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Why a lack of porosity in homes and urbanism is making people sick (studies)

We like to think of ourselves as independent entities capable of forging our own paths. But we are born into a specific place, moment, and mentality. We also must put up with the substances and by-products of our activity.

At least, ours is not the era of lead kitchenware (Romans ate in lead plates) or DDT spraying (as done in suburban America after World War II). Still, we seem to care little about indoor air quality even though it directly affects health.

When houses were built with local materials and natural finishes (the white remaining part is “mortero de cal,” lime and water). El Teso, Cambroncino (Caminomorisco, Cáceres, Spain)

The zeitgeist is uncertain, so letting go of things that don’t appear as priorities is easy. But ours is an era of volatile organic compounds, VOCs. They are found in so many substances, products, and surfaces that fencing ourselves from them would be a full-time job —and we’d be perceived as loonies or worse. They rarely cause irritation, headache, or nausea in low concentrations, though they do in some people. However, high concentrations can damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Rise of Probiotic Architecture

We are just learning about the influence of buildings on our microbiome and overall human health. Scientists from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) just published a perspective paper that relates urban and building planning to our health. The “sick building syndrome” (SBS) is not in people’s heads. When in modern, air-tight buildings that “smell like new” and concentrate high levels of off-gassing chemicals, some people get sick, developing chronic diseases that are often hard to diagnose.

According to their research, modern buildings interrupt our ancient symbiotic relationship with microorganisms from the environment that keep our overall health in check. Modern life expectancy is much higher than in the past for most of humanity, thanks to modern medicine, sanitation, and other factors. But, according to Thomas C.G. Bosch, one of the researchers, building techniques decreasing indoor air quality are being adopted as best practices:

“However, buildings as such and the triumph of urban living have also produced negative effects by shielding people to a greater or lesser extent from contact with their microbial environment. The extent of these presumably unfavorable consequences for the composition and diversity of the human microbiome can hardly be estimated as yet.”

“If human health is defined as being dependent on a large diversity of the microbiome, then a large proportion of today’s buildings must be considered as not conducive to health in terms of construction and design, materials or type of use—because in sum, their effects appear to reduce microbial diversity, which could lead to poorer overall health of the occupants.”

How buildings influence the microbiome and human health, Medical Press, April 26, 2024

Modern buildings, toxicity and the microbiome

The researchers advise that future architecture should restore permeability for good microorganisms: we don’t want to get rid of modern sanitation but want to allow for moisture and microorganisms to be able to go through homes thanks to the use of natural materials and construction techniques that avoid a toxic vacuum effect. The study tries to define “healthy porosity”:

“By looking at the impact of building characteristics on the human microbiome, we are adding a whole new and important dimension to this complex. Our urban way of life ignores the fact that the body has adapted to its environment and its microbes over thousands of years and that it is only fit and healthy in contact with these partner organisms.”

How buildings influence the microbiome and human health, Medical Press, April 26, 2024

Many years ago, as we started a new family, Kirsten moved out of New York City to join me in Barcelona, settling there for good. We loved the city but were also starting a family, so we consciously chose a car-free area with decent outdoor air and set out to make some affordable little changes to improve indoor air. The old apartment in the Gothic Quarter we bought was drafty and bare, and we decided to keep it that way.

Healthy porosity. The human body is continually exposed to its microbial environment. Buildings that know how to breathe promote a healthy microbial interchange indoors-outdoors, regulating our microbiome

It was 2006, a moment when it was still difficult to find no-VOC paints, furniture and furnishings; we both had read Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the essay by an American architect and a German chemist that started with a conventional description of a freshly-furnished modern home, and scientifically deconstructed the risks that the substances in carpets, furniture, and objects could have in indoor air quality —and the home’s inhabitants’ long term health, especially babies.

“At last. You have finally found the time to sink into your favorite armchair, relax, and pick up a book. Your daughter uses a computer in the next room while the baby crawls on the carpet and plays with a pile of colorful plastic toys. It certainly feels, at this moment, as if all is well. Could there be a more compelling picture of peace, comfort, and safety?”

