumbing or roof leaks. Relative Humidity levels inside were low, less than the 70-100% range needed to support mold growth.
Then I climbed a ladder and started looking into the air supply ducts. I immediately saw the probable cause of my friend’s problems: Deteriorated insulation lining the interior of the air ducts.
A sample of the material was collected and placed into a plastic bag and shipped to Galson Laboratories in East Syracuse, NY. Galson Laboratories is a world leader in industrial hygiene analysis and monitoring solutions, and is accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association – Laboratory Accreditation Programs, LLC (AIHA-LAP). They reported back to me that the material contained 70% Fiberglass and 0.52% Quartz Silica. Fiberglass and silica are known to cause cancer and respiratory disease.
It was most likely that fine particles of both materials were getting released into the indoor air every time the air conditioning came on, blowing cold air through the ducts. The best solution would be to remove all the ductwork and replace it with new and safer materials. Unfortunately, this was a $10,000 solution and my friend did not have a budget for such an extensive renovation. She was able to find a more affordable solution by working with a local company to install filters on the supply registers. They also cleaned out the return air exchange area, which was filthy with dust and debris, and removed and replaced the air filter with the most efficient model that was compatible with the AC system.
This is a success story where I was able to identify a contributing factor to poor health and contain the exposure. While the hazard is still in the house, and must be disclosed upon sale of the home, my friend is living in her home and feeling much better. If you want to read more about fiberglass insulation and air ducts, you can refer to the Guidance document from the City of Oakland. And if you are thinking about having your air ducts cleaned, please read the EPA Guidance document on that subject before you contract with someone. The article is called “Should you have the Air Ducts in your Home cleaned?”
On this morning’s CBS news, Leslie Stahl from 60 Minutes said unless you know what toxins to test for, you often come up empty. She was discussing the case of a Russian activist who allegedly was poisoned twice. Medical doctors tested him for many types of toxins in order to identify the cause and figure out a treatment. I tell my clients and potential clients the same thing. If you think something in your home is making you sick, the process to figure out the cause is one of eliminating the possibilities based on the symptoms reported. This is not an easy task.
Headaches are frequently reported by people who call me for help. Headaches obviously have many different causes. While chemicals can be a cause, it could be anything from incorrect vision correction lenses to stress and even diet. Living next to an illegal methamphetamine laboratory can expose you to a variety of chemical gases and vapors. If you suspect this is the cause of your illness, please note that I advise people to call the police at once.
As a Certified Industrial Hygienist, CIH, I have been trained to anticipate, identify, eliminate and control exposures to chemicals in the workplace, home and classrooms. Choosing a CIH to help you through an indoor air quality investigation will be much more productive than hiring someone who says they are a “Certified Mold Inspector.” But more on that subject in another blog. You can find a CIH in your area by searching the American Board of Industrial Hygiene website (abih.org) or the American Industrial Hygiene Association website (aiha.org).
Learn more about what a CIH does by watching this You Tube video.