Thank You for Not Breathing
Five minutes after environmental building inspector David Kibbey leaves our house, my wife Linda unplugs the microwave oven, tapes a note to it reading "free," and puts it on the sidewalk. Kibbey has just told us that radiation leakage standards for American microwaves are a hundred times more lax than standards in the country that gave us Chernobyl, and that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) microwaves produce have been linked to cataracts, brain tumors, and cancer.Ten minutes later a van stops in front of our house, a young man jumps out, and the microwave is gone. The van must have been lying in wait around the corner. It passes through my mind that I have just been the victim of an elaborate scheme by Kibbey to separate me from my appliance, but decide instead that vans cruising for free stuff is just the way the world works.I spend the next week alternately bemoaning the fact that I cannot easily heat up my leftover pizza and trying frantically, at Kibbey's urging, to tape aluminum foil over the plaster in my furnace supply duct. The wizards who installed my furnace must have decided that the inside of my raw plaster wall would do just as well as sheet metal. While Kibbey was looking over my house, he noticed the plaster behind the grillwork. "Sometimes they used asbestos fibers in old plaster to strengthen it. Sometimes they used horse hair, sometimes asbestos," he said. "If there are asbestos fibers in there, they're so tiny, so microscopic, that if you hold one in the air and let go of it, it may take three days for it to hit the floor. It's eminently respirable. So we breathe it now, it adheres to the lining of our lungs, and it gives us cancer in thirty years." Maybe horse hair, maybe asbestos. So either I'm breathing in a bit of the old ranch on cold winter nights, or a known carcinogen.I've yet to seal off the crawl space to keep the asthma-inducing mold out of my two-year-old's room, or put an exhaust fan in my laundry room to get rid of the poisonous carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide being spewed into the air by my gas dryer and water heater. All this after a single two-hour session with Kibbey. And I'm one of the lucky ones. I wasn't desperate. I just wanted an interview.As an environmental building inspector, David Kibbey's job is to diagnose and cure sick-making buildings. He doesn't advertise because he doesn't have to. His phone rings off the hook. Usually people call him when they're desperate, when they're sick and getting sicker, and can no longer stay in their homes or offices because of things like migraine headaches, hacking coughs, dermatitis, nausea, bronchitis, tremors, conjunctivitis, fatigue, numbness, and palpitations.Kibbey was late for our meeting because of a frantic phone call he received at 8:30 that morning from a therapist who could not see her patients because she's allergic to the mold in her new office. "She's scared stiff of losing her livelihood," said Kibbey. If he couldn't figure out a way to remove the mold, he'd help her find a survivable space. A church administrator who just requested Kibbey's services can't work because of the painful hacking dry cough she gets whenever she's at the office-the result, speculates Kibbey, of a heating system that draws air through fiberglass-lined ducts. When she leaves, so does the cough.It's become a toxic world. Since the dawn of the petrochemical era in the 1950s and the advent of tight, energy-efficient buildings in the 1970s, indoor air pollution levels have soared. The EPA estimates that indoor air is generally two to five times worse than outdoor air, going so far as to literally suggest that letting your kids play next to an oil refinery might be better than keeping them inside. Outside air dissipates. Inside air lingers. And people in First World countries spend upwards of ninety percent of their lives indoors.The National Institute of Health estimates that forty million people, fifteen percent of the population, are hypersensitive to low-level exposures of common chemicals found in our food, air, water, and, of course, building materials-in things like plywood, insulation, paint, solvents, and natural gas. But it is an exasperating statistic. No one can adequately explain why the guy who pumps gas seven days a week isn't getting sick, or why the department store clerk who constantly sprays perfume on her wrist doesn't seem to be bothered by the neurotoxins in it.One thousand new synthetic chemicals are added each year to the 70,000 already out there. Little is known about the effects of eighty percent of the 48,000 listed by the EPA, and only 500 of them have been tested for long-term effects. Five hundred out of 70,000-less than one percent. Life in the 20th century is a massive lab experiment in which we're the guinea pigs and the findings are not yet in.David Kibbey seems born to this work. He has the obsessive passion of a maverick research scientist and the righteous anger of a '60s radical when deriding the indifference of the medical-pharmaceutical establishment. He wants you to understand. When he speaks, he punches the air with his forefinger; he likes to show grotesque photo enlargements of mold