#3 Ever since we moved away for university, we wanted to live in a little town called Cochrane. It’s beautiful. It’s smallish. It’s in the shadow of the mountains. There are probably more major movies filmed within 45 minutes of there than in the rest of Canada combined. Make no mistake. These movies are not usually filmed “in Calgary” but just outside of Calgary. On the CL Ranch or in Kananaskis, or a thousand other beautiful places on the Bow or in the Rockys or on the foothills. So imagine our surprise when we found ourselves living in Cochrane, in a brand new home, with a daughter, and a brand new baby boy. I was working what will probably always be my dream job (In-patient adolescent psychiatry) and life seemed pretty sweet. Until we started to get sick.
Just after moving in to our new home my number of sick days started to explode. Our move-in day was in early December (yay flu season!), we had two young kids, we weren’t exactly sleeping through the night (still aren’t), and so we kind of just figured that frequent flu like symptoms were more of a lifestage than an emergent issue. It was a long winter, but by the time spring rolled around we were outside lots and had the windows open and were much healthier. We did all the things that people in Cochrane do… hike in the mountains, hang out on the Bow, hike in the mountains… And then October rolled around again and we closed up the windows and started getting sick. Our symptom progression was as follows: Tight chest, aching hips, sore knees, sore ankles, then the muscles—calves then thighs. Dani and I always had the onset of these symptoms within 12 hrs of each other. The first time I ended up in urgent care, (small town ER) my parents had to wheel me in via wheel chair. I was shaking uncontrollably. The triage nurse took one look at me and asked what drugs I had been taking (now that I work in Detox I get it). I remember hardly being able to speak, or breathe, or sit up. They did a chest xray, ECG, blood work, the whole thing. And in the end, said I probably just had the flu. Which is what they said the second, and third times too. But this was different. This was something else. We were sure of it. We had seen a pulmonologist and had done a whole slate of respiratory tests that had come back normal. The pulmonologist had started to suspect we were being poisoned and diagnosed us with Teflon Flu, so we had thrown out all of our cookware that was no-stick. Since starting to struggle with our health we were focusing more on eating healthy, which meant we were cooking more. So the idea that our cookware was making us sick was maddeningly ironic. Going Teflon free helped in the short term, but didn’t prevent further illness. I remember going away for Christmas and going hunting with my dad (late season for cow elk) and walking miles every day through knee deep snow and feeling alive, and healthy. We were gone for two weeks and felt great. No trouble breathing. No flu symptoms. We shelled out for a fairly expensive air purifier on our way back to Cochrane, thinking it might help. As soon as we got back home our lungs started to tighten up. We slept for about 5 nights, all four of us, huddled around our new air purifier in our living room. There is something about knowing that you have a serious health problem, and going to specialists to try to figure it out, but not getting any answers, that makes you feel insane. And that makes others think you’re insane too.
We tore out all our carpet and lived on plywood. Because carpet off-gasses toxic chemicals for 25 years. We started buying organic food and watching Netflix docs about GMOs and organic and monocultures and industrial farming. We threw out all the chemical cleaners in our house. We changed our dishwasher tablets, our toothpaste, our shampoo, and our deodorant. We started drinking raw milk (delicious). And on and on and on. When you start looking at how many toxic chemicals surround you—that there is Teflon in your carpet and your pants and formaldehyde in your cupboards and you cookware and that everything you touch and smell and eat is laced with poison—the world becomes unsafe. And you want to escape it.
We learned about volatile organic compounds and put in cork flooring and only painted with low-VOC paint. Finally, we called Christian. Christian and his wife Rosemary are friends of ours. We have always thought they were a little, well, “out there…” Christian prefers the word “zany.” They taught us about eating raw, and countless conspiracies, and about the stuff that comes out of your teeth when you swish with red wine. They have a dog that sniffs out bed bugs and can find them within inches and then they treat them with cedar soap. We had bed bugs once (thanks Holiday Inn Express in Edmonton!) Guess who got rid of them without the use of carcinogenic and highly toxic chemicals? Anyways, we called Christian. Or, more likely, Christian called us. Because he would, if he knew we needed help. Christian is also a general contractor. He came and looked at our house and eventually keyed in on our HRV.
Since high efficiency homes have become the new norm, home builders have sought to make them air tight. Like a plastic bag. That you live in. In summer, with your windows open, fresh air comes in and stale air goes out and everyone is happy and healthy. In the winter, the lungs of the home, the Heat Recovery Ventilator, is supposed to do the breathing for the house with minimal heat loss. A pretty good idea. If it isn’t installed incorrectly. Christian studied our HRV and eventually decided something wasn’t right. He didn’t know what, but he knew something wasn’t right. I then spent the next couple of months working with the home builder to rectify the problem. Without getting too technical, the basic idea was this: the HRV was drawing air into the house, and dumping it into our cold air return. That air travelled to the furnace where it was heated and then SHOULD have been pumped throughout the rest of the house before travelling back down the cold air return and being exhausted out of the house just upstream from where new fresh air was coming in. The reason I used the word SHOULD there was that what was actually happening was that the heated fresh air that was supposed to be pumped throughout the house was actually being pumped out of the house. We were, in fact, heating the neighborhood. And for two long winters we had been breathing our own recycled air. And with it, all of the off gassing from the carpets, the glue, the plywood, the cabinets, the MDF, our cookware, and our moldy humidifier (the 1970s drip kind with no filter and no drain, just a stagnant tray of water sitting there molding and going round and round throughout our house, made of sheet metal, just like the ducting, and fixed with hex head screws, to look like it was part of the furnace).
So we had respiratory issues. And we had flu like symptoms. Because we were being poisoned with chemicals. In our own home. And the question then was, “now what?”