The Wilson family moved into a new home last summer. Within days, they were feeling ill. Their eyes were burning, they had sore throats, and they were chronically tired.
Many chemicals in new homes can cause respiratory and skin irritation. Formaldehyde, a common chemical in new wood products and finishes, is an asthma trigger. New construction materials emit the largest amounts of these chemicals, with emission decreasing over time.
Mr. Wilson, who rarely gets sick, had four sinus infections in seven months in the new house. Mrs. Wilson said her eyes often burn when she works in her home office. Young Alex Wilson developed asthma. His doctor prescribed a full battery of medications to prevent asthma symptoms. Alex also developed chronic sinus problems. A CAT scan revealed that his sinuses are completely blocked on one side. His physician is considering surgery to repair the blockage.
Formaldehyde is very common in wood products, especially pressed wood products and medium density fiberboard (MDF). The new home had wood laminate floors throughout the downstairs. The bedrooms had carpet over plywood underlayment. The entire house had wide MDF baseboards, casements, and crown moldings.
Two medical specialists believe that Alex’s symptoms were caused by a chemical irritant in the home, possibly formaldehyde. His symptoms disappear when he is away from home over a long weekend. Within hours of coming home, his symptoms return. Alex’s pediatrician recommended the family move out of the house.
According to the EPA, 0.1 ppm of formaldehyde can cause health effects in many persons. Some individuals are sensitive to formaldehyde at lower concentrations. Formaldehyde concentration in new homes can exceed 0.3 ppm.
Chemical tests on the Wilson’s home did not detect abnormally high levels of formaldehyde or other chemicals. However, we discovered something more surprising than typical chemicals at typical concentrations. We discovered that the Wilson’s rarely open their windows.
Any new or remodeled home contains wood products, paints, finishes, adhesives, and many other materials that emit varying amounts of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. Extra ventilation is needed, especially during the first year, to dilute those chemicals with outside air. In most cases opening windows for a few hours, several times a week, is all that is needed.
The Wilsons moved out of the new house this week. They will stay in a hotel for the next month, until their next home is available. Fortunately, their next house is twelve years old, so it should have lower concentrations of formaldehyde and other chemicals.
Mrs. Wilson has discussed the situation with attorneys, and the family is considering legal action to recover their costs. However, they never took the most basic step of opening the windows and diluting the chemicals in the house. Natural ventilation could have saved them medical problems and disruption of their lives.
“Dilution is the solution”, was a popular saying in the seventies. It is still true in new homes today.
Photo from Wiki Commons.