spores and water molecules deformed by microwaves. He will recite chapter and verse from EPA reports, white papers, German studies, and his own research. He'll talk about the Tao of physics, the unity of all things, and why when you throw something away, there is really no "away." For those who buy his shtick, he's a messiah, their last, best hope. For those who don't, he's a dangerous alarmist.Kibbey is one of only a hundred or so people in the country who specialize in solving the kinds of problems that most people do not realize exist, cannot figure out how to fix, or deny outright. He is fluent in the deleterious effects of black mold, leaky heating systems, air pressure differentials, moisture build-up, electromagnetic fields, all manner of off-gassing, carbon monoxide poisoning, and household petrochemical neurotoxins (more often called perfumes and cosmetics).He edits and publishes a guide for homeowners and design professionals called the Architectural Resource Guide, which lists alternative building practices and products, from reusing rainwater to building structures out of straw bales to the phone number of a German company that sells plant-based paints. The guide explains why fiberglass insulation is a big no-no and why putting water heaters in sheet metal closets outside our homes is a fabulous idea. Kibbey sells the guide mainly through mail order, and specialty bookstores like Builder's Booksource in Berkeley can't keep it on the shelf.In Berkeley, Calif., Kibbey helped open the Green Resource Center library and he spreads his message on radio broadcasts, where you are sure to hear his healthy house mantra: "Eliminate, isolate, ventilate." His is not an easy science and there are no simple answers, because, according to Kibbey, there are "no perfect building materials, or building systems. Every site is different, every material is different, and materials in different combinations behave differently."But take heart. It only sounds hopeless. Problems do get solved.Seven years ago Kibbey received a call from a young well-to-do couple who had moved into a spacious duplex with a four-car garage on the ground floor. They called Kibbey because something was wrong with their one-year-old son, and doctors couldn't figure out what it was. At this point in his story, Kibbey starts sketching a diagram of the house. When Kibbey sketches, you know you've got problems."The baby was exhibiting all the classic signs of carbon monoxide poisoning: vomiting, dizziness, flushed face, and abdominal pains." His parents weren't doing much better, suffering from chronic nausea, extreme fatigue, and headaches. Yet the people who lived upstairs felt fine. Kibbey started by taking a carbon monoxide reading next to a furnace register in the hallway and found levels were high, so high that he immediately opened a kitchen window to get some fresh air in the house. Then he took another reading at the kitchen window. The carbon monoxide level was worse. That didn't make sense.Okay, so where does carbon monoxide live? In cars, of course, and gas appliances like water heaters and dryers. So he checked the garage. It was connected to the floor above it by furnace ducts, which should not be a hazard, assuming the ducts are sealed from the noxious garage air. Kibbey followed the route of a ceiling duct carrying recirculated air and found that a plumber who had done work in the ceiling had opened the duct and never reclosed it. Deadly carbon monoxide fumes were being pumped directly into the house. A large missing section of garage wall directly below the kitchen window allowed the remaining exhaust fumes to be sucked right back into the house.The solution was simple: provide more fresh air by cutting vents into the garage doors, seal off the garage from the upstairs, seal the duct, and exhaust the garage air to the roof. "They're lucky they didn't die of carbon monoxide poisoning," Kibbey says.When Kibbey arrives on the scene, he looks like a forensic pathologist-or maybe a hit man. He opens a foam-lined yellow plastic attache case that seems as if it were designed to cradle rifle components. In it he's carefully arranged a Gaussmeter for measuring electromagnetic fields, a digital manometer to determine positive and negative air pressures, a moisture meter to measure dampness in building materials, a motorized pump with an N-6 sampler for collecting air particles, a sound meter, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, petri dishes coated with agar, a sling hygrometer to measure moisture in the air, boxes of plastic baggies for sample collection, a Teflon jar and vial for producing smoke trails, a combustible gas detector, and a Tyvek suit for entering crawl spaces and attics. Lastly, he pulls out a respirator with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Arrester) filter and a carbon-filled cartridge sealed by O-ring gaskets. "I never go into a crawl space or attic without this. You never know when you're going to find stachybotrys chartarum or chlordane."Chlordane is an extremely toxic termite poison, now illegal, that will reside happily in soil for more than thirty years. Stachybotrys chartarum is a black mold which produces mycotoxins. According to the California