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Seeking a Cure for the Sick Home
Breathe easier, sleep better and maybe even soothe your soul by changing your nighttime environment...

LA Times
March 16, 2000
By Connie Koenenn, LA Times Staff Writer
Copyright, 2000, Los Angeles Times
Reprinted with Permission

Mary Cordaro's 1950s ranch house fits snugly into its Sherman Oaks neighborhood, a pleasant three-bedroom yellow stucco with gray trim and a large camphor tree shading the frontyard. Nothing outwardly sets it apart from the other houses on the block, but looks are deceiving.

This is a radical house. It's a mold-free, mildew-free, dust-mite-free, lead-free laboratory for healthy living, with air so pure and ducts and filters so clean that a visitor who comes in wheezing with allergies feels better immediately.
Mary Cordaro is among a new breed of eco-savvy consultants who specialize in taming the allergens that can be hiding all over the house.
Mary Cordaro is among a new breed of eco-savvy consultants who specialize in taming the allergens that can be hiding all over the house.

It's a work in progress for the soft-spoken Cordaro, 46, a dogged reformer who has spent the last 10 years fine-tuning an environmental-consultant career she backed into while seeking help for her allergies. Since she and her husband, screenwriter Scott Davis-Jones, bought the house in 1990, she has painstakingly converted it to a model of a healthy home. Along the way, she has developed an inventory of natural furnishings, paints and building products to help her clients deal with allergies and chemical sensitivities triggered by indoor pollution.

"The point is to get [the home] as tuned to nature as possible," she says of her showcase house. "Your house should be a healing environment."

Cordaro is one of a new breed of designers who look at a house, in her words, "as a living organism with interrelated parts, not just a structure to decorate and fill with furniture."Matt Freeman-Gleason, owner of Environmental Home Center in Seattle, a major supplier of natural building materials, says the number of environmental consultants nationwide is starting to grow. "Mary has been an early adapter," he said. "She has a really clear contextual understanding of environment, design and material and how to put them together. She knows a lot."

Environmental consultants are on the cutting edge of a healthy-home movement that continues to grow as more Americans fall prey to "sick building syndrome," which was once viewed largely as a workplace problem.We are discovering that the American home, which should protect us from the stressful world, is not always a haven. Instead, from roof to basement, a home can be an alarming mix of fumes from paint and dozens of other chemical products, carpeting, vinyl, pressed wood, mold and mildew, along with contaminants such as dust and other microscopic particles, often tightly sealed up in the name of energy efficiency. "Think of it as a toxic soup," says Mary Ellen Fise of the Washington D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America, which has targeted indoor air as a priority issue.

The culprits are not only the plastics, glues and petrochemicals in building materials, but the luxury carpet, the designer wallpaper and the very sheets and comforters we sleep in. Such materials can generate unhealthy gases, molds and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor pollution levels can be anywhere from two to 100 times higher than those found outdoors, as residences are increasingly closed up for air-conditioning.

For some people that's not a problem, but for others, the house they live in is literally making them sick. The American Lung Assn. puts allergy sufferers at 40-plus million, a rise of almost 15 million since 1995. Cordaro, whose Integrated Environmental Solutions* takes a team approach to solving allergy problems, thinks a full-scale homeowner education effort is in order.

"My clients are a lot of desperate people, and by the time they call me when they are sick with allergies, it's almost always too late. The new coat of paint or the adhesives in the framing or whatever is making them sick is already up." She can identify. Growing up in Inglewood in the smoggy 1950s, she remembers that her "lungs hurt all the time."

Nobody made the connection with pollution, but her childhood allergies increased during her college years (El Camino College, UC Santa Barbara and graduate school at San Franciso State). By her late 20s, Cordaro "really felt rotten all over," with asthma, fatigue and vertigo. "I was taking too many antibiotics, so I started trying holistic alternatives." A determined student, she learned about diet and health, then airborne allergens and other irritants, and began to make the environment-illness connection.

"I learned how dust in carpets can affect you, how water condenses under wallpaper, all of the basics. I got my feet wet." When she and her husband (a non-sufferer) bought their house, it was a chance to change her environment. She slowly began renovating, combining everything from the ancient art of feng shui to recent advances in the building sciences. And though the house is still a work in progress, Cordaro says she is entirely well, except for an "occasional sensitivity." The clients she works with are encouraged to take a tour of the Cordaro house, (leaving their shoes at the door) for an overview of what goes in, and comes out, when a healthy house is created. "The first thing people notice is that there is no carpeting anywhere," Cordaro said, opening the door to a Shaker-simple living room with white walls, natural wood floors, a fireplace flanked with bookcases and wood blinds at the windows.