“Let’s take a closer look. First, that comfortable chair you are sitting on. Did you know that the fabric contains mutagenic materials, heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, and dyes that are often labeled hazardous by regulators—except when they are presented and sold to a customer? As you shift in your seat, particles of the fabric abrade and are taken up by your nose, mouth, and lungs, hazardous materials and all. Were they on the menu when you ordered the chair?”

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2002

The toys we grew up with

At the beginning of the book, there’s a baby playing with toys and going through the room, gumming and grasping everything, and bringing every single object or substance close to the mouth for inspection. The description wasn’t a hypothetical one anymore since we were expecting a child. No better way to raise awareness about something than being directly affected by it.

“That plastic rattle the baby is playing with—should she be putting it in her mouth? If it’s made of PVC plastic, there’s a good chance it contains phthalates, known to cause liver cancer in animals (and suspected to cause endocrine disruption), along with toxic dyes, lubricants, antioxidants, and ultraviolet-light stabilizers. Why? What were the designers at the toy company thinking?”

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2002

I would not describe our concerns back then about VOCs as an obsession, though critical thinking and a sense of responsibility did not let us shove it off. Knowing the pervasiveness of substances quietly off-gassing stuff that no living organism should be interacting with (especially the least protected among humans) wasn’t comforting us, either.

Seeing the train go by (early January, 2009, Cloverdale, California)

Autoimmune and allergic diseases, often caused by either interaction with animals and microorganisms (animal-borne diseases) or by unhealthier environments that have lost connection with healthy ecosystems, are on the rise worldwide, though they have especially exploded in highly-developed countries.

Decades-long studies have tried to establish an unequivocal relationship between the rise of allergies and autoimmune diseases (when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells) with sterilized environments and chemical substances that have become ubiquitous only after World War II, the majority of which leak toxic gases known as volatile organic compounds, VOC.

Proud of a house that is air-tight, nice and clean?

There’s evidence suggesting a strong correlation between the upward trend in allergies and autoimmune diseases, and more sterile environments affected by substances that leak VOCs: fuels, solvents, pesticides, personal care products, cleaners and deodorizers, new products that “smell brand new” and have a high concentration of dangerous chemicals. However, other studies have warned that it isn’t a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

So, as we were starting the site and trying to make some videos to accompany its articles, we set out to find out more about volatile organic compounds and what we aspired to create: a healthy home with one main goal of not being toxic to babies. The goal seemed worth it and achievable, but we soon realized that we’ve designed a world in which toxicity has been overlooked at best (and sometimes concealed).

In parallel, we also read about the hygiene hypothesis, which argues that highly industrialized societies have created more sterilized living environments, preventing early exposure to microorganisms during childhood, which would help the immune system build defenses to prevent allergies. Playing with dirt seemed like the way to go.

Organic apples nobody wants to pick; a walk across the abandoned hamlet of El Teso, Cambroncino (Caminomorisco, Cáceres, Spain) in November 2008

According to the hygiene hypothesis, there can be too much of a good thing: as modern sanitation, germ-free environments, and antibiotics prevented diseases, the radical decrease in infections and a less diverse diet transformed our gut flora, tricking the body to overreact to foods or environmental triggers instead of finding a way to deal with them.

Trying to look for a way out of indoor toxicity and the risk of spending too much time in sterilized environments, our strategy at home and outside was straightforward, consisting of getting the basic things right at home; painting the old apartment we lived on back then with no VOC paint, using no finishes; coating the floors with no VOC equivalent to off-the-shelf products that are becoming more popular (like Rubio Monocoat); and outside, going every day to the park to get ourselves dirty if the baby felt like it.

Instead of using regular diapers, we used disposable diapers, both non-commercial old-school washable ones, and also gDiapers. And we potty-trained early on with the valuable help of our kids’ grandparents, both in Spain and the US. Again, we were lucky, though we didn’t sit down to wait for luck to get to us; our approach was rather proactive. But it was easy and didn’t compromise our quality of life. On the contrary, we were also relaxed with the fact that there would be environments in other homes, the kindergarten, or places indoors and outdoors that were not as aware as we were concerning VOCs or sterile environments. We hoped for the better, conscious that we belong to a society and moment in time we don’t want to run away from.

