Lourdes Salvador's Column
...Co-founder of MCS America discusses the latest Multiple Chemical Sensitivity issues.
Lourdes Salvador volunteers as a writer and social advocate for the recognition of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was a passionate advocate for the homeless and worked with her local governor to provide services to the homeless through a new approach she created to end homelessness. That passion soon turned to advocacy and activism for people with MCS and the medical professionals who serve them. She co-founded MCS Awareness in 2005 and went on to found MCS America in 2006. She serves as a partner for Environmental Education Week, a partner for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), and a supporter for the American Cancer Society: Campaign for Smokefree Air.
Time to Look at Your Home in a Different Light: Basements Part 3
by Stephen Collette
For many people who have had MCS for some time, they have slowly made their living space their sanctuary. For those who are newly diagnosed, things are going to be different, and need to be for you to stay as well as possible. That means looking at your home in a different light. This series of articles walks through the kinds of elements that I look for in a healthy house and where the potential problems lie. We will focus on the sneaky things that you may have missed in your own process.
In the last article we talked about how the air sealing your basement makes it tight and controls the elements, such as air and moisture coming in. In this article we are going to talk about ways to finish a basement to make it usable and comfortable for your personal use.
The floor people typically think to put down in a basement is carpet. Laying carpet down in the basement is probably the worst thing you can do as the under pad acts as a sponge that wicks water up from the concrete floor and absorbs the moisture in the air at the same time. With the chemicals used to glue the under pad together, this is not an ideal situation for the survivability of the carpet, and could easily create an unhealthy situation.
I recommend the installation of nothing on a basement floor, at least until you have lived in the house a few years and seen the dryness/wetness of the place through the seasons. If you know where your weak areas in the wall are before finishing your basement, then it makes it easier to ensure those spaces are monitored after the fact. If you don't know what is going on before you cover it up, you will never know until it is too late.
Paint the floor for a while and just watch it. Use bright colors; let the kids have at it, whatever it takes to make it enjoyable. You can of course have professional paint finishes that look great or you could have the concrete stained into wonderful colors also. These are low cost and easy maintenance solutions that you can now throw a couple of area rugs here and there and be done with it. I like area rugs because they can be carried outside, and dried out or aired out as needed.
If you want to lay something down on the floor, go with a ceramic tile or other natural material. This offers a nice durable, permanent floor that will add value to the house and color to the basement. Ensure that the grout used is low or no VOC (volatile organic compound) and non-toxic, as that will be the element that will cause the most grief for those with MCS. These grouts are now available at green building supply stores.
Any other flooring material, in my opinion, is a risk, in any basement. The relative humidity of soil is about 100%. The ideal relative humidity of indoor basement air should be around 50%. The science of moisture movement is from high to low. It's not rocket science that if you dig a hole in wet dirt, that the water wants to come in, so don't lay down something that can be damaged by water, such as wood or soft goods.
I have a unique view on the walls. I prefer to build the walls to allow water to safely enter the building and safely escape when required. I recommend installing expanded Styrofoam on the walls, full height. Then build a 2 x 4 wall that does not touch the ground, but instead sits on pieces of plastic decking chopped up into small squares and placed every few feet. What this does is allow any liquid water that gets trapped in the wall to actually come out the bottom.
I often see basement failures where the water has been coming in for some time and the wood 2 x 4 has been acting as a dam capturing and holding the water in the wall allowing water damage to go on unnoticed for a very long time, until a serious failure occurs. This doesn't happen with this set up, as water will condense out safely or may show up below and simply evaporate without damage to anything while it functions perfectly. The expanded Styrofoam also keeps the studs from cooling and creating thermal bridges, or cold lines where they touch the wall. This moves the dew point away from the cellulose materials. Some with MCS may not tolerate the rigid Styrofoam, so testing will have to be carried out prior to installation. This applies to the plastic decking too. But as long as it is cut elsewhere and not in the house, I suspect it would be more tolerable for most than a piece of pressure treated wood, which I do not recommend under any conditions due to it's toxicity.
In between the studs I would install a batt insulation of rock wool, which goes by the brand name of Roxul in North America. It has very low formaldehyde levels, holds up well to water, can be cut easily with a knife, doesn't sag, is less itchy than other batts, and is made from mineral slag. You could also go with a cotton batt as well. Blown cellulose would also work, but you would need to go with a wet installation, instead of the standard drywall with the open cavities.
I would then install a wallboard that could tolerate water better than standard paper backed drywall. There is fiberglass covered wallboard that would work perfectly in the basement and is the easiest choice. You could also go with a magnesium oxide wallboard that can stand up to heaps of water without fail. It's a really interesting board with good properties for indoor health. Be sure to use a plaster that is low or no VOC as well.
This wall has no vapor barrier. I prefer that as it ensures that I am not going to trap water in the wall and that water vapor always has an escape route. It is important however to know the conditions in which you are building and understand how, where, and how often both vapor and liquid moisture is moving through your walls prior to construction. I strongly do not recommend anyone finish their basement unless they are very well versed in what is going on with the moisture movement and the builders are competent in building science and local conditions.
Basements typically fail more than above ground construction because they go unnoticed for much longer, creating larger problems. You need to be aware of that and build in layers of protection, as the example outlined above shows. There are other ways to go about it, this one just happens to work for me. I installed this in my basement, a basement I might add that did have water before I dug out my foundation prior to building inside.
Stephen Collette is a Building Biology Environmental Consultant and LEED accredited professional, an Energy Star trained evaluator, and has used almost all the green building guidelines in some form or another. Stephen owns Your Healthy House, and is living with his family in Lakefield, Ontario.
For more articles on this topic, see: MCSA News.
Copyrighted 2010 Lourdes Salvador & MCS America
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