Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Life of Illusion: Chapter 5: I Could Use Some Friends For A Change

Dot’s Journal, Earth Date 2020.10.05:

I am so happy that things with Bert are going well these days. Sometimes we make mistakes, but we are much more self aware than we used to be. Our issues were definitely exacerbated by our problems with Bertha and the visits to our close relatives who are always remodeling. Whenever the weather would change, we would get short with each other and be prone to misunderstandings. For a long time I thought maybe it had to do with the barometric pressure. But I have also thought that maybe the cloud cover we get might seal in air pollution. Or, maybe it has to do with house depressurization. In the months that I have been trying to get to the bottom of this, I had noticed that us not feeling well or happy seemed to occur at the same times other people felt the same. And then I noticed it was always when the moon was in a water sign (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), which was also weird. So for a long time, I just attributed it to the moon, and kept to myself and advised others to do the same during those times. That seemed to significantly decrease the drama in our lives. The moon moves into water signs every eight days or so, so that is fairly often. The break from emotional stimulation gave us a chance to see how we were feeling without the complications of interpersonal stuff. And then we noticed we were still feeling unwell and tired during those times in the Spring and Fall when here in Colorado, the weather can be quite temperamental. Indeed, a few years earlier before I came up with my "moon in water sign" theory, I noticed that there was nearly always a storm that would blow in during those times. It turns out that the sudden decrease in temperature would put more pressure on Bertha, and Sal, the water heater simply couldn't compete for the fresh air. With windows closed to keep out the cold, that meant Sal had become "orphaned" of fresh air, and there would not be enough oompf to sweep the dangerous combustion biproducts up the chimney stack, causing them to come back in the house. We were never able to detect any carbon monoxide, or catch Sal spewing dangerous gas into our home the way anyone else had recommended. I did see that the plastic grommets around the hot and cold water had melted, and there was rust on top of Sal (who was pretty aged at 16 years), indicating it was time for replacement, and that there was possible backdrafting. But the carbon monoxide detector I got for the basement never went off. I got a portable one, and it never went off, except when I tested it over a candle flame. I was beginning to think it was all in my head, until we started monitoring our air quality closely and seeing huge spikes in the VOCs when conditions were right for depressurization. The conditions could include having the basement windows closed, or trying to vent anything out of the basement windows. Sometimes it would happen when the bathroom or stove fans were left on with no windows open. And finally, it would happen when there was a lot of demand for hot water at once.


Our house is really tall because it is two stories and the basement is "garden level" which means the gases have to travel a long way to get out the top of our home. Newer sealed combustion tankless water heaters vent out the side of a home, potentially eliminating that problem, but also need their own fresh air intake. The location of our utility room makes getting fresh air to it difficult, and also it turns out that the people who finished the basement did not connect the fresh air duct coming from the outside of the house to the utility room; they simply let it terminate in the ceiling. In speaking with several professionals, this is a common problem in many homes. Some people choose not to hook up the fresh air intake in the basement, because it can make the basement cold. Other people just don't like the look of ducts. I just can't understand why people place so much value on form over function sometimes. This is an instance where it could have killed people.


I was able to conclusively figure out what happened by placing milk bottle caps on top of Sal. I didn't know when Sal's plastic grommets had melted when I learned that was a sign of malfunction, so I needed a controlled way to snoop on his performance that didn't require constant watching. The other method I saw on the internet was to look for moisture on a mirror propped nearby, but because house depressurization and backdrafting does not tend to happen in a constant fashion, it requires a pretty serious and concentrated effort to detect otherwise. The milk bottle caps melted periodically in the Spring, making me pretty sure I had figured out the problem. Then, when the weather warmed up, and Bertha was switched to air conditioning rather than furnace mode, there was no evidence of backdrafting. We had our first big backdraft with the mid-September cold snap, and the milk bottle caps have been melting most days. My health has been really poor. And it's not just me, but our pets, too. One dog and the rabbit get diarrhea, and another family member and I deal with IBS-like symptoms, extreme fatigue, and foggy head. It was finally bad enough this time that I was able to convince Bert it was something we needed to address.


I had my heart set on an electric tankless water heater because the kids like to shower so much, but it turns out that it would be way too costly, because it requires 3-phase power to be brought to our home from the city. So, instead, we are getting an electric tank, which is going to increase our electric bill, but down the road we will have the option of hooking it to solar power, which we both find pretty exciting. We like the idea of moving to something more sustainable in the future.


