Searching for an Environmentally Safer Haven: a househunting checklist
Below is a comprehensive list of questions we invite you to explore when starting a safe housing search. Please modify the list based on your own situation, health concerns, and specifics of the house(s) you are looking at. It is meant to be used as a guide, in whatever way you deem most helpful.
Choosing a location
- What is the general climate like, and how might it impact my MCS lifestyle? Are there big temperature changes from day to night or season-to-season that require adjustments in clothing/bedding/heating/cooling, and am I able to tolerate all the required changes? Are there high (or low) amounts of rainfall that may affect my access to water or ability to grow my own food or buy it locally? Living in a desert climate might not be wise if you do not tolerate store-bought produce and are dependent on growing your own food, unless you can afford to build your own greenhouse and hire someone to grow your food, or have the energy and knowhow to do it yourself.
- Are there local climate conditions that might be problematic for me (e.g. high winds, monsoons, electrical storms, high humidity, etc.)? Are there normally tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms or other extreme weather conditions in the area I’m considering, and would I have a reliable support system to help me if repairs or alternate safe shelter was needed in an emergency?
- Where do prevailing winds blow in from, and what do they bring with them? Are there times of the year when winds may bring humidity, storms, mold, or pollution that will be troublesome for me?
- Do I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or other light-related conditions that require sun most of the year for Vitamin D and mood enhancement? If yes, then Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado may be good states to start a search in.
- Will I do better in a hotter southern climate, a sunny climate, a cooler northern climate, a drier climate, a wetter climate?
- Do I prefer rainy weather? The Pacific Northwest might be a good place to look if so, if one is not terribly mold sensitive.
- Are there microclimates around the area I am interested in that are cleaner/safer than the general area? Do people generally say they do better in certain specific towns or communities in the area I’m looking at?
- Are there other issues specific to this climate or region that I need to be concerned about/aware of (e.g. Valley Fever in southern Arizona and New Mexico)?
You might not know the answer to this yet, but it would be good to test an area over several months or a year before committing to a large purchase or longer-term lease.
- Do I do better at or near sea level, or at higher elevations where pollution and mold counts can be lower? People with sun sensitivity might want to live at lower elevations. At higher elevations, oxygen levels are lower and can strain the heart and lungs – do I have any medical conditions that might preclude high altitude, such as cardiac issues, diastolic dysfunction in CFS, chronic COPD, asthma or other respiratory problems, blood pressure issues, a history of High Altitude Sickness, or any other chronic illness where the strain of high altitude might cause me to feel worse? Note: up to 2,000 feet seems comfortable for almost all folks; up to 4,000 for many others. Lyme patients, for instance, are generally advised not to go over 3,500-4,000 feet altitude if they are chronic.
3. Humidity levels
- Do I do better in high humidity, relatively moderate humidity, or extremely low humidity? Living by the ocean or in areas with higher rainfall can mean higher outdoor mold levels, and more local, potentially aromatic foliage. Some enjoy the negative ions and oxygen-enriched air of ocean living, others do badly with the higher mold counts. What is the relative humidity of the area you’re looking at year-round, across the seasons?
4. Local flora
- Certain locales have lots of aromatic plants that are common triggers for those with MCS, such as the American Southwest with it’s juniper, pine, cedar and other high terpene plants. Still, many with MCS do okay in these areas, or only have problems during certain times of the year that they are able to manage, or at least able to relocate temporarily for the height of the pollination season. Note: with MCS you might sensitize to local flora over time or develop hay fever even if you do not have a history of seasonal allergies. Certain times of the year will be much worse than others based on pollination schedule of local plants. It would be good to test an area for a year to become familiar with allergy seasons before committing to a large purchase or longer-term lease.
- Consider that trees detoxify the air and block winds that carry pollutants. Desert living might not be as advantageous as suspected, when you factor in more pollution blowing in from greater distances. Weigh your options depending on what your worst triggers are – trees vs. pollutants.
- What are common native plants and weeds that can be harvested for food, first aid, and medicine? For example, dandelion, stinging nettles, plantain, and mullein.
- Is there agriculture in the area spraying aerial or ground pesticide during certain seasons that might make me ill? How extensive is the spraying?
- What is the county pesticide spray schedule/policy for West Nile Virus and other mosquito-transmitted illnesses? Is there a no-spray list, and/or a pesticide hotline number?
- Are there nearby golf courses (notorious for pesticide use)?
6. Air & Noise Pollution
- Is there noise and air pollution (including particulate matter) from a nearby city or local industry such as a coal burning plant, paper mill, dry cleaners, construction site, nuclear plant, highway/high traffic area, airport, parking lot, gas station, incinerator, landfill, or auto repair and body shop, etc.?
