<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Health Risks Associated with HVAC Systems





HVAC Systems


The heating and ventilation systems of many buildings are not merely contaminated but they function as the mechanism for distributing mold and other pathogens.

As some of you know, a bit over a year ago, I attended a seminar in Las Vegas.  It was aimed towards contractors who were boning up on what is entailed in proper mold remediation; however, it covered inspection and testing as well as a little bit of microbiology, somewhat of a misnomer because the discipline is correctly referred to as mycology.  The distinctions are hugely important and the public, not to mention the halls of ivy, will be well-served by using clearer language since mold and other microorganisms compete and ought therefore to be understood correctly rather than lumped together.

One of the curious statistics dropped during that weekend is that Arizona has the fourth highest incidence of mold contamination in the U.S.  When I mentioned this to a colleague living in Sedona, he said that real estate development and excavation were often discussed in the press as causal factors and that some people actually attributed mold infection to the disturbance of dinosaur bones unearthed during all the bulldozing.  Since I have not been able to find a lead for this story, I prefer to think that the cause is air conditioning and the failure to perform proper maintenance on such risky climate control devices.

I wrote elsewhere about the coughing I observed in the waiting lounge at the airport in the Bahamas following my visit there to deliver a talk at a conference on women's health.  There had been a hurricane and tourists had been exposed to construction debris and dust while renovation work was being performed in the hotels where they were staying.  More recently, a patient in Honolulu wrote that she ended up in the emergency room following routine maintenance of the air conditioner in her apartment in Honolulu.

The HVAC system of my house has been a nightmare.  As I discuss in the section dealing with the remediation of my house where pictures of the duct cleaning are posted, HVAC systems are often mechanisms for disseminating particulates, including mold .

In today's post, I will go into this in more detail and discuss options.  The heating (and cooling) systems of buildings, whether used residentially or otherwise, are often based on devices that circulate air.  In the U.S., we are so accustomed to gas forced air as a means of heating that many people might be unaware that alternatives exist.  There is probably only one reason for this dangerous method of heating: cheap installation cost.  I would love to engage contractors in rational discussions of this matter, but I suspect most will be defensive and ill-informed; however, I cannot think of a more hazardous way to cut costs.

Earlier this week, I went through an agonizing ordeal with mandatory arbitration, a device used in this state to reduce the case load of courts.  In this, the contractor who built my house made one inane statement after another demonstrating profound ignorance of the facts of how the various component parts of a house come together.  If you do not understand the facts a whole lot better than he appears to understand them, you will not be able to protect yourself.

The HVAC system typically consists of a series of ducts for moving air through various "concealed" or inconspicuous places that are officially viewed as unoccupied.  This is a really disastrous perspective because the quality of the air you inhale depends on what enters the system where and what contaminants there might be in those places.  The source of the air could be extremely dangerous to health even if it appears to be isolated.

Wind Machines

A furnace is generally regarded as a heater, but it is also a machine that moves simply enormous volumes of air.  I will challenge the need for these as well as the concepts that limit our ability to think more creatively.  Stop a minute and think about when these hot air bellows were first installed in homes?  You have a convenient thermostat that Al Gore is urging us to set two degrees lower in winter and two warmer in summer to reduce the pressure on global warming, but in reality, no such monsters existed on the Planet in the days of our grandparents, not to mention in traditional and indigenous cultures.

I was happy to learn on Oprah the other night that the hundreds of dollars I have spent on new filters is contributing a tiny bit to lowering my aggravation of carbon dioxide levels.  This said, it is the least creative thing I have done in this regard.

In most homes, the registers are flush with the floor, but I can remember ones that were higher and functioned as menacing hair dryers.  In my year 2000 quest for a place to live, I often saw people sweeping construction debris into these convenient dust bins, much easier than bending over and using a more appropriate waste pan.  The second person to clean the ducts in my house told a hair raising tale of an elderly lady who nearly died because a peeved worker stuffed a sandwich into the ducts.  It had turned green and she was inhaling all this dust.

I actually had much worse problems here because the ducts were not only full of construction debris, but this became as bad as the sandwich once the registers filled with flood water.  Add to this the fact that the chemicals in the construction materials were probably more toxic than the Subway sandwich and that the mold under the house was also being sucked into the system and it's no wonder I was ill and that so many of my beloved pets died. 