Department of Health Services, mycotoxins are responsible for a range of symptoms including respiratory problems, hacking coughs, shortness of breath, skin irritation, fatigue, humidifier fever, headaches, memory loss, and sore throat. In the February 1999 issue of Western HVACR News, it was reported that a newborn baby died from pulmonary hemorrhaging resulting from exposure to toxic black mold. This was, mind you, in a heating and air-conditioning industry newsletter, hardly an alarmist zine.Mold thrives in damp wood, damp plaster, refrigerator drip pans, humidifiers. If you happen to have misplaced your hygrometer, advises Kibbey, there are two rules of thumb: If you can see it, you have a problem. If you can smell it, you have a problem. A 1998 report cosponsored by the EPA, the AMA, the American Lung Association, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission links mold and other biological pollutants like animal dander and house mites to the 59 percent rise in the number of people with asthma since 1970. Mold must be dried out or sealed off.Eliminate, isolate, ventilate.And like a forensic pathologist, Kibbey has gathered evidence used in civil trials. "I got a call to come out and look at a new home. It wasn't two years old-very nice, solar panels, inlaid wood floors, landscaped patios. But the place is probably going to have to be torn down." He pulls out a manila folder and shows me crime scene photographs: mold creeping up a kitchen door, water soaking a basement, rusted nails popping out of walls. The home owners are suing the contractor and architect for faulty drainage design. Once Kibbey saw the place, he wasn't surprised. "The house is a dehumidifier for the neighborhood." In one photograph Kibbey stands proudly next to the N-6 sampler mounted on a tripod. Kibbey sent the samples in to a lab to find out exactly what kind of nasties were floating in the air. They turned out to be cladosporium, penicillium, and aspergillus, with one count of stachybotrys. The gadgetry and Latin suffixes confer an instant sense of credibility; no incense or laying-on of hands here.The first thing Kibbey will do is look at your roof. Mine slopes. Water runs off slopes. That's good. Then he checks my downspouts, which run to the streets via plastic pipe. Also good. Once inside, he pulls out the moisture meter, which looks more like a taser gun than something you'd find at the hardware store, and sticks its prongs into my old plaster wall."Anything over twenty percent and you've got mold." I flinch as he yanks out the prongs. Seventeen percent. Things are looking good for my old clapboard bungalow.Kibbey brushes back his hair and kneels down to peek under our living room rug. In the last year, my toddler has probably spilled ten gallons of milk on it, but that's not Kibbey's concern. "This is good," he says. "You can see the pattern on the back of this rug. It's through-woven. If you couldn't see it, it would mean styrene butadiene backing, which has got 4-phenocyclohexene (4-PC) in it-very toxic stuff."Unlike wall-to-wall carpeting, a rug can be cleaned, you can get under it. Kibbey does not like carpeting. Kibbey hates carpeting. "Carpet is the least healthy floor you can possibly have. Period. Doesn't matter what fibers you use, what backing you use, how you attach it to the floor, carpet is a bad idea because it's a sink. No cleaning method can remove the dust, the dust mites, the dust mite droppings, or the pesticides tracked in on your feet. If you looked at it under a microscope you would see such a toxic stew you'd never ever want to see a carpet again." His hejira against carpets seems a bit extreme to me, but even the conservative AMA admits that the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in carpeting can cause eye irritation, nosebleeds, dizziness, headaches, and sore throats. Maybe Kibbey's onto something.Building codes, however, sometimes do require wall-to-wall carpeting in public buildings. So when a film center hired Kibbey to help it pick the least toxic, most mold-resistant carpet he could find, Kibbey looked carefully at the recipes of several manufacturers and narrowed down the candidates. He then sent samples to a lab called Berkeley Analytical Associates for chamber testing. Twenty years ago this wouldn't have been an option, but because of the work of people like Al Hodgson at Berkeley Analytical Associates, people like Kibbey can now put some hard science behind their suspicions."It's a way around the paranoia and folklore," says Hodgson. "We don't have all the answers, but we've got some of them." Kibbey's carpet samples were locked in hermetically sealed stainless steel cylinders, and their emissions were measured over several weeks. The final result was a fifteen-page report full of graphs, tables, numbers, and cold narrative description. What his research allows you to figure out, for example, is how long to air out a newly carpeted building. A chamber test might reveal, say, that 95 percent of total off-gassing is complete after the first six days. Off-gassing occurs when a solid object, say a square of carpet, releases unstable, volatile chemicals into the air at room temperature. Off-gassing is worse in higher temperatures, and