WHEN Matthew Waletzke appeared at the door of my
Mr. Waletzke is a “building biology” consultant, which means he has trained for a year with the Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology, a Florida-based, mostly online school that teaches its students to test water, air and building materials for a checklist of toxins and then prescribe a cure. (They will also vet the cleaning products under your sink and the lotions and cosmetics in your medicine chest.)
The training and its tenets are a European import, developed in post-
I had called Mr. Waletzke not because I’d gone all radioactive, like Julianne Moore’s character in “Safe,” the 1995 movie directed by Todd Haynes about a woman who becomes allergic to her life, but because his specialty seems like an idea whose time has come.
Pollution, we’re learning, is personal. Each year brings reports of a new domestic horror, from the medical waste in the municipal water to the carcinogenic bacteria sprouting in your shower head. Your child’s sippy cup is leaching the endocrine disrupter BPA into his milk (let’s not even think about what’s in his nonflammable pajamas), and there are phthalates in your shampoo (also your sex toys). And if your (bleached, pesticide-soaked cotton) bedding doesn’t kill you, your clock radio just might, say those who classify electromagnetic frequencies as carcinogens.
Books like “Clean,” a “detox” lifestyle guide out last year, blurbed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Donna Karan and written by Alejandro Junger, a telegenic Uruguayan cardiologist, prescribe a course of juice fasting and something more: a whole home detox, with filtered air, filtered water, organic cotton sheets and bleach-free cleaning products.
Dr. Junger, whose own tale of chemically induced irritable bowel syndrome and depression will curl your hair, is certainly not the only home detox evangelist. In “Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things,” out in January, the authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, Canadian environmentalists, embarked on a road test of self-contamination, eating food microwaved in plastic containers, scarfing tuna and drinking out of Mr. Smith’s son’s baby bottles, then testing their blood for levels of phthalates, mercury and other toxins, all of which spiked.
“We have all become guinea pigs in a vast and uncontrolled experiment,” they write, referring to daily life in the average home. “At this moment in history, the image conjured up by the word ‘pollution’ is as properly an innocent rubber duck as it is a
I’d been reading these and other books by our new century’s many Rachel Carsons, and I was curious just how “toxic” a New York City apartment might be, with its 80-year-old plumbing, trucks rumbling by and cellphone antennas sprouting from tenement roofs across the street. I’d always been proud of my gritty environment, having long believed that New Yorkers, marinating in stress, soot and other people, must have a Darwinian edge over those living in softer climates.
And if my apartment was as toxic as I was betting it was (“Love Canal” on Second Avenue!), what in the world could be done about it? Wouldn’t it be nearly impossible to detox a prewar Manhattan apartment, particularly on a middle-class budget? Dr. Junger, for instance, is living in filtered
Which brings us back to Mr. Waletzke, a 35-year-old triathlete-in-training with a degree in psychology, who turned to building biology as a way to “detox” Simply Vibrant, his Rockville Centre, N.Y., wellness center. He was treating a lot of autistic children, he said, and after learning that some studies indicate their immune systems have a difficult time processing toxins, he wanted to create as benign an environment as possible there.
And for the last year, as a building biology consultant (healthydwellings.com), he has been seeing couples with autistic children, couples with infants who are eager to make a “safe” environment for their young families and clients like Gary Tuerack, 38, who lives in a Hoboken apartment building that recently installed cellphone antennas on the roof and was worried about his health.
Mr. Waletzke charges $375 for an-in home evaluation, which takes about three hours and includes a written report and detox prescription.
“My goal is to identify the physical stressors in your home,” he told me. “The idea is that the new technologies, all the crazy foods, the chemicals in the products we use — BPA plastics and other things — are stressors on the body. You can’t control what’s outside your home. But inside, you can control what’s called the total body burden of these stressors, identify the ones you come in contact with on a daily basis, and then reduce, eliminate or avoid them.”
He offered up a metaphor: “People have different capacities for toxins, toxins being the water in the rain barrel,” he said. “When their barrel cracks, it can’t hold as much. Or, going back to real life, they can’t handle toxins the way they used to. I know a woman so chemically sensitive she’s living in Woodstock with the electricity turned off because the EMF’s make her sick. She can’t go shopping like a normal person, because the chemicals in the products on the aisles, or the fluorescent lights, set her off.”
“The percent of the population that’s chemically sensitive is increasing,” he added ominously, unpacking his bag of tricks, as he called his aluminum suitcase.
Its contents perked me up: a multidirectional radio frequency meter with a fetching orange bulb; a combustible-gas meter, in fire-engine red, had an anthropomorphic, “Lost in Space” look and a cute silver probe; a simple compass that will vet your mattress for magnetism.