What worries me is how we went so long without noticing this, and that professionals I have spoken with are saying it is fairly common. Bert told me long ago that natural gas water heaters are extremely dangerous, but because they can explode. I now feel pretty confident as a neuroscientist that natural gas in homes is not safe. There is increasing evidence that indoor cooking, especially with gas appliances, is linked to a number of negative neurological health outcomes in children and the elderly. I find it strange that we work so hard to protect our pipelines for this energy source that is not replaceable, dangerous, and harming indigenous land. We both feel this way, but it is impractical to swap out Bertha because the sustainable retrofits require large amounts of cash.

But for how frustrated we could get trying to coexist peacefully with the fluctuating weather, it was nothing like how we would feel after visiting our relatives’ house. I stopped drinking when we would go there quite a few years ago, because I would feel so lousy for several days afterward. Bert did not have the same symptoms I did. I would wake up around 4 in the morning, feeling like my heart was going to pound right out of my chest. He merely snored. We didn’t really get hangovers, but everything felt more difficult for a few days after.

Then they remodeled.

All of our symptoms changed. Visits to their house felt really happy. Euphoric, even. But otherwise, my health had been declining before May of last year. So when they invited us over right before Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I hadn’t been there since the beginning of May, because their timing was always off. They would often invite us over when I had been busy and needed to rest. Last year I got into the practice of saying “No” when I didn’t have the energy for things, and my health was steadily improving with that methodology.

When they invited us over at Thanksgiving, I was tired. But I was worried they would take it personally if I didn’t show up, so I agreed to go as long as it would only be for two hours or so. But, in usual fashion, we went over, and had a lovely lunch, and a nice discussion (I even told them about my illness), but two hours stretched to six, and suddenly I felt the weird migraine setting in. For a while I thought this was because we needed to eat more for the time we were there, so that time we brought some soda and other carbs hoping that would help prevent the health crash we always had after being there. They don't serve a lot of carbs because they worry about their weight, even though they have never been obese. Despite this approach, the migraine came, so we rounded up the kids and went home.

Bert and I retired to Area 51 when we got home and both of us were having terrible pains in our thighs. We talked about how something was really wrong, that we were both having the symptoms. We had spent a fair amount of time sitting on their new sofa, in their living space which had been remodeled two years prior, along with the adjoining kitchen. They had put in new appliances, cupboards, backsplash, flooring, and purchased new furniture for the breakfast nook and living room. The table was made of a composite material, and the parsons chairs and sofa were both upholstered with cloth. Composites and textiles are notorious sources of carcinogenic indoor air pollution. My sister-in-law has a LEED certification for her interior design business, but I don't think that her parents ever worry about asking her what she knows about those things. Or maybe it's like Bert and I, feeling like the natural alternatives are too pricey. I remember being shocked at the cost of marmoleum when I was looking for flooring for the studio. That's why I ended up using concrete stain and wax sealant.

At least this time they had not put in new carpet. I don't know if it is because I begged them, or because they didn't have the money. Instead, they put in new hardwood, which had to be sealed, and I have learned that most of the hardwood floor sealants are large sources of trichloroethylene (TCE) which was on the list for the EPA to ban, but was downgraded due to politics. TCE is ubiquitous.


Now, knowing everything I know, I also know that they tried to entertain too many people in their small space for the lack of air circulation they had. In commercial spaces, careful calculations are made to bring fresh air based on occupancy rates. My in-laws regularly had 10+ people in their small space when we had get togethers. People exhale VOCs and CO2, so over time this builds up in an enclosed space. My inlaws have baseboard heat, so the air is pretty stagnant. Even my house, which has larger gathering spaces and forced air ventilation would not be able to accommodate that many people for that long. I shudder to think about all the gatherings that are going on in people's poorly ventilated homes during coronavirus.

I’m not actually sure my meters would pick up whatever is causing the health issues at their home. I went and tested them at my friend Jane’s house in early March. She renovated much of her home about six years ago, and they read like they do at my house. After the short visit to her home, I ended up having all the symptoms of going to our relatives, and I don’t have them in my own home. In fact, even with the problems with Sal in my own home, I am recovering a lot of language and cognition I had lost in the past years. So maybe it is a reaction to something that is not a VOC or formaldehyde, but is common to newer construction. It could be POPs (persistent organic pollutants), or perhaps they used some of that toxic Chinese drywall, but I don’t think they used much sheetrock in their latest projects.

