Ive attended dozens of building related conferences in the last few years…even presented at a few of them. Conferences that deal with the built environment and how it is literally poisoning the human occupants. The phrase that comes up at EVERY conference is, “we need to have a discussion about formaldehyde…”, yet that discussion never ensues.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak at two vastly different conferences… The Lead & Healthy Homes Conference (LHHC) in St Louis and the International Building Biology Conference in Elkhart Lake, WI. Both presentations went well, but the staggering knowledge gap between the two audiences left me pondering the the immense work that will be required to get to a place where a conversation can actually happen.
The LHHC is an independently produced conference, so no specific government or trade association has influenced the program. Generally speaking, I’m a fan of this kind of conference. Provided that the folks who create the schedule have a finger on the pulse of the industry, this has the great potential to educate about issues and solutions that are unadulterated by the bureaucrats or the giant manufacturers. From their website, here is the typical audience, “professionals from health, housing, community development, community groups, advocacy organizations, the lead industry, real estate firms, and residential and commercial facilities…exploring ways to undertake programs and projects designed to prevent incidents of lead poisoning, eliminate indoor environmental hazards, and create healthy living and working environments.” Boiled down, this is the group that deals with household hazards like lead and mold, from a low-income housing standpoint. Well needed and under served, in my opinion.
The Building Biology Conference was created by the International Institute for Building Biology and Ecology (IBE). From their website, this is a trade association that offers accredited courses to learn about “creating healthy homes, schools, and workplaces, free of toxins in the indoor air and tapwater, and electromagnetic pollutants”. The IBE is the only organization focusing on the actual health of the indoor human occupants, as it relates to construction methods, mold, formaldehyde, EMR, etc. Its members are electricians, architects, building scientists and a handful of individuals that may not be building professionals, but have been diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and are now focusing on educating anyone they can. Compared to most building related trade associations, this group is very, very small. Maybe only a couple hundred members throughout North America. But don’t let that fool you… these folks are committed to the cause and make enough noise to drown out groups ten times their size.
The LHHC has the potential to do great things, in my opinion. They are very focused on cost-based solutions and they deal only with problems that can be solved using federal, state or municipal dollars. But they DO want to solve problems. The IBE, however, is much more open to using not only time-proven technologies, but even historically accurate yet forgotten methods of construction to eliminate the problems in buildings that have been created by todays modern building materials and methods.
My presentation at these two events was identical. I spoke about the history of sick building syndrome and chemical sensitivity, the advent of green building and green washing, then the solutions we can offer, including some fantastic new formaldehyde testing equipment. The response was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be…both groups were curious and optimistic about what we offer. However, what really struck me was that the LHHC attendees acknowledged how horrible a problem formaldehyde is, yet they cannot even bring it up to clients because there is no money in the pipeline to deal with it. Basically admitting that the problem is too big and too expensive to verbalize, so they do NOTHING. Head in the sand tactics tend to work until your heads been in there too long. The IBE has the right ideas about building and problem solving. The entire audience was honestly excited about my presentation and how our materials and testing equipment would definitely help. Yet, because they tend to be on the fringes of what the typical construction and design professional consider “mainstream”, even their few but loud voices get washed out by the noise of the industry.
Lets find a way to finally have this conversation. We KNOW formaldehyde is a carcinogen. We KNOW its used in a large percentage of building materials and consumer goods. We KNOW its a key trigger for those with chemical sensitivities as well as asthma. So why is this still legal to use? Why do manufacturers go to great lengths to hide this ingredient? Using proprietary testing equipment, I’ve tested dozens of homes and hundreds of materials from flooring to fingernail polish and I can tell you that we have a fight on our hands here. In 30 minutes, I can tell you exactly how much formaldehyde is coming from any surface or material, with accuracy down to 1 ppb. This is done without disrupting the home. This test can prove which surface of at the home is off gassing formaldehyde so we no longer have to guess and spend thousands of dollars, when a simple fix may be in order. So… anyone interested in having this conversation with me?