A Bau-Biologist's Perspective
In the United States, to discuss a relationship between houses and the environment is rather like discussing communication between humans and aliens. Besides our superficial scientific understanding of how man has changed the natural environment through population expansion, industrialization and increased resource utilization, Americans have little awareness of how the structures we have built around us effect human life. Having been steeped in Louis Pasteur's Germ Theory, the scientific community and the populace, in general, are blind to most environmental stressors apart from the much maligned and feared microbe - except, of course, if there is a huge environmental catastrophe like Bopal, Exxon Valdes spill or the BP oil well blow-out in the Gulf, all of which resulted in acute poisoning to humans and the environment. Even as Americans become progressively sicker (One in every two adults suffers a chronic disease!) and with the belief that it is some evil bacteria or virus as the cause of a health problem, we, especially in the western world, just keep on searching for such causal factors. After much medical testing, when results return negative or inconclusive, the fall back call is: "It's an auto-immune disease." Consequently we've become convinced that the evil resides within us and that our bodies are attacking themselves. We're a whole society of walking dead or, half-dead, blaming ourselves and the little buggers for our every pain and discomfort. Something is missing; something is way out of balance!
The above scenario, though perhaps slightly exaggerated, depicts our current understanding of the relationship between the environment, the buildings in which we live and work, and their impact on us. In other words, this relationship isn't even on the radar! On the other hand, having learned a thing or two about the biological impact of our day to day living environments, when I look around me, I see people at the grocery store perhaps reacting to some cleaning agent just used to wash the floors, children in the restaurant misbehaving due to aspartame-laden sodas, colleagues at the office drowning in brain fog from electromagnetic overload and those in line at the post office flushing in reaction to ink fumes. This brings to mind an interesting fact. Depending on your source, scientific opinion recognizes that 70% to 98% of all cancers are attributable to environmental factors. And, again, depending on who you quote, cancer is the number one or number two killer in the United States with relatively unchanged morbidity and mortality statistics for some sixty years ago - since the War on Cancer was initiated in the 1960's. So, what are we missing?
We humans spend upwards of 80% of our time in man-made structures. Bau- Biology therefore suggests that we look to our living environments, the structures that surround us, for possible sources of disease causing or immune suppressing agents. This conclusion was reached as a result of first hand experience subsequent to WWII. During the post-war chaos, Europe were hastily rebuilt. It didn't take long for the Germans to realize, however, that these new buildings thrown together with scraps, recycled and new materials were causing illness in many of their inhabitants. Helas, the birth of Bau-Biologie and the eventual institution of building codes in many communities that espouse Bau-Biologie principles. Going beyond diagnosis to remediation, Bau Biology also explores how to re-instill balance and health by reclaiming our living environment.
So what does it mean to reclaim one's living environment? And, reclaim it from what? Bau Biologie, which means building biology, by the way, advocates creating living and work spaces that are human-friendly, not just environmentally friendly. Bau Biologie, like the environmental movement, looks to nature not solely for its preservation but, in this case, for guidance on how best to design indoor space to mimic nature. The underlying premise is that humans have survived the Earth's natural environment, and for that matter, thrived on Earth for millennia. Now that man is living more in man-made structures than in nature, we need to fashion these structures not only so that they provide protection from the elements but to function harmoniously with the elements, with the environment. We need to reclaim our place in nature, not apart from it. So, how can this be done?
Bau-Biologists have learned that it is the materials with which we build indoor spaces that permit or prohibit interaction with the environment. In traditional societies still today and prior to WWII and the advent of plastics, homes were constructed with building materials from nature and from the local area - wood, straw, pumice, rock, slate, mud, clay, cement, plaster, etc... Now, in the western world, the list of ingredients and materials that are used to build homes reads like a chemistry book. Wood isn't just wood, it is wood plus formaldehyde emitting glues. It isn't just clay tiles, it is ceramic tiles with radioactive glazes. It isn't just steel pipes, it is polyvinylcholride piping that leaches chemicals into water and is virtually indestructible.
