While living in a house with unsafe levels of chlordane in the air, I found creative ways to breathe fresh air.
Enjoying fresh air
When the weather was warm I would leave the doors and windows open 24×7 so that the indoor air was constantly exchanged with the outdoor air.
I also slept outside in a tent. Many people think this is strange or extreme. Knowing that chlordane accumulates in the body, and that it would take yet a while longer to complete the structural renovation necessary to clean up the chlordane (and even then there is no guarantee it would be completely gone) I was okay with taking measures that seem extreme in order to minimize my exposure to it.
Honestly, I like sleeping outside. I developed an intimate connection with the cycles of the sun and moon. I always knew what phase the moon was in and when it would pop up over the horizon. And I timed my morning awakening to the sunrise. I got to know different species of birds and other animals and when they were active and when not. I knew the patterns of my neighbors – when they went to sleep and when they got up to let out their dogs. It was a great way to get to know the characteristics of my new neighborhood. I spent many nights staring up into the stars before I went to bed, comparing the sky and my life to what it had been when I lived out West, where I also spent many nights in a tent.
As the fall came and the weather began to get colder, I realized that I’d need to make preparations for the winter. It looked like my lumber milling project would still take several more months.
I considered winterizing my tent, or possibly building a yurt in my back yard. This would be fun, but quite expensive and time consuming.
My dad suggested that I seal the chlordane-injected wood. As I thought about it more I realize that was a great idea. It was inexpensive. It would let me do the necessary work to prepare the wood for the renovation that needed to be done anyway. And it would allow me to live inside for the winter months.
Cleaning and sealing
Over the next few weeks my parents and my friend Eric helped me with the tedious task of preparing the basement to be sealed.
The chlordane had been injected into the sill beams – large pieces of wood that hold the walls of the house up. In order to get access to the beams it required us to remove structural wood that hold parts of the floor up, as well as clean more than 80 years of dirt, plaster, and even coal dust off the top and sides of the beams. This prep work took nearly 7 days of 2-3 people working, spread over about a month.
I am grateful for all the help I had in this project.
When the beams were fully prepared, I could finally seal them. I used a product call AFM SafeCoat that I got from Artemis Building Supply. SafeCoat is a low-VOC sealant specifically designed for furniture and other building materials that may have been manufactured with chemicals that would typically end up in the house’s air. It effectively traps the chemicals in, preventing them from offgassing, so they don’t end up in the air.
I’d also bought a heavy-duty air filter called IQAir GC-VOC. This is a major air purifier! It’s clean-room quality and contains multiple stage filters including a HEPA filter for particles and four carbon-based canister filters that are able to remove VOC’s and other chemicals from the air.
A case study
Part of my intention for doing all this work, in addition to getting a clean house to live in, is to learn effective ways to deal with chlordane so I can spread that knowledge to other folks dealing with it.
I ordered some air samples so I could quantitatively compare the effectiveness of the wood sealing and the air filter.
I took two samples and compared it to a baseline sample I had taken last Spring. The first sample was with the beams sealed. And the second sample was with the beams sealed and the IQAir running at full speed.
Here are the results (higher numbers mean more chlordane):
|Baseline (from Spring 2012)||47.3 ng/m3|
|With sealed beams||50.7 ng/m3||+7%|
|With sealed beams + air filter||38.3 ng/m3||-19%|
Ya…. A bit disappointing! The sealing didn’t do anything. That’s a bummer because it means I still have to live in a house with high levels of chlordane.
Not all is lost though. The project was needed anyway. The beams are now all exposed, a necessary step before the renovation. And we know the air filter helps a little.
Also we can learn something from the results:
a) AFM SafeSeal is not very effective for sealing in chlordane, or
b) the primary source of exposure is not coming from the wood.
I know there is chlordane in the soil around the house as well. It’s possible that the soil chlordane is seeping into the house at a higher concentration than what’s in the wood. It’s also possible that there are other sources of the chlordane that I haven’t found yet. It could have been injected under the concrete basement floor, for example. That was a common application method before chlordane was banned. It could also have been injected directly into the basement concrete block walls.
It’s been a balancing act thus far trying to determine which course of action to take to remediate the chlordane. Air tests are very expensive – a minimum of $250 each time I want to take a test. So I have to minimize the tests I take and plan them carefully, to get just enough information to determine my next steps.
The process involves getting objective information from the tests, learning about the history of the chemical, and then ultimately going with my gut to determine the next steps.
I’ve already spent several months milling lumber in order to renovate the chlordane-injected wood. There’s also been a cost to receiving engineering advice and tools. There is a risk that the steps I’ve pursued will not be the thing that resolves the problem.
I’m aware of all this as I proceed. And I’m okay with that risk and whatever the results might be. I’m working toward creating a stable and healthy place for myself to live. Even if I don’t continue to live in this house it’s still worth it. I’m cleaning up this spot on the Earth for people in the future. I’m also doing much needed research that other folks can use about how to clean up this kind of mess.
As people begin more and more to take their health and environment in to their own hands, I believe and hope what I’m learning and sharing here will be useful.
I now have a new plan to temporarily reduce my winter exposure. I’m working to negatively pressurize the basement to trap the chlordane in that room, preventing it from getting into the rest of the house. I have several more air tests planned as well. Perhaps I’ll have more to share in a future post.