Instead of carpet, with its thousands of surfaces to trap and hold household volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the floors throughout are maple hardwood finished with a nontoxic, water-based environmental sealer. Throw rugs throughout the house are "green" cotton (undyed, untreated and unbleached) and silk. There's a definite serenity to the airy, beamed living room, with its art-lined walls and large piano (Cordaro is an amateur musician and her husband an artist), but most of the eco-features have to be pointed out. A round cherry table, like other wood items throughout the house, is oiled with linseed and beeswaxed. Chair cushions are upholstered with organic wool. "That means the sheep are not dipped in pesticide," said Cordaro.

Other samplings:
* In the kitchen, natural linoleum, rather than the usual vinyl, is made from plants, cork and bark. Kitchen and the utility room are painted with low VOC paint. There is no cache of detergents and cleaners under the sink. 'We use only one basic nontoxic product to clean the house, Planet Solutions, in varying dilutions."

* The bathroom is painted with natural oil-based paint and has an ultra-quiet fan on a timer, to reduce moisture and help prevent mold. Doors are cut at the bottom to prevent negative pressurization when the fan is running. Organic towels are thin enough to dry quickly.

* The master bedroom contains nothing synthetic. Natural finishes include linseed oil finish on the Mexican tile floor, mineral-tinted linseed oil on a sand-blasted ceiling, lime plaster veneer on walls finished with beeswax and natural oil and beeswax on the sliding glass door frame and the wooden furniture, including the bed. Wicker furniture is unfinished and upholstery batting is organic wool.

"The bed is so important, but often the cheapest thing you will find in the bedroom, where we spend a third of our lives, is a $200 mattress, filled with battings, foams, glues and fire retardant," said Cordaro. "I see it all the time."

Her slatted bed is a European concept that "breathes, and lets light and air circulate around it." All bedding fabrics are untreated, undyed and unbleached green cotton.

* The house HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) and carbon air filter is augmented by a bedroom stand-alone unit that has been rewired with a shielded/grounded cable. AC and DC electromagnetic fields are low in the bedroom. "When you are in a room with no electromagnetic fields, it feels good."

* Located in the hallway, the natural-gas air-handling unit and all registers are airtight to prevent negative pressurization in the house. All fiberglass insulation (which can become airborne) has been removed from the heater closet and replaced with foil insulation. All fiberglass insulation has been removed from the attic where the ducts are located. The floor of the attic is insulated with nontoxic foam.

Such substitutions are expensive. While a solvent-free natural wall paint may cost only 20% more than a high-quality conventional type, she said, natural oil finishes for woodwork range from 50% to 100% more than petroleum-based oils.

"It's so much more expensive, I encourage people to start by focusing on the bedroom, where you can get the most benefit," she said.

"The idea is to get people thinking about change."

She's always scouting for new products, especially in Europe, where Germany and Switzerland are leading the healthy-building movement.

Cordaro has an unusual certificate in Bau-biologie (building biology), a European concept of the relationship between buildings and human health. She was an early graduate of the Institute of Bau Biologie and Ecology in Clearwater, Fla., which translated the curriculum from German. "It's everything having to do with new building or remodeling (both inside and out) and also the ongoing maintenance of the existing house."

After working alone as a consultant for a few years, last summer she formed the ambitious Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES)*, pulling together a core of specialists. Starting with environmental inspections, they offer expertise in dealing with problems associated with mold and fungus, chemicals, poor ventilation, water intrusion, electromagnetic fields and other irritants known as "sick building syndrome."

Cordaro thinks it's one of the few such umbrella efforts in the country. "There are bits and pieces around, but as a team, we are unique."

"I only wish I'd found her earlier," says client Katie Goldberg of Brentwood, who started suffering asthma-like attacks after a new air-conditioning system activated pesticides and mold throughout her house. When she had to find a new house, Cordaro's team inspected it thoroughly and put together remodeling materials. "Her advice to me on all the things in the new house was great. I would never have thought to sleep next to a sample of paint or floor material before I used it, for instance. And I have great appreciation for that team she's put together--someone always knows what to do."

Cordaro's next goal is an educational Web site for consumers and builders that shares all her resources. Her current Web site,*, offers information about her service. "There's a lot that people can do on their own," she said.

*Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) has since merged with Environmental Interior Designs to form Mary Cordaro Inc. For more information, you can click on the following link to read about the Mary Cordaro Inc. merger.
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