There’s a small but growing set of people who do not take pride in that new car or new house smell. And catering to people who are wise to toxins found in synthetic materials is becoming big business for some local companies.
“Years ago, people were proud to have people come over and smell their new house,” said Frank Laskey, president of Capital Construction in Ballston Spa. “That new car smell, there was some cache attached to that.” Now, experts realize that the smell is actually the off-gassing of formaldehyde, a common chemical that is a possible carcinogen and can trigger allergies when people are trapped indoors with it.
Formaldehyde made the national news recently when it was discovered in high levels in the trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
But the gas that forms the main ingredient in glues used in plywood, particle board, paneling, insulation, paint and carpeting is not just a problem in FEMA trailers. Cigarettes, permanent press fabrics and gas stoves also give off formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde also affects new mobile homes and traditional houses — or any building that uses the synthetic materials.
New home, new symptoms
The good news is that it goes away. Carpets and fabrics off-gas formaldehyde for between six months and three years, and wood products do so for three to five years, Laskey said. The bad news is that until it does dissipate, people who are sensitive to it may experience irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mary Rustin, 76, had those symptoms as soon as she moved into her new mobile home in Greenfield two summers ago. Shortly after she and her 75-year-old husband, Irvin, moved into their 2006 Fleetwood double wide in August of that year, her eyes and throat started burning.
But Mary Rustin’s symptoms persisted, so she sought information from the company. “They said, ‘Open the windows and it’ll be fine,’ ” she recalled. They also advised her that running the air conditioner would help.
Most of the fumes seemed to go away that summer, although they still bother her a little, she said.
Rustin keeps at least one window cracked open all year, and occasionally runs fans that vent directly outside.
“I said, ‘I have to breathe,’ ” Rustin said.
Irvin Rustin sympathizes with his wife’s allergy, but doesn’t have symptoms himself.
“If you bought the place in the wintertime, you can’t leave the windows open,” he said.
The pristine mobile home is the couple’s first; they lived in a house in Troy for years and then sold it to live in an apartment before deciding they could save money by buying a place.
Now, the Rustins don’t want to move again. “We’ll just have to live with it until it’s time to go,” Mary Rustin said.
They haven’t had their home tested for formaldehyde. A spokeswoman for Fleetwood Enterprises noted the company follows U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development code restraints when using materials containing formaldehyde.
“I don’t think it’s possible to build one without using materials that have it,” said the spokeswoman, Kathy Munson.
Fleetwood recommends ventilation and air conditioning to get rid of formaldehyde. Heat and humidity both increase the formaldehyde levels.
Other solutions exist, although most are costly. Homeowners can install a $3,000 heat recovery ventilation system for their entire house that removes stale air and brings in fresh air without greatly increasing heating costs, Laskey said.
The ventilator runs on a 70-watt motor around the clock to bring in the fresh air and mix it with air in the house, he said.
Manufacturing will start in the next four or five months on a filter that uses Mother Nature to remove formaldehyde from the air. Phytofilter Technologies Inc., a startup company owned by Malta resident Martin Mittelmark, has the U.S. rights to manufacture the filters, which are now made by a Japanese company based on technology developed by a NASA senior scientist who was looking for ways to help people live in space.
The filter looks like a normal houseplant, but its 12-inch planter base contains an ultraviolet light and an induction fan that pulls indoor air to the roots. Microbes on the roots eat the formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that pollute indoor air, Mittelmark said.
“One creature’s waste turned out to be another creature’s food,” he said.
When the toxins flowing to the roots are plentiful, the microbes multiply, so there are more of them on the so-called EcoPlanter than on the roots of a normal plant. “Microbes can mutate according to their food supply,” Mittelmark said.
The plants need no other care than a little light and water, unlike synthetic filters that need to be replaced.
With the filter, one houseplant can do the work of 100, Mittelmark said.
“Nature has a solution to most problems.” He expects the portable filters to sell for between $200 and $300.
He’s also working on a whole-building ventilation system that uses the plant filters. It will be debuted at a building at Syracuse University next month, thanks to a $150,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant.
Installing the systems in commercial or industrial buildings saves on heating and cooling costs, since most buildings bring in outside air to keep indoor air pollution at bay, Mittelmark noted.
NASA scientist B.C. “Bill” Wolverton started studying using plants to reduce toxins in air and water in the 1960s, according to NASA’s Web site.
After the 1970s energy crisis led to buildings being better insulated, Wolverton realized that his EcoPlanter invention could be just as useful here on earth.
The scientist, who lives in Mississippi, licensed Phytofilter Technologies two years ago to put his technology to work.
Mittelmark said he and Wolverton contacted FEMA in 2006 after Wolverton and the Sierra Club studied the amount of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, and Wolverton determined that his portable filter would reduce the formaldehyde by 600 percent. The two men also contacted the CDC after that agency was called in to investigate solutions to the formaldehyde problem. They never heard back from either agency, Mittelmark said.
A FEMA spokeswoman said the agencies are considering using photocatalytic oxidation, which uses a chemical reaction to render formaldehyde into water vapor and carbon dioxide.
“FEMA has new rigorous specs to ensure that our units exceed current HUD standards,” Alexandra Kirin wrote in an e-mail. “Units currently in inventory will be tested before being deployed.” CDC tested the air in the trailers and found higher-than-normal levels of formaldehyde in preliminary results released last month.
Mittelmark, who moved to Malta in 2003, is the son of Marvin Middlemark, the inventor of “rabbit ear” antennae for television. (Martin Mittelmark uses the original spelling of the family name.)
Going ‘green’ helps, too
Another solution to the formaldehyde problem is using materials that are formaldehyde-free.
Laskey’s company is currently constructing homes in Louden Ridge, an entirely “green” subdivision in Wilton. The homes are made with solid wood cabinets and without plywood. Any products in the house that have higher VOC levels are sealed with a special varnish or paint to keep those toxins from escaping as gas.
“The result is, our houses don’t smell new,” Laskey said.
And people with asthma or allergies are willing to pay 10 to 15 percent more for the homes without that coveted scent.
Three homes are under construction, and two have been completed since construction began in 2006.
“I think builders are going to catch onto this as the public becomes more aware,” Laskey said.
The concept has already caught on with some young families and Baby Boomers who are preparing for retirement, the two demographics that are most interested in the healthy home concept, Laskey said.
“We are having the best year that we’ve ever had. For us, business is booming. It really is.”
Allerdice Building Supply in Saratoga Springs started offering a formaldehyde-free insulation about two months ago, said Keith Potter, who is in charge of outside building materials. “There are more people looking at it,” Potter said.
For those who can’t afford to go green when buying building materials, airing them out before installing them will help get rid of some of the formaldehyde, Laskey said.
“Open the doors and drawers and allow them to breathe,” he said.