- Is the area I am looking at a landlocked basin or valley, where pollution will sit and collect, and not dissipate quickly?
7. Surrounding land and neighbors
- Is there land nearby that may be sold in the near or distant future that would put me at risk for construction and diesel fumes, commercial development, etc?
- Is there any industry in the immediate area such as a paper mill or dry cleaner; anything that can cause regular or sporadic pollution?
- Is the area I’m looking at surrounded by ranchland, state or national parks, designated wilderness areas, or other generally safe and pesticide-protected spaces? Will I be able to visit these areas for hours or days if I need to detox?
- Are controlled burns and natural forest/brush fires common, and if so, during what times of year? Are fire retardants and/or chemical dispersants regularly used for fire control that might cause me problems if they were used extensively in the past, or in the future?
- Who are my closest neighbors and what are their potentially MCS-triggering habits (e.g., pesticides, gas/charcoal barbecue, wood-burning stove, fireplace, gas-powered lawn mowers and other yard appliances, propane/gas outdoor heaters, fabric softener, toxic laundry detergents, pets, recreational vehicles, burning of leaves or rubber, plastic and other illegal items, chlorine swimming pool, loud music, frequent outdoor gatherings, use of fireworks, etc.)?
8. Local Resources
- Are there healthy, organic, pure & reliable food sources throughout all four seasons, including: good local organic farmers, regular Farmer’s Markets, health food stores, chemical-free neighbors with greenhouse space or extra produce/eggs to sell, Weston A. Price chapters, etc.?
- Are there local scent-free workers available for hire to help with errands and chores, food shopping, to drive me places, etc. if/when needed?
- How close do I need to be to basic conveniences like a health food store or gas station?
- Are there accessible, affordable physicians, dentists, and other health care practitioners? If their offices are not accessible, are they willing to do home visits? Are they willing to avoid fragranced personal care products before treating me? Do they pesticide their office? Are they MCS aware/friendly and accommodating, or resistant and unkind?
- What are my cultural/social needs and can they be met here? Are there outdoor music festivals, scent free workshops, and other spaces where I can comfortably be in the public and attend events? Are there others with MCS in the area, or back-to-the-land folks, organic farmers, and other health-oriented chemical free people I might connect with? How important is social connection/community to my mental well-being, and am I willing to sacrifice a lower toxic load for a less isolated lifestyle?
Questions to Ask Homeowners
Building Materials/Indoor Air Quality
- How old is house (preferably 5-8+ years old if standard construction):
- Standard construction or built to MCS specifications:
- Passive solar design features:
- Moisture barrier installed over the slab:
- Exterior building materials:
- Roofing materials (pitched metal roof preferred; beware of tar roofs):
- Insulation materials:
- Are the walls foiled?:
- Wood detailing (e.g., door/window trim, cabinetry, etc.), include wood type:
- Wood sealants used:
- Flooring materials including sealants and other finishes (cement, pre-sealed tile, stone, brick preferred; linoleum may be tolerable for some; carpeting and vinyl should be avoided):
- If carpet was used, how old is it, what material is it (e.g. synthetic blend, untreated wool, etc.), how was it installed (e.g. glued; staples/nails only), what rooms is it installed in:
- HVAC ducting used (e.g., formaldehyde free, flex or metal, etc.), filter MERV rating, and how often filters are changed:
- Whole house air filter:
- Whole house vacuum:
- Sauna? If so, what brand/model, materials, year purchased, etc.
- Dates of past repairs/renovations/remodeling/painting (should be at least one year for paint jobs, unless low or no VOC paint was used and you tolerate it fine):
- Heating system: passive solar home design (using thermal mass, insulation, and orientation of house to minimize mechanical heating system requirements) is ideal, active solar may be tolerable but many who are electrically sensitive cannot tolerate the inverters. Hot water in-floor radiant heating and hot water radiators are typically well tolerated. Forced air systems should be avoided. Some electric baseboards heaters are well tolerated by others with chemical and electrical sensitivities. Some use propane tanks located in a shed or utility closet outside the home, downwind, and at a distance from the living space.
- Cooling system: passive solar home design (using insulation, orientation of house, and window placement for cross ventilation to minimize mechanical cooling system requirements) is ideal. Supplement with overhead fans, and A/C units as tolerated. A/C units can become powerful mycotoxin delivery systems if there is mold growth in the unit or in the ducts if using a central air conditioning system.
- Did the house ever sit empty for any length of time? If so, were heat and a/c and dehumidifers run appropriate to the season?
- Gas, propane, solar, or electric? (All electric appliances are best for a chemically sensitive person.)
- If propane, gas or solar, where is the propane/gas source or solar inverter located (preferably outdoors at a distance, and downwind, from the home)?