First interview with the EWG

While exploring the relationship between people’s environment and the rise of allergies and autoimmune diseases, we asked some friends whose studies and professional endeavors were closer to the wondrous world of the chemical substances surrounding us. Someone suggested a visit to the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization studying the effects of chemicals and pollutants on human health. Our interview with Bill Walker fifteen years ago would have gained more attention today.

Nobody has lived in El Teso since the sixties; nothing got rebuilt, and no post-World War II materials rich in VOCs made it here; El Teso, Cambroncino (Caminomorisco, Cáceres, Spain)

When we left his small office in Oakland or somewhere in the East Bay, our concerns about VOCs had increased. His message was that you must want—and actively seek—to diminish your contact with VOCs to achieve any impact since the substances were everywhere, from fire retardants to food packaging to cosmetics to toys. Contemporary society, relying on complex supply chains guaranteeing cheap products arrive to customers in the advertised condition, had developed entire families of substances to achieve the abundance surrounding us.

It didn’t look good. Who was willing to curate their entire living experience, from the house they inhabited to the clothing, cleaning supplies, food, and any other daily objects and environment they interacted with? And how about the surrounding pollution derived from going about one’s day in a city, sitting in traffic, or spending hours in air-tight offices exuding formaldehyde? Not even an idealized pre-industrial society (say, Pennsylvania’s Amish) lived in a pre-industrial world, and using any sealant, glue, modern kitchen supplies, or any other product high in VOCs brought them back to the reality of environments literally toxic to human health and development.

Yet, we could also state that most people seem to avoid any health-related condition associated with a more toxic environment, especially indoors (according to EPA’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology, TEAM, studies found levels of a dozen common organic pollutants 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside). Plus, life expectancy was increasing worldwide, not the other way around. We’d be fine. Was resignation the only way forward? We decided to pursue, without getting obsessive nor investing beyond our humble means back then, a house with the least off-gassing and the best indoor air quality; we’d also source the textiles, products, and food anywhere near our kids.

Lucky enough to withstand poor indoor air quality

Almost two decades ago, very few people talked about the need for healthy homes, but everyone seemed interested in “smart” and “efficient” ones. There were few resources to navigate the lack of general interest, and finished “healthy” products were expensive, so we heavily DIYed and ate pesticide-free food, picking our strategic battles and letting go in things such as clothing, let alone living in the midst of a particulates-rich city: European metropolises’ air quality isn’t as good as it should, to put it mildly, due to flawed policy decisions; consider, for example, the historical bet on diesel-powered cars (unlike the US); and, in the case of Barcelona or Rome, a higher-than-normal concentration of scooters and their compressed engines, especially obnoxious for air quality. Electric vehicles are still a minority in most of the world (not in Norway, and soon in China), though they are becoming common everywhere; they were testimonial back then.

If a few pervasive modern substances were increasing across the world to dangerous levels, especially when apparently innocuous substances leaked inside homes, where people spend most of their time, VOC substances weren’t the only cause or culprit of an increase in the so-called diseases of civilization.

People also eat differently, and lifestyles are overall more sedentary. Pollutants, diet, or lifestyle were just a part of the explanation: as we became more interested in urbanism and homes, we stumbled upon a new realm affecting our world beyond the mere use of VOCs, yet we have rarely associated the homes and neighborhoods where people live with health outcomes.

As a family of five, we consider ourselves fortunate. We do not deal with any allergies or autoimmune diseases. Our environment does not trigger bodily reactions, and the pollen surge in early Spring does not affect us. Neither food, dust, nor organism triggers an allergic response in us. This is getting rarer, as we realize when talking to other people across Europe and the US.

Many relatives and friends aren’t as fortunate as we are and have learned to live with the uncertainty of having some places, products, or substances triggering reactions in their bodies. Some of them can’t eat some types of food; others have to take medication when the pollution or pollen levels are too high; others can’t even establish clear triggers for their condition, having to live with the uncertainty of when and where it will happen again.

Healthy homes going up

To the majority of the population, a “healthy home” has more to do with looks, greenery outside and the immediate neighborhood where the home is located than actual materials, finishes, and furnishings that don’t off-gas, are plant or mineral-derived, allow for a certain grade of permeability, and make a building ultimately biodegradable. Is it impossible to create a compostable home, or a “probiotic home” that suits a healthy human microbiome?