My inlaws had both suffered from unexplained seizures one winter after they painted, and I do not know if she or he have a genetic predisposition to those. But I do know that Bert had an unexplained seizure the year we remodeled my studio, and all we did was paint the walls and stain the concrete floor! We didn’t use construction adhesives or new cabinetry, and we didn’t purchase any new furniture for the space, except some steel shelving. Oh, and the rolly drawer cart from that big Swedish place. We had gotten a new furnace in 2014, about a year before we did the floor in my studio. The furnace was not high efficiency, because of the venting problem we have due to the placement of the utility room, and concerns about creating an orphaned water heater situation. Retrofitting solutions can be a little frustrating, but with everything I know about toxins and sustainability, I am glad we don't live in a new house, and I don't imagine ever doing that again. I read Sandra Steingraber's books about environmental illness when we lived in our new home in the southern part of the state and Henry was little, and so I wasn't clueless about these things. It was just hard to know if the fear she was writing about was warranted until I saw the effects for myself and was able to tie them to the meters. VOCs and formaldehyde often coexist with other harmful chemicals which are more persistent, so as long as they're not produced from the yeast in bread dough (yeast farts!) or legged-animal farts, they're worth considering as clues to sources of toxins in the home. Certainly it puts a lot more power in consumers' hands over their own health to remove sources of toxins, rather than visiting the doctor all the time who has to rely on insurance industry standards of care and pharmaceutical solutions, without the critical knowledge of
what's going on in a person's home. The EPA has guidelines for doctors to be on the lookout for environmental illness, but I'm pretty sure none of the doctors I have had in Northern Colorado have read them.

One of my kids developed terrible allergies after we painted their room. Bert thought it was the stain on the bunk bed, but I had read a study that low-VOC paint like what we used in our kids’ rooms contains polyethylene glycol, which is associated with elevated rates of asthma in children when used in their bedrooms. The bunk bed had been used, so I wasn’t totally convinced it was the problem, but Bert was convinced that it smelled funny. So we got rid of the bunk bed and I went to the big Swedish place and got a bedroom set that was made with mostly wood. But it wasn’t all wood and had plenty of composite materials, too. I really wanted something that would allow for storage but was made of natural materials, and nothing ever came up locally.

My kid has also had sleep difficulties ever since we painted the rooms. It takes him a long time to fall asleep; he says he has issues with not being able to quiet his mind. In the morning he has a really difficult time waking. I remember when Henry was little and we had that newly constructed house, we would take naps together every day, and when I would wake up, I would feel really awful, like I needed to go back to sleep right away. But of course I was the parent of a small person, so I needed to wake up. I was getting plenty of sleep at night, so it wasn’t due to lack of sleep. But these sleep difficulties have made getting up early for things really difficult for him. I have been opening the window in the morning so he can have some fresh air, and that seems to be helping. We have really not been feeling well since last week. The VOC levels in the house have averaged over 600ppb since September 15, and only in recent days have they lowered to under 300ppb since we have been able to open the windows again. All of us are having difficulty sleeping.

The chemicals did not just affect us humans, like I said. One year I remodeled the laundry room with the help of our male relative, and during the process, my dog became very sick with liver disease and eventually she was so sick that she could not get out to the yard and I had to carry her. We ended up having to euthanize her just a short time after we finished the project. Our relatives have a little black puppy, or at least the dog was a puppy when all this remodeling started. She was under two years old. Her face became grey the year they remodeled, and she was having a lot of health problems. The female relative thought maybe it had to do with the deck stain they had applied, or the detergent that her visiting son had used, but the dog’s face had greyed before either of those things had happened.

Now that I think of it, I know a lot of people who have chronic illness or cancer and who live in newer homes, or like to paint their walls. I know quite a few families with kids who have chronic illness or attention issues who live in new or remodeled homes, too, actually.

Come to think of it, my friend Fleur lived in a big new house that she had designed herself. She was an engineer or a scientist or something. She was even trying to make it environmentally friendly and had geothermal and passive solar heating. She had a daughter about the same time as I had Lily. But around the time Lily turned two, Fleur’s daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia. She ended up recovering, thank goodness.

When Lily was only 9 months old, a few days before her well check, I had given her some tap water in a sippy cup, because she was going through a growth spurt and wouldn’t eat solid food, and I was exhausted from all her nursing. At her well check appointment, the doctor noticed she looked a little blue, and thought she might be anemic. When the nurse took her blood, it was brown. The nurse thought it was odd, but didn’t take any action on it. She simply gave the numeric results of the test to the pediatrician, who then prescribed iron for Lily.