- Are there any known EMF issues with the house or in the area, such as:
- Unshielded electrical wiring (wiring in metal conduit is preferred)
- Dimmers and 3-way switches
- High voltage and above ground power lines (underground power lines to home are preferred)
- Neighbors with WiFi
- WiMax installed or planned for area in near future
- Smart Meter on site or planned in near future
- Cell/microwave towers nearby and/or planned for near future
- Other wireless technology being used nearby or planned for near future (e.g. WiFi in school, library, etc.)
- Located under an airport flight path
- Check for proper drainage away from foundation: is the property graded, are French drains, swales or other features used to wick away rainwater? There should be no plantings around perimeter of home. Beware of potential mold issues with berming (dirt piled up against side of house).
- On-slab foundation preferred to having a crawlspace or basement, which can breed mold.
- Exhaust fans in bathrooms, kitchen, and other high-humidity locations.
- Whole house dehumidifier
- List other mold-reducing features
- Is there a history of water damage of any kind? Check for water marks, backed up drains, signs of flooding in crawl spaces, basements, and other areas. Does it smell musty/moldy?
- Have there ever been roof or plumbing leaks, and if so, how were they repaired and how soon after the leaks were they repaired?
- Was mold remediation ever completed in your home?
- To the best of your knowledge, is there currently high levels of mold or existence of allergenic, pathogenic, or toxigenic molds in the home?
- Pets that have lived in the house, either in recent or distant past, including past home owners:
- Known vermin infestations (e.g. presence of rat or mice feces, etc.):
- Homestead animals that have lived on property (e.g. ducks, chickens, goats, etc.):
- Local flora that might be a problem (e.g., juniper, pine, cedar, etc.) and worst times of year for pollen counts?
Other potential toxic exposures
- Were pesticides/insecticides/termicides/herbicides/mothballs/flea bombs/bug sprays ever used in the house, or outside the house and around the property, by you or by former owners? If so, what type(s) and how long ago? Did you take any steps to remove pesticides used by former owners, and if so, please provide details. If Chlordane was ever used on the property, do not live there or visit!
- Has a pet that was treated with Frontline, wore a flea collar, or had other pesticides applied to it ever lived or entered the home?
- Has the home site been checked for radon and other potentially hazardous elements? It’s always a good idea to have an environmental home inspection done before purchasing a new home. (see: Environmental Testing for resources)
- Is the house currently fragrance free, and has it always been? Were scented candles, Glade or other scented plug-ins, air fresheners, incense, aromatherapy, potpourri, dryer sheets, scented (with either synthetic/chemical or natural/organic plant essential oil fragrances) soaps and other personal care products or any similar products used by yourself and/or former tenants in the home?
- Is the house currently smoke free, and has it always been? This includes smoke from regular and clove/natural cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, hookah pipes, and other sources.
- Has the house or any neighbors’ homes in a three block radius ever been used as a methamphetamine (“meth”) lab? If so, do not visit or live in it! How to recognize a meth house | How to avoid buying a meth house
- Has ozone every been used in the home to try to remove odors/chemicals/mold? Please specify.
- Check for signs of rot or insect/vermin infestations (e.g. presence of rat or mice feces, etc.).
- Detached garage is best to avoid infiltration of car exhaust into home.
- Do you or your MCS partner tolerate the home yourself?
- How long have you lived in the home?
- How long have former tenants stayed? May I talk to a former tenant to see how they felt about living in the house?
- Why are you selling the home?
- If you are selling (vs. renting), are you charging a premium over the likely appraisal cost for the special materials? If so, are you willing to carry a second note/loan on the house if the bank will not give me a mortgage at the price you wish to sell the house?
- Are the neighbors MCS aware/compassionate/friendly? Will they complain if I use a clothesline to air dry my clothes, leave items outside to offgas, build a “safe room” shed in my backyard, or do other things that would normally be considered aesthetically undesirable on a neighborhood block? Will they heed MCS safe requests with minimal resistance?
Due to the nature of the illness, potential MCS buyers/renters will need to stay in a home overnight, or for an extended period, before committing to a purchase or long-term lease. Doing so puts the homeowner at risk for potential contamination of the space. Are you willing to do this?
- • Potential buyer/renter can stay overnight in home for up to [INSERT #] days/weeks/months before committing to purchase/lease at a fee of $[INSERT DOLLAR AMOUNT]/night/week/month.
- • Please list all allowed and forbidden personal care products, bedding materials, laundry products, etc.:
- • Please detail house rules (e.g., must take shower immediately after returning from shopping and other exposures, must remove shoes before entering home, etc.):
For more tips, see also: Safer Construction Tips for the Environmentally Sensitive