How to build a healthy home

What exactly does a building biologist do? This was one of the many questions on my mind when I picked the phone to speak to Nicole Biljsma, a building biologist and health-and-wellness advocate based in Victoria. Thankfully, she was ready to tell it like it is. “A building biologist is someone who tries to identify and provide recommendations on health hazards in the home,” she explains. “They generally give advice on material selection, how to reduce moisture and condensation, and reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields.”

Pretty straight up really. But why is there a need for building biologists? Biljsma believes a number of health issues are largely due to this field not being effectively addressed in everyday life. “When I did my double degree in acupuncture and naturopathy, we didn’t look at indoor air quality or how the environment affected human health. The building industry, medicine, and natural therapies have ignored the impact of the built-in environment on human health. A big focus of research and treatment is to address symptoms, without getting to the root of the problem, that often stems from the home.”

So, how can we ascertain if our homes are indeed healthy? Biljsma has a list of requirements ready. “Good ventilation is key – a healthy home smells like fresh air, not scented candles or air fresheners. It also means being in areas with high amounts of green zones as the plants act like the lungs of the planet. If you’re close to heavy traffic or a busy road, the air in your home is only going to be as good as the contaminated air outside, so where your house is positioned is critical. It also doesn’t have chemicals, like pesticides or formaldehyde in building materials that are known to cause health effects. A healthy home should mimic a dry Mediterranean environment, so it’s not encouraging the adverse effects of microbial growth.”

Once you have figured out if your home is a healthy one, Biljsma says the onus is on residents to ensure nothing unhealthy is introduced to homes. “People often contaminate homes by bringing in fragrances, perfumes, pesticides, or cheap building materials loaded with formaldehyde or flame retardants that can contaminate the indoor air. Another issue affecting air quality is condensation and mould-related problems as microtoxins related to it can cause health problems, so it’s important to pay attention to that,” she said.

When pressed about the makings of an unhealthy home, Biljsma reveals a long list of potential causes. “An unhealthy home is one that has been built so tightly that it doesn’t breathe. It often doesn’t allow water vapour through the building envelope, which can cause condensation and mould problems. We know mould can cause serious problems in people who can’t create antibodies, and they eventually develop chronic fatigue. Pesticides are one of the top five things that unhealthy homes have. I refer to them as the Ps – pesticides, phthalates that are mainly in perfumes, and certain types of plastics, can cause numerous problems. Preservatives are like pesticides as they kill bacteria – we know that a healthy home has a diverse amount of bacteria in the household dust. If you bring in cleaning products to kill bacteria with pesticides, what you are doing is reducing the diversity of bacteria in the dust, which increases the chances that children growing up in that home will have asthma and allergies.”

Another culprit is the ever-present electromagnetic field problem. “Look at where you spend time in the home and making sure it’s not near high electromagnetic fields. For example, your bed should never be next to a meter panel, an inverter, a fridge, or an oven because those devices emit high levels of magnetic fields, which can affect melatonin and sleep-wake cycles. Having digital clock radios within 30cm of the head is not recommended, as are powerboards under the bed,” she said.

When it comes to her sure-fire methods of building a healthy home, Nicole says the home’s position is probably the main factor. “You don’t want to be near noise pollution, radio activity, high electromagnetic fields, heavy traffic, timber plantations or wind turbines. You also do not want to be near shipping ports, industrial manufacturing, airports, golf courses or voltage transmission lines.”

Her other guaranteed technique is using the best building materials possible for your home. “When you build a home, preventing mould and condensation problems should be a pivotal part of your plan. I would recommend using hydroscopic building materials than can use and release moisture,” Biljsma said. “For example, ski chalets in Europe are made of wood and sealed with oil for breathability. Timber has a beautiful capacity to absorb and release moisture, so I would highly recommend it. Making sure that exhaust steam goes outside, and not into the roof cavity is also key. It should be vented and ducted to the outside so mechanically-generated exhaust fans in the bathroom, laundry and kitchen can be directed out. Each person in a building emits about 10 litres of water vapour per day so in a family of five, that’s 50 litres of water vapour. When you use impermeable wraps, all that vapour is trapped and creates mould problems in the wall cavities.”

Although the healthy home mission may seem like an uphill one, Nicole insists there are easy and effective ways to maintain a healthy home. “I suggest going back to basics. A bit of sand with olive oil is a great scrub for the body. I would also recommend using microfibre cloth to clean homes. If they are slightly damp, it’s easy to trap dirt in the cloth and wash it down the sink. It also helps reduce allergy rates. A good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and a motorised head is a great investment. The sun is the most effective cleaning agent we have. Use it to clean clothes, fabrics and furnishings. Don’t be afraid to air out chopping boards, pillows and mattresses on a hot day.”

She also suggests working around wireless technology. “Routers and any kind of wireless technology should be hardwired because they are constantly beaming high levels of radio frequencies, which have been known to cause melatonin, that affects sleep cycles and an overall immune response,” Biljsma said. 

And what advice does she have for those wanting to know more about making their home a healthier place? “How you spend your dollar is powerful, so demand healthy products from the market. You need an educated consumer market to do this, as the burden of proof is not on industry to prove that their product is harmful. So, get educated as it’s the most powerful way of making an informed choice.”

For more information and tips on how to maintain a healthy home, click here.

Words: Manveen Maan

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