By Sally Lehrman, Natural Solutions
It’s not easy to know if your home sweet home could be making you sick, because symptoms of environmental illness (a long list that can include irritation of the eyes, throat, skin, and nasal passages, as well as headaches and fatigue) can have many causes. But your house may indeed be the culprit if you notice you consistently feel better outside than indoors, or you start feeling lousy after: moving into a new home; remodeling your current one; bringing in a new piece of furniture; or using a new product.
When 50-year-old architect Paula Baker-Laporte comes home, she pulls off her shoes and enters an airy refuge. Sinking into a window seat, she basks in the New Mexico light that dances across exposed timber frames. She rests her eyes on the greenery of an indoor garden and unwinds as the scent of the evening drifts in.
Life wasn’t always this bucolic. Ten years ago something was wrong, and Baker-Laporte knew it wasn’t just in her head. She felt sapped and exhausted most of the time. She suffered from a chronic cough, recurrent bronchitis, and digestive disorders. Her home offered no respite, and every time she went out on a job–whether to a remodeling project or a house under construction–she felt even worse.
Baker-Laporte’s friend and doctor, Erica Elliott, was stumped. Then, oddly enough, Elliott herself began experiencing similar symptoms. A mountaineer and marathon runner accustomed to vigorous good health, she began feeling increasingly fatigued, compounded by a flu-like malaise that flared up monthly like clockwork.
With the help of a colleague trained in environmental medicine, Elliott traced her own illness to what seemed an unlikely source: the very air she breathed. Whenever the wind shifted outdoors, toxic fumes from the heavy-duty cleaning products used at her medical clinic wafted into her work area; the building’s exhaust was right next to the air intake vent. To add insult to injury, every four weeks a pesticide company sprayed the office baseboards with the neurotoxin Dursban.
As Elliott became more familiar with chemical exposure and its symptoms, she suggested that Baker-Laporte, too, take a close look at her surroundings. Sure enough, the architect soon learned that in the course of her workdays, she was regularly breathing in formaldehyde, a fungicide and component in glues, as well as other airborne compounds that drifted out from new cabinetry, paints, drywall, plywood, and carpets. At last they had a diagnosis: Both doctor and patient were suffering from environmental poisoning. Instead of providing environments that fostered health, Elliott’s clinic and Baker-Laporte’s homes were making them sick.
It was a rude awakening for both. In fact, Baker-Laporte thought she might even have to give up her career. To make matters worse, she was already in the midst of building a home for Elliott. The doctor told Baker-Laporte that they would simply have to change their plans: The Dursban at the office had made her sensitive to all kinds of chemicals, including those commonly found in homes and used in construction materials. “I told her she couldn’t design a regular house, because I couldn’t live in it,” Elliott says.
But instead of giving up on the house or on her career, Baker-Laporte simply redefined her professional identity. “Once I realized these things were harmful not just to me but to my clients, too, building healthy houses became a mission,” she says.
Together the two friends set out on a path that led them to a new way of thinking about where and how we live. Now, nearly a decade later, they dedicate themselves to teaching others how to make their homes into nurturing sanctuaries.
But keeping dangerous toxins out is only half the story. They also emphasize bringing in elements from the natural world that make a home feel peaceful and relaxing. Creating a home, they believe, is like practicing holistic medicine: Just as the best doctors look at the body as an integrated whole, so should we look at the dwellings that contain us.
Next: Hidden Poisons