It’s not only possible, but we’ve talked to amateur builders and architecture studios whose goal is building natural homes with natural materials that are capable of breathing—and healthy for autoimmune diseases, pregnant women and babies to live in and mess around.

In the DC area, architects Jack Becker and Andrew Linn from Bldus build structures that are attentive to the vernacular style using healthy materials, usually sourced within their region radius. Their office is a natural materials masterclass, whereas Andrew Linn and his wife Hannah live with their baby in a cork-wrapped compostable home erected on an underused DC alley parking lot.

In California’s Gold Rush country up in the Sierras, Neil Decker and Stella Michaels made their dream a reality by doing some of the work themselves, having attended building classes in the past. They built a natural roundhouse whose main materials are hemp, lime, sand, wood framing, metal for the roof, and nails. Dealing with autoimmune issues, they decided to explore the possibility of using hempcrete walls. Their hazardous-chemicals-free home is comfortable and insulated while permeable.

In the picturesque Catalan region of La Garrotxa, near the Spanish Pyrenees, Nil Camarasa and Olivia Manzart were looking for an affordable way to build their dream natural home. So, they combined a prefabricated system with the foundation of a timber-framed home with hempcrete and lime walls. Theirs is a modern-looking home with all the comforts of a contemporary home minus its hazards, and they accomplished their project at a similar cost to conventional construction in their area.

Biokabin, our own modular eco-home made exclusively out of wood harvested by us and a few steel bolts plus windows and openings, was born out of a conversation with friends in the world of architecture, wood construction and art to create a small dwelling that could be affordable, healthy, and moved from place to place if needed, capable of becoming a backyard ADU in California or a cabin amid Nature somewhere in the Rockies, the Alps, the Norwegian Fjords…

Era of pervasive formaldehyde

Efficient homes that are built with natural materials and allow a certain, controlled degree of permeability so moisture and microorganisms can keep a place healthy, are not a priority to most people, let alone “mainstream.” But they do exist, and they aren’t less comfortable, uglier, or more expensive. On the contrary, most times the opposite can be true. They demand more attention and work sourcing materials and getting to know their technicalities; most times, such materials don’t make it to the suppliers used by builders or home improvement aficionados (Leroy Merlin, Bauhaus and the like in Europe; Home Depot, Lowe’s and the like in the USA). This lack of access and attention demand explain a bigger part of the story than most people think.

Can families not dealing with autoimmune complications, allergies, or rare maladies, afford to remain oblivious to formaldehyde, phthalates, fire-retardants, glues, and other pervasive toxic VOCs in construction materials and furnishings? Proper ventilation can help offset any big indoor quality issue; that said, nobody is safe long-term when toxicity levels are too high, especially as modern homes become more air-tight to become more efficient and save on the HVAC bill.

Some immunocompromised people get sick in unhealthy homes, offices, and cars (especially when they are new and their materials are off-gassing at high rates, studies show); in a way, they have become the modern canaries in the coal mine. They are more vulnerable than the rest of the population to experience immune reactions when places concentrate on high toxicity levels. Those lucky enough to avoid visible reactions aren’t safe in the long term, however.

A friend’s quest to build the ultimate “quiet home”

To those wondering if we know anybody immunocompromised who decided to build a home (and, actually, convert a Van for safe family trips) that has improved their health condition: yes, we do.

“I was bitten by a deer tick at age 11 In Florham Park, New Jersey, where I grew up. I don’t remember feeling much at the time except for my mother pulling it off my testicle with tweezers. That stays with a boy. But aside from that, it was an afterthought. An afterthought when I started to collect trophies at local tennis tournaments. When I spent four years at college in Vermont studying English and falling in love for the first time. When I sold my first screenplay as an intern at New Line Cinema in Manhattan, leading to a successful screenwriting career in Los Angeles and my first produced film, Not Another Teen Movie, in 2001.

The tick was ancient history.

