I have exciting news! I found the source of a lot of our health problems here due to my dogged perseverance. I am so happy to have this information to share to help others, especially at this time where our health is at risk from wildfire smoke and coronavirus.
I figured out that our water heater has been backdrafting for… I don’t know how long. It was, as they say in the industry “orphaned” maybe since we replaced the furnace in 2014. Maybe longer. This may be really common because there is often insufficient fresh air coming into newer, tighter homes! And when I say “newer,” our home was built in 1988. I grew up in a house built in 1929 which was leaky, but my Dad still knew enough to keep a window open for sleeping. I have heard stories from several people about members of households needing windows open to feel well, and this may be another big, yet until now undiscovered reason.
We have been getting poisoned by flue gases from the water heater coming back into the utility room every time there was a drop in temperature. The demand on the furnace during cold snaps caused it to have to compete with the water heater for clean combustible air. I think it was a contributing factor in my husband's seizure a year after we got a new furnace. The new furnace, even though it was not high efficiency, just didn’t have the power to pull the flue gases from the gas water heater tank (these don’t have a powered exhaust). I mention high efficiency furnaces, because they do not have oompf to pull companion exhaust from gas water heaters under most conditions, and this is well known. The problem can be difficult to diagnose, because it only occurs under certain conditions, like when the house is totally shut up, there is competition for fresh air by other gas appliances, or depressurization of the home by the running of exhaust fans. The height of a home can contribute greatly, too. So, as long as the temperature was stable, this didn’t seem to be a problem, but in the Spring and Fall we can get large temperature variations, and that’s when the conditions were perfect for backdrafting. Add in pressure on the hot water heater from dish and clothes washing, and four people showering, and we had guaranteed house depressurization.
Our situation was worsened because whoever finished the basement in our house did not complete the transit of the fresh air return to the utility room. In speaking with several professionals, I have learned this is fairly common. Reasons people give for not hooking up fresh air returns to furnace rooms include not wanting to cool the basement air beyond a comfortable level in the winter, and, the less easy to understand reason - ducts are unsightly. But, uh, I’d rather have an “unsightly” duct in my basement than be dead or be robbed of my intelligence and health. Why it is interior designers don’t get this, I don’t know. They cannot possibly understand enough to match wits with a mechanical engineer on HVAC design in terms of safety, unless they have spent a lot of time educating themselves on ventilation. Given the reactions I have gotten from professionals regarding the research I have done on this subject, my guess is that they haven’t run into many interior designers that ask the right questions about HVAC systems, because they were surprised to hear those questions from a neuroscientist.
This can take a long time to diagnose, even for professionals. I had professionals in my house who couldn’t catch it in the act, and weren’t even aware of this phenomenon. Some didn’t even know what VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were. That can all be combated with good information, though, so here we go!
This phenomenon has a major impact on human health and people are unaware of it. It is critical to address at a public health level because it impacts glucose utilization in the cells and thus mental health, intelligence, consciousness, respiratory and cardiovascular health. My good friend has a neighbor who is on the Physicians for Social Responsibility board. They are a group trying to raise awareness about the effects of natural gas on health. People along the Front Range in Colorado are noticing effects on their health from the flaring done by the fracking industry. There are large releases of volatiles into the air whenever natural gas is burned. This is huge. I have been collecting scientific papers for the last 9 months and consulting lots of different people on these matters. I have learned a lot! This is information that needs to be clearly communicated to lay people so they can protect their health.
We had our gas water heater removed yesterday after I was finally able to show that the temperature fluctuations were causing backdrafting using milk bottle caps placed on the top by the flue. The plastic grommets along the hot and cold water supply lines had been melted at some point, but I didn’t know when. We have a whole house fan, so I thought maybe we had inadvertently caused the backdrafting with the whole house fan at some point. I needed a way to pinpoint the timing of the backdrafting, since it was impossible to catch in real time. The caps melted in the Spring, were fine in the Summer when we ran the air conditioning or the furnace was off, and then started melting again recently since we had to have the house shut up for the wildfire smoke. Combined with the wildfire smoke, the orphaned water heater created a potentially deadly situation in our home, because with the house shut up, the water heater was backdrafting almost every day. This last backdraft was so bad I thought I was going to die; I spent a good day with a heart rate over 120, and sleep has been elusive in the last week. I have had to use nearly everything I have learned about healing to get through the last few weeks with this forest fire. In speaking with people around me, I know I am not the only person who is feeling similar effects, so it is my intention to share my bag of tricks at a later date. While I am not a medical doctor, and don’t play one on television, I have significant knowledge on the subject of recovery from toxic exposures which I have gleaned through my life experiences.