when the object is new.That's invaluable information for someone like Kibbey, or a concerned homebuilder, or a developer interested in doing the healthy thing.Hodgson divides his time between running Berkeley Analytical Associates and researching indoor air quality issues at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. We met in his lab, where he works for the Indoor Environment Department. His office and lab occupy three small rooms filled floor-to-ceiling with binders, ventilation pipes, pressurized air tanks, and a sealed glass box the size of a refrigerator, which contains the chambers. Right over the door into Hodgson's office is a drench shower, in case of accidental exposure to things you should not be exposed to.His mission at the Indoor Environment Department is to increase the energy efficiency of buildings while improving the quality of their air. He talks to workers in office buildings, investigates ventilation systems, and prepares reports for the California Air Resource Board. Except for the missing white lab coat, he is the model old-school scientist: short white hair, avuncular manner, and a habit of answering only those questions put to him. Al Hodgson does not digress.When I ask him his opinion about the effects of the chemical emissions he measures, he avoids pat generalizations. "There is so much variability building to building, person to person, ventilation system to ventilation system," he says. "There's just not much we know experimentally at relatively low exposures." Every immune system handles toxic loads differently, every chemical behaves differently, especially in different combinations. It's an unsolvable equation with too many variables, which is why Hodgson is hesitant to tell people whether their particular carpet sample is off-gassing a dangerous level of 4-PC or formaldehyde. "It's a real issue," he admits, "but there is an absence of official guidelines and standards for what constitutes excessive exposure." You are your own best litmus test.Recently, though, there has been some attempt to define nonlethal dangers. In 1989, the state of Washington established emission standards for public buildings, standards Kibbey adapted when he consulted on the Rafael Film Center. When big dollars are at stake, no one wants to be held liable for a new building that's uninhabitable before its doors are ever opened. That's the reason that articles on sick building syndrome are showing up in unlikely places like insurance and air-conditioning trade publications: the National Academy of Sciences estimates the minimum annual costs of treating indoor air pollution-related sicknesses to be fifteen billion dollars.Back at my own house, though, with the exception of the diaper genie, the air is smelling pretty sweet. I have only one area rug, and even the vinyl tile floor in my kitchen isn't as terrible as it could be. It's better than flexible sheet vinyl, says Kibbey, because the plasticizers which allow a sheet vinyl floor to be rolled and unrolled are-surprise-toxic.But then he takes his flashlight and peeks into the return grill of my furnace, and that's when we start to talk asbestos and horse hair. Things spiral downward from here. Next to the offending furnace return is my gas stove, and four feet away, in the dining room, is a tiny old fireplace. Kibbey turns on the combustible gas detector, a horrible little machine which beeps like a Geiger counter when all is well, and screeches like an air raid siren when all is not well. It screeches at the shut-off valve to my stove. He pauses for a moment and starts to tell me a little bedtime story."Let's say you've got a sitter for the kid, and you and your wife are planning a nice romantic evening. So you cook a meal; the stove is leaking carbon monoxide, you've got the fan going, sucking air out of the house. Then you decide to sit by the fire, and it's also burning up the room air, you've got negative pressure building, and as the fire dies out and it's time to go to bed, it's still producing carbon monoxide. After a while you say, 'Gee, it's getting a little cold. Let's close the window and turn up the furnace a little bit.' So you turn up the furnace; it comes on, sucking air, the whole house is starving for air, and if there's not enough of it around it starts sucking from the chimney, so you get backdrafting of carbon monoxide." With a wry smile, he turns to me and says, "A common method of people dying is having a fire, turning on the heat, going to bed, not having the windows open, and being poisoned by carbon monoxide." Cause of death: a romantic evening in a negatively pressurized house.Right, open the windows. I have those awful aluminum '70s replacement windows. Surely I'm safe here. No lead paint on those babies. Kibbey has no toxic qualm with the aluminum, but I don't get off that easy. "You used to have wood sash windows here. The old paint may have been scraped and sanded, so potentially lead gets into the soil, into the groundwater. I would certainly be concerned if you were growing tomatoes right next to the house." The news does not bode well for the Y2K survivalist encampment I was planning.The last thing to examine is the crawl space, where I already know the news will