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Sick Homes Part Two: Building Healthy Homes to Fight Problematic Indoor Air

Friday, December 1, 2000 at 12:49 PM

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Each year in this country, asthma affects more than 15 million Americans. Doctors say there's new evidence that asthma can be caused and triggered by the poor quality of indoor air. That's the air we breathe in our offices, in our schools - and in our homes. While no one is regulating home air quality, health, government and civic leaders are working together to help improve home environments. But the private sector is also involved in the fight to slow the rapid growth of asthma. In Cleveland, one local builder is putting up Healthy Homes designed specifically for people with ailments triggered by problems with indoor air. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer- Roberta Mancini says, when she has an asthma attack, her throat tightens, she starts to wheeze, and it’s hard to catch her breath. Until recently, she blamed her attacks on the old building in downtown Cleveland where she works as the director of a small foundation. But this Thanksgiving, she realized the problem might lie closer to home.

Roberta Mancini- Well, I noticed about a year and a half ago that there was these black marks on my ceiling in my living room and one of the other rooms. I had an episode last winter where I came down with an asthma attack and it took me over a month to get rid of it. And one of my children was home for the weekend and noticed that the marks are extending. And I became really quite scared.

KS- Mancini called in a contractor. He told her the mold problems in her 20-year-old Broadview Heights condominium could cost thousands of dollars to fix. She’s worried about the cost, because she wants to sell the condo. But she doesn’t want anyone else to inherit the problem.

RM- They’re going to have to take off part of the roof, get into the beams, be putting the bleach into the beams, pulling back the carpet - to the point that if they would do all these major repairs, I would not be able to live in my home for awhile. You think that maybe it’s going to happen in this old house, that’s a hundred years old or something and all of a sudden you realize, that it’s growing in your ceiling. And I find that very scary.

KS- Mancini is just one of thousands of people in Northeast Ohio faced with the costly dilemma of cleaning up a house that is literally making them sick. Some home environment problems can be taken care of with a plumber’s wrench and a bucket of bleach. But many others are costly, involving replacement of structural elements like roof beams and floor joists. Some are impossible to solve. That’s why Cleveland builder Jim LaRue wants to build homes that are healthy in the first place. This fall, he completed the first prototype of a new home in south central Cleveland specifically designed to cater to the needs of people like Roberta Mancini.

Jim LaRue- Good morning! One of the Health House rules is shoes at the door. One of the major things about a Health House is that you take your shoes off at the door. We’ve recently learned that a lot of the lead that we find in houses is not coming from paint, it’s coming from the soils from lead emissions from auto emissions from years and years and years. Which means it’s being tracked from the outside.

KS- Health House is an initiative of the American Lung Association. La Rue says the goal is to raise the bar for building standards in new house construction. He believes the problems with indoor air quality began in the 1970’s. A national energy crisis prompted builders and homeowners to insulate houses, sealing in toxins. In Health House, fresh air is the key to healthy living.

JL- We’ve created airtight walls so that all the air that comes into the house is either through windows or doors if they’re left open or through a ventilation system that brings fresh air into the heating system ductwork. And every few minutes that vent opens and brings fresh air into the living space.

KS- In this prototype of a healthy house, ventilation isn’t the only thing that’s different. The hardwood floors have no carpets and the walls are clad in paints that give off few of the volatile organic compounds - or VOC’s - that can trigger an asthma attack. A whole-house vacuum system delivers the power to suck up dust mites and insect eggs. There’s even a silent fan in the bathroom.

JL- Very often people don’t use their bath fan, which is a major indoor air quality issue. Because if we don’t control moisture in a house, then we get molds growing and all kinds of other stuff.

KS- La Rue says his new Health House prototype will list for around $170,000. That’s just a few thousand dollars more than the average price of a new home in Cleveland. But La Rue isn’t the only builder interested in creating healthier housing. George Trappe is a building industry salesman who works with Energy Star, a federal program to promote both healthy homes and energy efficiency.

George Trappe- We have a little slogan, build tight and ventilate right. When we have tested houses for their leakage rates and how they qualify with the state program called Energy Star - actually it’s a national program - most builders are building very, very close to the Energy Star standards right now.

KS- But all the new building standards in the world can’t make a house completely healthy. Jim LaRue says to keep a house healthy, you have to change the way you live.

JL- There’s no such thing as the perfectly healthy house. But if we can create an environment in which the person themselves can help control.

RM- Well, I think that if asthma suffers know about this house, this contractor is going to be getting a lot of calls.

KS- Roberta Mancini wishes she could move in tomorrow. Barring that, she says she’ll have her next house inspected for health hazards before she moves in. But medical experts say her asthma is just one of a growing number of indoor air-ailments. That means more people like Mancini will need healthier homes to breathe easy. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* Health House
* American Lung Association
* Cleveland Green Building Coalition

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