Mary, you’ve spent the last 25 years creating healthy homes that include natural building approaches, building science, and the German field of Baubiologie. Can you tell us what a healthy home really is?
It’s simple, really: it’s a home that supports human health by providing our bodies with a space to do the work they’re meant to do: heal and regenerate naturally. That means our homes should be as free from all environmental toxins as possible, — including chemicals, mold, and electromagnetic fields — at least at levels that don’t interfere with the body’s own healing mechanisms. This is important because a body that never gets a break from environmental toxins is always under stress. The German field of Baubiologie has established standards for indoor environmental health, which includes a very long list of all toxins with their measurable and permissible levels. The home should be neutral in odor, meaning, you really don’t smell anything. And the icing on the cake, once the toxins are removed, is a home that includes some natural surface materials (paint, flooring, furnishings), because materials made from earth elements help us to reconnect with nature and feel more grounded.
Why do you feel it’s so critical for anyone planning to have a child to create a healthy home?
Yes…this is most important because children, including the unborn, are the most vulnerable to toxins. Whatever the mother ingests, inhales and absorbs is passed on to her baby. And, because of their small size, rapid development and proximity to the floor where many chemicals reside, babies and children are at the greatest risk of harm that can affect them for the rest of their lives.
Statistics for children’s health and medical conditions indicate truly alarming increases in autism, cancer, neurological issues, lowered IQ, allergies, asthma, behavioral problems and low birth weight. While all these problems aren’t scientifically proven to be caused by indoor environmental issues, more and more studies indicate that heavy toxic loads called “body burden” are of great concern for the fetus, babies and children.
There are some startling statistics that are out. Here are just two:
The NIH (National Institute for Health) states that only 5–10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90–95% have their roots in the environment and lifestyle. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515569/
The Environmental Working Group found 208 chemicals in umbilical cord blood known to cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. http://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns
I don’t believe that parents have the luxury to sit back and wait for science to prove definitive links between the tens of thousands of untested chemicals and other toxins in the home and health problems with their children. We need to take a precautionary approach and make our homes safe for the most vulnerable among us. Parents want to do right by their children, but the way we build and furnish our homes does not support this. My goal is to help parents make the best and most informed choices, so that the home is a healing retreat rather than an impediment to health.
A great deal of my day-to-day work is now focused on helping parents identify and solve indoor environmental concerns that may have contributed to health effects from long term chemical, mold and EMF exposures. I would love to see a shift in my work, with a higher percentage on preventive education, so children and adults can be spared the additional suffering from toxins that not only add to their body burdens but also make it much more difficult to heal from illnesses, including eczema, allergies, asthma, neurological and nervous system imbalances, insomnia, chemical and electrical sensitivities.
The latest environmental research indicates that chronic, low level exposures to some toxics can affect not only the child once he or she becomes an adult, but even future generations.
It’s obvious that we can’t control everything we are exposed to outside of our homes, but if we give our children and ourselves a break from environmental toxins at home, particularly while we are sleeping, our bodies will be better able to handle what we can’t control. In this increasingly toxic world, a healthy living environment is essential for both short and long term health, starting with the very young.
If you had to choose one thing to improve in a home, what would that be?
Early in my training, I learned that many medical doctors in Germany working with the founder of Baubiologie nearly 50 years ago, discovered that their patients healed much faster and more successfully from illnesses when the bedroom was “detoxed”. Those doctors convinced their patients to test for and then eliminate sources of chemicals, EMFs, mold and other toxins. Since then, the Baubiologie testing and indoor environmental standards have been focused on the healthy bedroom.
Many of my clients who have suffered from years of waking up feeling stuffy, sneezy and wheezy, experience better sleep and a great deal of relief from allergy and asthma symptoms simply by following my guidance to create a healthy bedroom.
We spend a third of our lives in the bedroom, where our bodies do their most important regenerative and healing work. Babies and children are especially vulnerable when sleeping. Their immune, neurological, endocrine and other systems are still developing. While there are many ways to improve the health of the bedroom, many parents-to-be feel compelled to remodel their baby’s room just prior to or right after the birth. This is not a good idea. Any new materials, even those that seem healthier, can be a strain on a newborn’s body. It’s better to either plan way ahead…even before conception…and let the new materials outgas or wait until the child is older. Less is more!
You have an incredible reputation for your integrity and being the “go to” person for a healthy home…even referrals from medical doctors who can’t solve a patient’s health problem. What makes your approach unique?
My approach is both holistic and very practical. I look at the home as a kind of living organism, whereby something done in one area of the home has ramifications for all others…similar to holistic, integrated medicine. I look at things like electromagnetic fields, moisture and materials, potential chemicals in existing buildings, and how we heat and cool. Those are all integrated into this holistic approach for new homes, existing homes and the remodeling of homes.