Leaving the Box Behind

In my previous home, I had radiant heat.  For those who have not experienced it yet, I can hardly begin to tell you how much more comfortable and friendly this method of heating is.  Simply stated, radiant heat involves a system of pipes through which warm water is circulated.  In the case of my home in Santa Fe, the pipes were similar to rubber hoses that are looped and then tied to wire mesh to restrict movement.  These were buried in sand, covered with a vapor barrier, and then concrete was poured over them.  There were several zones so that rooms that were not used or that were used mainly for sleeping could be set to a lower temperature.  They were very energy efficient, but more importantly, no air was blown.  This means not only that occupants are less victimized by airborne particulates but that housekeeping is much easier because dust is not blown everywhere.  Keep in mind that 80% of mold grows on dust.

I have seen other ways of installing radiant heat systems, including their use in multilevel structures where they were suspended under the joists supporting the floors.

In truth, I think this kind of heating is an accident waiting to happen because I suspect that sooner or later, a pipe will break and that will not be a good day for anyone.  In reality, this is a very popular method of heating of New Mexico and during the entire 21 years that I lived there, I only heard of one leak.  The systems are tested under pressure before the concrete is poured, but I don't know their life expectancy.  There are buildings in New Mexico that are 400 years old proving that sticks and mud are not really such bad construction materials, but it is practically inconceivable that something like a hose would survive 30 years.  Ergo, if I were designing and building something from scratch, I would probably not go this route, but if I were renting, you bet I would seek this out over any system relying on forced air.

Other Options

The house before the radiant heat one was more rural, in a wonderful little town called Cundiyo.  It was the happiest I ever was with a house or living situation.  The house was not just up on a plateau with a view forever but the builder had camped on the property for a long time before situating the house.  It was the most environmentally conscious house in which I have lived.  The heating relied on trombe walls made of adobe.  These were on the south side of the house and looked like windows because the walls were painted black, covered with glass, and framed.  When the sun is low in the winter, it would hit the glass and warm the mud.  In summer, the sun was too high so it missed the walls, thereby allowing the house to remain quite cool regardless of outside temperatures.  There was practically no maintenance required and no expense for fuel or filters.

When I applied for a mortgage, I had some trouble.  The agent at Countrywide said, "and you want us to finance a house made of mud that does not have a central heating system?"  Little did he understand the premium people pay for adobe!

Nearly two years ago, I visited an enchanting place in Northern California.  This was a log house that used solar panels for heating both the home and water.  The panels generated far more electricity than needed so the owner sold the excess to the electric company.  This gave him credit and the net cost of his electricity had been averaging four cents a year.  Obviously, these solar systems work better in areas with more sunshine but if every home in California and Arizona went solar, imagine how much cleaner the air would be both there and elsewhere.  In short, for many reasons, it makes enormous sense to implement these saner and safer alternatives where they are feasible and practical.


Alas, the sun can scarcely be seen at this time of year in this part of the world.  I keep reminding myself that there is balance, that Nature loves balance so there will be balance.  The days are very long in summer and the colors of the flowers are more vivid than anywhere else I have lived.  There are feasts for the eyes on these spectacular days but long periods in which hibernation seems like a reasonable accommodation.

This said, I feel at liberty to comment on the total idiocy of construction in the Pacific Northwest.  I have been biting my tongue for six years but with the law suit in its present state, I do not feel that my comments on construction practices will cause any greater harm than has already occurred.  I have been through the ordeal of dirty tricks and maybe there is life after injustice?

When you do as I did, you will see that houses across the country tend to have a lot of similarities.  When I sold my house in Santa Fe, I first went to Texas.  On the outskirts of Lubbock, I saw a for sale sign for a house for $23,000.  Coming from Santa Fe, that seemed utterly impossible, but these days, I occasionally watch programs on TV like "Flip that House."  They very often air renovations that take a week or two.  They buy these houses for twenty or fifty thousand and flip them for 70 or 90k.  If you assume that everyone is buying bathtubs and flooring from the same short list of suppliers, the disparities are incomprehensible, meaning, of course, that some contractors are making a killing.