Our health problems had been so strange living in that new home. Henry ended up developing sensory integration issues, and I had a lot of fatigue, so I took us both to a holistic MD who was covered by our insurance. Recently, I made the connection that I develop sensory issues when Sal has backdrafted. That doctor wanted to know everywhere I had lived in the past, so he could try to understand the environmental factors that may have been affecting my health. After seeing him, I became interested in environmental pollution, and discovered that there were large releases of nitrate into the air less than a mile from our home. Actually, the facility that released the nitrate was about halfway between our house and Fleur’s, and this was right around the time that medical science was linking nitrate exposure to childhood leukemia, but through hot dogs.

I remember the horror I felt when Lily told her pediatrician that her favorite food was hot dogs. I remember quickly responding that they were the naturally cured ones, and then discovering that celery was extremely high in nitrate and used to cure hot dogs. Naturally cured meats just have a broader spectrum of nitrates than just sodium nitrate. Hmm. I was concerned about sodium erythorbate, but it actually is a man-made antioxidant which prevents the formation of nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic.

Now, the part I forgot to include about Lily is that I researched tap water and breastfed babies, and there was information to not give exclusively breastfed babies tap water, because their digestive systems still contain largely bifidus bacteria, rather than lactobacillus, and the bifidus bacteria actually react with any nitrate in tap water causing a condition called “blue baby syndrome” or methemoglobinemia. Henry had been cyanotic in the hospital when he was born, and the nurse who caught it didn’t do a differential diagnosis, she just warned me not to nurse him lying down.

Anyway, I mean to bring this all back to my mood issues. Any sort of volatile organic compound (and alcohol is a VOC) interferes with mitochondrial oxidation of glucose, and thus, glucose utilization by the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It is why alcohol causes impaired judgment, slurred speech, and poor memory. Different VOCs affect the brain for different amounts of time, and in varying levels. We have had a debate around here about if methane from a dog fart is as bad as other VOCs. I have been trying to explain that methane is methane, whether it is from a dog butt or a cow butt or gasoline. With gasoline, there are going to be a lot of other VOCs, too. It's true what they say, the dose makes the poison. And actually, when I finally made the connection between how we felt after visiting our relatives, I looked up the symptoms for sniffing glue, and there is a come down, which happens about two days later, and I kind of wonder if that’s what we were experiencing. Toluene can cause these kinds of symptoms, and it is in many adhesives.

If so, that’s not a good thing, and it really makes me worry about our relatives. I don’t know what they can do, or if they plan to do anything. I communicated all these concerns to them, and they stopped talking to me. I understand they have a lot of money invested, but this is more important than money, especially with the wildfires and COVID. Maybe they just don’t know what to say. Straightforward conversation has never been their forte. Maybe they are worried that I will sue them, but I don’t do things like that. I just want everyone to be happy and healthy, and I understand that people make mistakes, and even that I just happen to have become the unwitting discoverer of a potential health hazard in the home that nobody knew about before. I guess we could call it "subclinical backdrafting" since there was never any evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I feel like I need to share this with people right now because for a long time I would get winded so easily just walking up the stairs, and as I have discovered the various sources of exposure and managed or eliminated them, my respiratory capacity is getting better, even though I haven’t exercised much.


Dot puts down her pen and takes another toke on the vape. She had gone most of the week without it, not even missing it. But, it was Friday, and she felt the need to journal. This stuff was weighing heavily on her heart. She felt like it was stuff the world needed to know about. But she also felt like she was sitting on some big dirty secret that could get her into trouble with corporations. She didn’t fancy herself an Erin Brokovich. Just a protector of brains and life in general. She had once told a friend that kindness was more important than intelligence, but she was really beginning to wonder.

The coronavirus was bringing out a lot of strange behaviors in people. She heard about health care providers writing prescriptions for family members irresponsibly. She heard of a bar in a neighboring town which stopped serving food, but was selling drinks to patrons who were then congregating in the parking lot. And one of Lily’s friends’ moms turned out to be consuming content from a major right wing conspiracy group, and believing it. And then, of course, there was the President, who was probably suffering from the worst case of affluenza. How much of the world's craziness was due to chemicals?

When she looks back on all the crap she learned in high school, it’s a wonder Dot can think at all. Certainly the chemical exposure didn’t help.

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