Secondly, I use the health of the developing fetus as the baseline for my materials and systems recommendations. As a result, I have very high standards for what I deem as both healthy and green, whether I deal with newborns or with chemically and electrically sensitive adults.
Lastly, for both local and long distance projects, I work with other highly committed and dedicated environmental specialists who are the best at what they do: inspectors and engineers, scientists, building physics experts, HVAC and EMF specialists, mold, asbestos, lead and radon testing and remediation experts and more. For the client, I am the “glue” or the integrator among all the team members. I make sure we’re all on the same page, using the same standards, and that I have vetted all products used by the other team members.
I help people find honest information and real world solutions to help make their homes not only greener but healthier and safer, too.
Your work includes providing your clients and their contractors with protocols for healthier building products for their home improvement, remodeling projects and interiors. But if people choose green products, they should be safe, right?
I wish it were that simple. People often think that if they buy a product that’s “certified” and “green” that it’s healthy. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Even some low or no VOC green products may contain toxic ingredients that take months to completely dissipate or have undisclosed, odorless but highly toxic chemicals that never go away and, over time, contribute to higher levels of toxins in the indoor environment. Also, it is unfortunate that green certifications and seals are not truly independent. In fact, manufacturers are driving the standards for green certifications, so they may be meaningless or inadequate. We can’t depend on them. “Green” certified materials and/or products are just a starting point. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do all the digging needed to ensure a product is both green and healthy for their particular health concerns. That’s where I come in.
Safe Baby Healthy Child is a wonderful resource for parents who are dedicated to the health of their growing families. They are concerned about the integrity of their food, supplements and personal care products and are anxious to know more about how to keep their families safe and healthy. So, they are perfectly situated to dig into the world of interior materials and furnishings, building materials and lifestyle products. I can help guide and simplify their way through what is often a complex and daunting process.
While I will be contributing my expertise on lifestyle products, I am particularly excited to focus on building and interior materials, a first for Safe Baby Healthy Child. Those decisions to paint, remodel, or even build can potentially present long-term and sometimes serious health consequences, and are not as easy to change as say, picking a healthier shampoo. Once in place, a toxic building or interior product may affect the indoor environment for a very long time. So it’s important to get it right from the get go. And if that’s not possible, then it’s even more important to take whatever actions one can afford, to move toward a healthier home, step by step over time. I can help with both.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see how many families are affected by all the toxins they are exposed to, but it’s also extremely life affirming to see how well their bodies can recover when they make the commitment to create healthier homes. Parents tell me their children sleep through the night for the first time in years and wake up happy. Others call to let me know that their baby’s eczema and rashes have greatly diminished or completely healed. One woman, who was extremely environmentally sensitive and depressed by all the health issues she had been struggling with for years, simply said, “You saved my life.”
I believe every positive action toward living in a healthier environment is important.
Tell us more about your background and how you got started doing this.
Well, I’ve been creating healthy homes and workplaces now for 25 years. My first job was a collaboration with pioneering acupuncturists Susan and Julian Lange to build The Meridian Center, one of the first environmentally conscious clinics in the country. I became certified in the German healthy home field of Baubiologie in 1992, and then spent the next 10 years collaborating with and learning from experts to create healthy building protocols. I have worked with the world’s top healthy and natural building experts – visionary pioneers, like Ph.D. chemist and German Baubiologie teacher Thomas Haumann, Swiss architect Bosco Bueller, German architect Reinhardt Kanuka, and my closest colleague and collaborator, dietary and environmental consultant Marilee Nelson as well as U.S. natural building experts, Bill and Athena Steen, Robert LaPorte and Nader Khalili, and with the founder of U.S. Building Science, Joe Lstiburek.
I also used my own house as a working lab to experiment with all sorts of materials and systems: insulation, paint, flooring, electrical wiring, mechanical heating and air conditioning, air and water filtration, you name it – some materials and systems worked, some were totally wrong. But I was able to see first-hand the effects of these materials and systems on human health and on the health of the house. So, I know that the effect these things have on the way a house feels is not just some concept. It’s real and often quite measurable.
In addition, since I work on both new construction and existing homes, I also have 25 years of experience with after-the-fact problems, such as mold, chemicals, EMFs (AC electric and magnetic fields, and radio frequency EMFs), heating, air conditioning and ventilation. This experience with what does NOT work in conventionally built toxic homes, greatly informs my work for remodels and new construction. Very few professionals in green architecture, design and building have this type of real world experience with analyzing and improving existing buildings with health in mind.
Before becoming an indoor environmental consultant, I too struggled with environmental sensitivities. I suffered from allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivities, which made it difficult to function. Over time, as I made improvements to first the bedroom, and eventually the entire home, I discovered that our healthy home made a tremendous lasting positive impact on my health as I no longer suffer from allergies, asthma, chemical or mold sensitivities.