“Here’s something people don’t think about,” Mr. Waletzke said, flattening himself in front of my fridge and unscrewing the grill. “Typically there’s a drip or drain pan in there, filled with water and all sorts of gunk, which the refrigerator fan blows right out into the room.”
Sadly, he couldn’t reach my drip pan. “I can see it, though,” he said.
He checked under my sink for leaks, and behind the washing machine. “Your dryer hose is broken,” he noted.
In the shower, his moisture meter squeaked where the tiles need re-grouting. An inspection of my air-conditioners revealed grimy filters. (I’d forgotten to clean them for, hmm, maybe four years?) He didn’t approve of my candles, which aren’t soy-based (a cleaner burn than wax), though he allowed as how the smell “was really nice.”
But he added sternly: “My general rule is, on a regular basis, candles aren’t good for air quality. Most fragrances have a chemical component.”
Finally, he took up his bright red gas meter, which ticks like a Geiger counter. “It’s not just combustible gases that set it off,” he said, it’s products with high volatile organic chemicals.
He turned on my gas stove and the meter began ticking like crazy. Reaching under my sink, he extracted a bottle of floor cleaner and stuck its silver probe inside. It keened again, and I nearly applauded, until I realized the thing was indicting my cleaning solution.
Municipal water supplies like New York’s are typically treated with chlorine and fluoride, which are possible carcinogens and show trace amounts of arsenic and other metals. Mr. Waletzke couldn’t instantly test my water for these ingredients — that has to be done in a lab and takes two to four weeks, he said, but he offered to do a dissolved-solids test. “Basically, that’s particulates in the water, like rust or dirt.” Mine wasn’t terribly high, he said, at 52 parts per million.
“One of the concerns in old buildings like yours is lead-based solder in the pipes.”
Could he test for that?
No, that needs an expert, he said, as does a test for radon or asbestos.
Mr. Waletzke urged a water filter on the shower, “at the very least,” he said. “Your liver is going to detox what’s in the drinking water, but there is a school of thought that says since your skin is the largest organ in your body, you need to protect it. It doesn’t have its own filter.”
Electromagnetic radiation is a toxic star to building biologists like Mr. Waletzke, “but it’s the one thing that people can’t see, feel or touch, and so it’s often overlooked,” he said. He ticked off some sources. Did I have a cordless phone? Wireless Internet? Dimmer switches? Cellphones and cellphone antennas nearby?
Yes, yes and yes. But research on electromagnetic radiation can take you down a rabbit hole. While doctors like CNN’s Sanjay Gupta have said they will not use cellphones without a headset because of the danger of brain and other cancers, studies linking these devices to cancers have been interpreted every which way.
Later, I called Louis Slesin, a Manhattan industry watchdog who has been reporting on electromagnetic radiation for three decades in his publication, Microwave News.
“You have four billion people using cellphones and we’re living next to towers,” Mr. Slesin said, “and as more than one person has said, this is the world’s largest biological experiment. You are an electrical being. You wouldn’t have a thought in your head or move your fingers without an electrical impulse. The idea that any of these external fields have no influence on you seems to me preposterous.”
Back in my bedroom, Mr. Waletzke was testing my body current with a multi-meter, in a neat display of Mr. Slesin’s thesis. The meter whizzed up when the lights were plugged in and slackened when they weren’t. Good for me, I was conducting, I thought to myself. We tried to test the cat, but he stalked away.
We had already measured the electromagnetic radiation from the fridge — which was high, but petered out a foot away from the door — as well as the microwave, which, when turned on, sent the meter into the red zone even when Mr. Waletzke was eight feet away.
“You see, those doors don’t do anything,” he said, reminiscing about a childhood spent with his face pressed up against his family’s microwave, exploding marshmallow peeps and CD’s. Microwaving CD’s? “It makes the metal crackle,” he said mistily. “It looks like shattered glass.”
We discussed the perils of laptops — just don’t put them on your lap, Mr. Waletzke said. And then, good news: My bed isn’t magnetized, as some can be when the metal coils wear out.
Why are magnets bad?
“They can put your cells in a stress response,” Mr. Waletzke said.
HIS final act, what would be the reveal if we were doing a home show together (and with his biceps and gentle manner, Mr. Waletzke could give Nate Berkus some competition), was to measure the radio frequencies coming from the cellphone antennas across the street.
Mr. Waletzke brandished his R.F. Analyzer and shook his head.
“It’s bad,” he said finally. “It just went up to 2,000 microwatts per meter squared. We like to see readings under 100.”
Can you get readings under 100 in New York City?
“Usually I see about 300,” he said. “I tested an apartment in Brooklyn with two floors of glass windows right in front of antennas on a roof across the street. The meter went wild there, too.”
What did he tell them to do?
“Move,” he said. “But it’s not always feasible to move in New York, and who knows what you’ll move next to? It could be a similar situation.”