We have been dealing with memory and attention issues for years, and as I have written before, I have dealt with problems with anxiety and depression. I have learned many very effective ways to manage those things, but they require a lot of time and diligence which I have that others may not. Luckily, I have been able to conclusively link these things to chemical exposures which mindful people should be able to avoid, such as this water heater backdrafting. Other fatigue and pain issues I had were also directly connected. As well as respiratory and cardiovascular issues, I experience shortness of breath and tachycardia about 24 hours after exposure, which are also symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. I had several carbon monoxide detectors in my home and they never went off. I don’t know if this non-carbon monoxide-generating backdrafting is known about in the industry yet or if it is something I have personally discovered. It may have been dismissed because of ignorance about what VOCs do to the brain with chronic exposure. In acute exposures, VOCs are excreted more rapidly by the body (within a few days). In contrast, carbon monoxide renders blood cells useless for carrying oxygen permanently. I am familiar with what carbon monoxide poisoning feels like because I had it once on a trip to visit a friend who had a gravity fed furnace in a historical home. She had informed me that it was acting up. It caused us to have psychological issues in our group and we ended up coming home from our trip early. It was really embarrassing and I never knew what to tell my friend about why we left. I suspect she probably knew; she is an artist and her work is concerned at least in part with environmental issues.
Symptoms similar to carbon monoxide poisoning health issues for me were always worse when a storm front would come through, and for years I thought maybe it was due to barometric pressure because I get visual migraines and I was aware that some people link their migraines to barometric pressure. Anyway, the levels of volatile compounds in our home air have gone down significantly in the 24 hours since we had our water heater removed and replaced with an electric model. I am hoping my peeps do some data analysis that I will be able to share, but right now they are so busy making magic with all their newfound energy, I think they should be able to enjoy it! Everyone seems to be doing better.
To understand in more detail what I am talking about, you can search for “house depressurization.” There is also information coming out of Queensland, Australia and China about the health effects of indoor cooking with natural gas on attention in children. Luckily, it is pretty easy to switch to electric cooking.
My professional opinion as a freelance neuroscientist and Supermom is that people using natural gas should consider getting air quality monitors that measure VOCs. Actually, I think everyone should get them, because this phenomenon certainly isn’t the only contributor to poor air quality and health issues in residences. And residences just don’t have the same code requirements for fresh air that commercial spaces do. There are networked systems that give alerts on a smartphone about plumes, and it is possible to locate indoor pollution sources using the information they provide. Over the last few months I have had my meters, I have been able to identify multiple sources of volatile compounds and formaldehyde, eliminating them and reducing my anxiety, aphasia, hearing problems, chronic pain and “menopause symptoms.” I have written about this in several previous posts. Sometimes I feel like I am living in the era of gaslights and the birth of forensic science because the situations are so similar. The anxiety and body pains I would get after exposure were nearly paralyzing. I think a lot of people go on pharmaceutical drugs to try to alleviate the symptoms I was having. For people who can’t afford a VOC meter to start their own health investigation, maybe just a milk bottle cap on the top of the water heater might save a life!
Hug your family! Paying attention to our air quality has helped improve our quality of life, even in this hard time, because our anxiety, it turned out, was largely due to metabolic issues from the air quality!
Here are some pictures of my “milk bottle cap” experiment. The milk bottle caps were far superior to trying to catch the water heater in the act of backdrafting by using a mirror. It’s important to remember that the air outside during a wildfire can be just as if not more dangerous than our inside air right now, so keeping an eye on metrics can help us do the best to protect our health and keep us away from the doctor’s office. Or the morgue.
The last soldier:
This grey grommet melted fairly recently. It wasn't like this over the summer:
I just kept putting new milk bottle caps on there daily and checked on them multiple times. If I found one melted, I could usually see an associated spike in the VOC readings on my air quality monitor in my studio, which does historical recordings. The system proved invaluable for showing me how the gas plume moved through our home, how it originated, and under what conditions. My intuition was invaluable during this process, and I am glad that I did not get too discouraged when I couldn't get the problem solved with professional help earlier on. The hot water supply grommet has obviously melted at this point.
The cold water supply grommet had been melted by the Spring when I conceived of the milk bottle cap experiment.
Well, I suppose my next post should be a big thanks to all the individuals who helped with little pieces of information that helped me become self aware enough to solve this problem! There were so many of you. Really!