be bleak. After even the slightest drizzle, my crawl space goes from being a muddy pest hole to a muddy pest hole filled with standing water. Kibbey opens the crawl space door and peers inside with a flashlight. Soaking in the stagnant water are a sheet of plywood, some two-by-fours, a bike rim, fiberglass insulation, a mason's kneepads, and other mold habitats which feed into my leaky heater ducts. I feel like someone who was caught picking his nose. Kibbey says nothing. Instead he shines the flashlight away from the fetid bog, turns to me with a pitying smile, and says, "At least you've got nice shear walls." No need for the Tyvek suit and respirator today. No, it's pretty damn obvious I'm poisoning my family. When I tell him that I feel devastated about his diagnosis, he reassures me that on a scale of one to ten, ten being the healthiest, my house is a six.More than half the house calls he makes are to homes more toxic than my own. A giddy sense of schadenfreude overtakes me.Though today a true believer in sick building syndrome, Kibbey was not always a member of the parish. Before becoming a healthy-building expert, Kibbey had been an artist and designer, making architectural scale sculpture and working on small remodels. "I started realizing that every time I take a piece of interior grade plywood, and run it through a table saw, I start coughing uncontrollably. This is a direct demonstration of the fact that interior grade plywood contains urea-formaldehyde, which is a very serious toxin. If I wear a respirator and do it, I don't cough, so what's that telling me?" But formaldehyde is found in everything, from the glues in plywood to permanent press pillow covers; from toothpaste to songs by the Dead Kennedys and the Cramps!The awful logic underlying Kibbey's personal empiricism appeals to common sense. If a lot of toxic substance A can kill you, then a little surely isn't doing you any good. Increase exposure enough and fifteen percent becomes thirty percent becomes sixty percent. We all have our breaking points."And then you start looking at other things," continues Kibbey. "Look at the rise in asthma, in cancer rates, and you have to ask, 'Are these things affected by the environment?' Look at the general sense of malaise coming over our whole culture: this is a very stressful time." "The point," says Kibbey, "is that there are a lot of people feeling not quite well." I'll say.After talking to Kibbey, I'm cranky, inspired, paranoid, and a little frayed. I know I should seal the edges of my formaldehyde-soaked particle board furniture. I know I should seal off my furnace ducts with water-reducible mastic. I know I should add a fan to the laundry room. But it's all too much: toxic hair spray, toxic air, toxic walls, toxic food, not to mention aspergillus mold, penicillium, and the tie-dyed nightmare of what happens to water in a humidifier. We are all just bombs waiting to go off, and none of us knows how long our fuses are. Sisyphus had it easy: at least rocks aren't toxic. (Actually, some emit carcinogenic radon as they decay. Scratch that.)"We hear this all the time," says Kibbey of my mounting despair. "But everything's toxic! You can't do it all! My mother used to say you have to eat a peck of dirt in your life." But what if that peck contains radon or lead dust?Certainly Kibbey is zealous about his convictions, but he is not sententious or dogmatic when sharing them. He tells me his own vision of an ideal, healthy world, a vision that hovers over the daily grind of crawling under buildings and checking furnace pressures, began with beer cans. Years ago he attended a lecture by physicist Fritjof Capra, who in 1975 wrote The Tao of Physics, one of the first books to draw parallels between discoveries in cutting-edge science and centuries-old Eastern philosophy."I was mesmerized by the sense he was making-the interconnectedness of everything-but it was overwhelming," Kibbey says. "So after the lecture I asked him, 'My God, how could I ever start?' and Capra said, 'Well, you know, you just gotta start somewhere. You could start with recycling. Just become conscious of one thing in your life.'" That was all Kibbey needed to hear. "At the time I was smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and throwing the beer cans in the trash, and I started to realize, god, that looks very weird: you take an aluminum can and throw it in with the wet trash. It's in the wrong place." So he started by separating his trash, and a decade later he's publishing a groundbreaking guide to healthy buildings.Again Kibbey begins to sketch, but this time he draws four overlapping circles representing air, water, earth, and energy, all superimposed over a house. He contrasts this diagram with a sketch of four arrows ripping through a house, depicting how we currently use up and discard the same four elements. "Today we build a toxic house; in a hundred years it disintegrates, gets into the earth and the water. We drink and inhale it all over again." He laughs and shakes his head at our foolishness. "Hey, you are what you breathe, right?" Right, but what if I promise to hold my breath while the microwave's on? Oh, forget it.Alfredo Botello is an architect and freelance writer.