For Mr. Tuerack in Hoboken, Mr. Waletzke painted the apartment in carbon-based paint, which is black and very expensive — about $400 for five liters — but “can shield up to 97 percent of radio frequencies,” he said. Mr. Tuerack told me he spent about $5,000 to do this, after which his landlord picked up the cost of covering the black paint in two coats of primer and one coat of white paint. As for the guy in Brooklyn, he is sleeping at the back of his apartment, away from the antennas.
“The idea,” Mr. Waletzke said, “is to give your body a break from all this stuff, at least while you’re sleeping, so it can deal with it better during the day.”
He directed me to lessemf.com, a Web site selling products that shield people from electromagnetic frequencies, like slinky boxers made from silver-plated nylon mesh ($90) and tank tops ($64) — you could wear both with a silver-plated balaclava ($59.95). But you’d scare the kids. There was also a very attractive bed canopy that looked like a mosquito net ($999).
I called Mr. Slesin again.
“Now you’re joining the foil heads,” he teased. “And how will you know if these things really work? The reason this is so difficult is there are no clear answers to the most obvious basic questions. The safety standards are based on short-term exposure, but what everyone is worried about is long-term exposure. Look, living where you do you’re getting more than everyone else, but it’s still low compared to what you’re getting from your cellphone.”
Mr. Slesin calculated that the readings Mr. Waletzke received in my bedroom were well below F.C.C. standards for safety (and a spokesperson for the F.C.C. concurred). Mr. Slesin added that he would be more concerned by my cellphone use.
“Cellphones are thousands of times stronger, and you’re sticking them right on your head,” he said. “Worrying about towers is like worrying about passive smoking when you haven’t yet addressed smoking itself.”
“In my understanding,” Mr. Waletzke responded, “the F.C.C. standards look at radiation from a thermal
We impose a hierarchy on our anxieties — otherwise our heads would explode. Prioritizing keeps us sane. Mr. Waletzke’s prescriptions, contained in the eight-page report he e-mailed me a few days after his visit, ranged from the simple and relatively inexpensive — replacing bleach with vinegar, for example — to pricier and more complex solutions, like water filters and electromagnetic radiation shielding devices. (A few of his recommendations are listed above.)
By focusing on the cellphone antennas and Mr. Slesin’s guarded and very conditional blessing of my proximity to them, I decided, I could dispense with worrying about the other issues.
“That happens,” Mr. Waletzke said. “People get overwhelmed.”
If the personal home detox is too daunting, though, what are we left with? The other path is agitating on a civic or federal level for more stringent legislation on a whole host of products and technologies, from plastics to cellphone antennas. The thought of which makes me want to light a few scented candles and retreat to my radioactive bedroom, where I would crawl between my nonorganic, bleached sheets.
Heck, if you offered me a cigarette, I might smoke it.
Cleaning Up Pollution in the Home
Matthew Waletzke, a “building biology” consultant with a practice called Healthy Dwellings, performed a “healthy home evaluation” on my East Village apartment, meaning he scoped out the air, water and building materials, as well as my cleaning products and cosmetics, for toxins. He also tested for electromagnetic radiation and moisture intrusion, and then offered the following prescriptions.
MOISTURE Fix the dryer vent and re-grout the tiles in the shower.
AIR Despite my location on Second Avenue, Mr. Waletzke wrote that “outdoor air is surprisingly half as toxic as indoor air.” He recommended cleaning the air-conditioner’s filters, keeping the windows open and buying a HEPA air filter to use in the bedroom when the windows are closed. He likes Aquasana products, like the Deluxe Air Purifier, which is about $600 at aquasanaforlife.com. However, it won’t win any beauty contests.
WATER Noting the New York City water, like most municipal water, has been treated with chlorine and fluoride, possible carcinogens, Mr. Waletzke recommended getting a kitchen-sink water filter (an under-counter model is about $144 at aquasanaforlife.com) and a shower filter (about $68 at aquasanaforlife.com). But suggested that if I had to prioritize, I should pick the shower. He also advised cleaning the shower head with vinegar and water, since mold can grow there.
ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION The most effective shield, Mr. Waletzke said, is carbon-based paint. It is black, and extremely expensive — $409 for five liters at lessemf.com. Shielding fabric is somewhat cheaper; a silver-plated nylon mesh canopy is about $1,000 at lessemf.com and has an appealing Karen Blixen vibe.
COSMETICS AND CLEANING SUPPLIES Jettison the bleach and the conventional cleaning solutions, he said, and replace them with Green Seal products, or use vinegar. He recommended vetting my cosmetics at cosmeticsdatabase.com, which lists which carcinogens are in which products. I lost heart at my toothpaste.
Written for the New York Times by Penelope Green, originally published on May 26 2010