The relatively sudden advent of synthetic materials and their seemingly limitless uses have drastically changed our living environment. In the United States, in particular, buildings often act like plastic bags in which more plastics, chemicals and synthetic products are stored. Fast forward and jump an ocean and we're into the 1970's and the latest media scare in the U.S. is "Sick Building Syndrome." For a short period, there was significant attention given to the issue. Eventually fading and explained away as a rare problem, sick building syndrome and the lessons learned were virtually forgotten - in spite of the fact that approximately one third of buildings in America are still considered 'sick buildings'. But, with modern chemistry providing newer and cooler products, synthetics and chemicals became more and more a part of our modern lives. Even most of the clothes worn in America are made in part or in whole of synthetic fibers. We have thus directly insulated ourselves from the air around us - from nature. Then our buildings insulate their inhabitants from the outdoors and, as discovered through the study of Building Biology, block the environment from interacting with both the building and its inhabitants. Out of touch with our natural surroundings, ungrounded to the Earth, is it any wonder balance has been lost?
Synthetic materials do not act in the same manner as do materials directly from nature. They attract positive ions, do not breathe and they off-gas noxious chemicals. That is not to say that there are not natural materials that can cause harm. Clearly there are locales where the earth's radiation is unusually high and it is not healthful for humans to congregate in these areas or mine the earth there . There are most certainly poisonous chemicals or substances derived directly from nature - whether they be noxious gases or mercury-laden cinnabar. Man has learned to either avoid these naturally occurring pollutants or to use them at his/her risk. It is impossible, however, to avoid the synthetic materials that envelop us in our homes and workplaces.
The synthetics surrounding us also attract positive ions. In nature, there is a natural balance of positive and negative ions: 1: 1.2. As recognized by Bau-Biologie, we are electrical beings - every chemical reaction is, after all, an exchange of electrons and ions are biologically active. Our electric environment is therefore as important to our health and well-being as is fresh air. Though rarely recognized, synthetic materials - building materials, bedding, clothing - disrupt the delicate ionic balance. By experiencing the contrast between different ionic atmospheres, humans can actually sense this disruption: one only needs to stand next to a waterfall, the sea or high in the mountains where negative ions predominate to feel their invigorating, health-enhancing effect. On the other hand, modern buildings built to standard building code do not energize but rather drain one of energy, cause brain fog, poor concentration, feelings of being stressed out and are recognized to depress the immune system.
Synthetic building materials do not breathe. The use of the like of polyurethane laced particle board, plastic wrap around fiberglass insulation, plasticized plasters and paints restricts air flow and traps moisture. Poor air exchange and quality in a structure potentially, and often, leads to mold growth - a significant health hazard causative of a plethora of symptoms and discomforts. The other notable health danger resulting from the use of synthetic building materials is indoor air pollution. Synthetic materials composed of petrochemical based compounds, heavy metals and synthetic chemicals release volatile organic compounds. In an air tight, plastic-enveloped building, the concoction of off-gassing construction materials such as glues and synthetic carpets, and the many synthetically-based consumer products carried into the building including cleaners, pesticides, printer inks and beauty care products pose a true health hazard implicated in seizure disorders, asthma, allergies, multiple chemical sensitivities, auto-immune diseases, in fact, almost any symptom. It should be common knowledge that many of the synthetic chemicals commonly used in building materials are neuro-toxic, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic. Could it possibly be that our current construction methods are related to the general health decline in the American populace? Remember, we spend upwards of 80% of our lives inside.
Living in structures built with synthetic materials our bodies are bombarded with noxious stimuli. Our systems, not designed for this chemical, electric and electromagnetic assault, become increasingly less able to detoxify and the total body burden of toxins increases. As long as we surround ourselves with these man-made materials, we do not get a chance to regenerate and recharge. The line of thinking goes like this: Our bodies are amazing, complex antennae that pick up the thousands of signals, messages and inputs that come at it continuously from the environment. Our bodies are constantly busy responding to the resultant noxious stimuli. By eliminating synthetics in our homes, in our lives, Bau-Biology suggests reducing the background noise, so to speak. If immediate environmental burdens are diminished or remediated so our bodies aren't constantly on alert, the mind can focus better and the body can rechannel its resources to better perform everyday functions. This is especially true of our sleep environments, our bedrooms. When we provide a Bau-Biologie safe sleep space, our bodies can detoxify and regenerate at night as designed. This is critical so that our systems get a fresh start in the morning and are not actually having to still deal with yesterday's garbage, so to speak.
For the physical and mental health of their inhabitants, Bau-Biologie advocates constructing buildings with natural materials. While more and more eco-friendly products are hitting the market, these do not necessarily meet non-toxic standards set by Bau-Biologie. As consumers, we need to demand that products be human-friendly, not just environmentally sound. Though this takes some self-education, the benefits of living and working in human-friendly environments are surely worth it. Health, a sense of internal stillness, of deep peace and of vitality that come from constant contact with nature can indeed, be regained. Bau-Biologie shows us the way.