Let me put it succinctly.  If you adjust for differences in the cost of lots, the basic cost of a toilet or piece of tile or even sod would not seem to vary so much from San Antonio to Seattle.  In reality, however, prices such as one sees in parts of Texas are unimaginable here.  Of course, there are enormous differences in the costs of fixtures and so on and so forth but if the average contractor building a spec house buys from the same lumber yards and suppliers, the differences are really impossible to explain.

This said, if mold has plagued your life as it has mine, there are places to economize and places to invest in your future.  I personally do not think that paying more for a rational heating system is wasted money.  It may be the sanest thing you do in the months ahead.

As I said, I travel a lot.   I have always traveled, whether for pleasure or professional reasons.  I say I can't help it because my Moon is in Sagittarius, but I am also very observant.  In Europe, I stayed mainly in houses or hotels that were heated using very stylish radiators.  This probably evokes an image of a dusty eye sore in a run down New York apartment, but they are quiet, unobtrusive, and surprisingly clean.  They are not perfect and can be challenging if you want to rearrange furniture, but they do not blow dust or mold and are therefore not agents of disease and death.  This is the point I want to make:  if there were a little mold in a garage or crawl space, the growth would be an accident waiting to happen but it would probably not imperil anyone to the same extent were it not for the damnable forced air.  I'm sorry, I want to make a point and forced air is the most stupid system for heating there is.  It is a national disaster and ought to be declared such.

The band aids I have used in the last six years to mitigate damage are just that:  expensive band aids  They never would have been necessary if the design of the house were intelligent, but the design is unintelligent and it is totally inappropriate to the region and its weather.

If you look around the world and compare architectural styles and building materials, you will get my point quickly.  For instance, why would anyone have a flat roof in an area with high snowfall? Wouldn't you see it is less than brilliant?  Don't you think there is a reason that so many ski cabins are A frames?  You can spend your time skiing instead of shoveling snow off the roof, risk breaking your leg doing something fun rather than falling through a roof or having it fall on you.

Now, I will rant and rave some more and hopefully wake up some people. Indoor air quality is believed to be the cause of 50% of all illnesses in the U.S.  This figure is from the American Lung Association not conjured up by a wounded or whining moldie.  Assuming it is credible, wouldn't you want better indoor air quality?

I will keep hammering points and providing alternatives, all in the hope that sensible and reasonable changes are implemented before it is too late.  It is bad enough that nearly all building materials emit noxious gases; the difference, however, between mold and chemical toxicity is that the hazards associated with mold are not dose dependent, meaning that one "inoculation" with mold may be sufficient to put some people over the edge.  In contrast, the consequences of exposure to chemical toxins are usually directly related to the levels of exposure. There is no such safety limit with mold because mold is self-replicating, meaning not only that the danger could persist indefinitely but that even a very minor exposure could lead to a serious problem because there is basically very little that will terminate the expansion of the mold's proclaimed turf.  Loosely translated, this means that all exposures are potentially harmful and that it is therefore unconscionable to ignore the hazards, this whether in a school, work place, or home.

Further Commentary

During the course of my mold ordeal, I met many uninspired lawyers who hate their jobs and who even regret having gone to law school.  The one consolation I have had in these last six years is that I love what I do so even if confronted by a situation that was totally infuriating, I always had one safe haven and that is my network of creative people who are trying to make this world a better and safer place.  My process has always been the microcosm of the macrocosm where the petty hired hands of the insurer were miniatures of the power brokers in the other Washington where our right to kidnap and torture foreigners was deemed either a moot point or fait accompli rather than a heinous violation of international law and a setback to civilization itself.

Each time I met one of these depressed lawyers, I discussed all the issues that are worthy of effort.  At the moment, what is legal is not safe and there are many options for shifting this paradigm.  I personally support dissidence and boycotting:  don't buy houses that are death traps.  It's a buyer's market at the moment; use your dollar power to make demands on unconscious builders.  I for one will never again live in a house with forced air.  This said, I have reduced the hazards so much that they might be regarded as minor in comparison to spending half an hour in a public library, but it is not necessary to build in this archaic and unenlightened way.


With blessings!

Ingrid Naiman
7 December 2006




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