Then, in my mid-20s, odd things started to happen to my body. I would get a massage and feel flulike symptoms afterward. I traveled to Argentina and picked up a severe case of viral conjunctivitis that caused my eyelids to swell up for three months. I was encouraged by friends to “detox” by getting a colonic, but instead I lost weight, developed brain fog anytime I ate carbohydrates, and was diagnosed with one of the least desirable overgrowths: small-intestinal-bacterial overgrowth.”

The Quiet House, Mike Bender, Men’s Health magazine, February 23, 2022

Our friends Mike Bender and SuChin Pak live with their two children in Santa Barbara, California. In early 2022, Mike decided to share his struggle to try to find a healthy place to live that could bring back the normality he had lost in an article for Men’s Health. When I read the article, I immediately realized two things: Mike is a hell of a good writer (no wonder he’s an accomplished screenwriter); but, above all, I felt empathy for his brave fight —and for having the guts to share it with the public, conscious of the place the Internet has become.

“I was dismissed by many doctors as difficult or “sensitive, for a man.”

Even my family questioned whether the ailments were “in my head.” My older brother gently attributed my symptoms to stress, and then there was the afternoon SuChin and I sat on our patio and she mentioned a social worker on her side of the family who suggested I might have psychosomatic syndrome. As I look back now, it’s all understandable, but at the time it made me feel like some kind of hypochondriac loon.”

The Quiet House, Mike Bender, Men’s Health magazine, February 23, 2022

Inspiring others to make little big changes

Kirsten worked with SuChin for years and they’ve been close friends ever since, and I’ve know her for almost two decades at this point, so getting to know Mike’s fight made us proud of their bravery; as a couple with accomplished careers that exposed them to the public (Mike in the publishing industry and Hollywood insider world; SuChin as an MTV host and podcaster), they cherish their privacy but decided they wanted to help other people unable to find “quiet” environments where they can just be themselves instead of struggling to keep their health afloat.

Not finding reliable documentation capable of helping him in the quest to create a conventional-looking but truly healthy home that doesn’t off-gas and avoids EMFs buildup (electromagnetic fields, he realized with his doctor, were also affecting him), he designed a complete renovation sourcing every single material, sourcing, and coating. And it was possible. They made it happen with the help of pioneer experts in the field like Larry Gust, a home inspector and building biology consultant.

“If I was going to pull off a complicated renovation, I needed to assemble a crack team, very Ocean’s Eleven. In addition to William (electrical and yard-poltergeist detection) and Zack (water filtration and air quality), I brought on Vince Cord to design the HVAC and ducting system. I knew I would need someone to source the healthiest building materials. Larry, who was president of the board of the Building Biology Institute, suggested I reach out to Andy Pace, the founder of the Green Design Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a kind soul who had been helping sensitives like me for more than 25 years.”

The Quiet House, Mike Bender, Men’s Health magazine, February 23, 2022

It’s possible

Mike took as many measures as he could with the help of experts, bought monitors of air quality, EMFs, and toxicity levels. Conscious of the immense work needed just to understand building materials and find healthy alternatives, he documented the whole process and shared it in the article, from water quality to electrical to materials to finishes to clean-up. We recently visited the Benders at their Santa Barbara home and spent a lovely day with them. Mike, who dresses casually but elegantly, uses natural fibers and naturally dyed clothing (including shoes), which isn’t probably that easy either, though becoming more so.

A book to be written (about natural building, impermanence, rurality, or a bit of it all?)

When we asked about the readers’ feedback he had received from his article, Mike showed us thousands of messages, some of which expressed empathy and camaraderie. Most of them were from people experiencing immune reactions in the environments where they lived and worked, asking for advice. He was right: a silent community of people affected by unhealthy homes sought solutions, and Mike had become an inspiration that vindicated their quest.

“We are indeed the canaries in the coal mine,” Mike joked. He feels good, looks good, and is sharp and funny—as SuChin is. He’s working on a movie project and planning to go to Rome. He feels the trouble is behind him.

All it took was a meticulously hard-to-achieve renovation.

“Anyone attempting a project of this kind has a choice: aim for perfection and lose your mind or accept that some toxic shit will make it inside and prioritize getting the big stuff right. I chose the latter.”

The Quiet House, Mike Bender, Men’s Health magazine, February 23, 2022