Research is an interesting activity. It can lead you in many directions: down ‘rabbit holes’, off on tangents, and present a universe of ideas you never thought existed. It can confirm assumptions, challenge beliefs, or destroy both altogether. But most importantly, research can create connections and further knowledge and understanding. It can help solve even the most unremarkable problems. But I digress, this post isn’t necessarily about research; it’s more about mundane discovery brought upon by connections made through research.
You Don’t Know, What You Don’t Know
“I don’t know what to tell you. . ..” I’ve used this statement many times over the past two years since I began work at Empire Custom Homes. It’s my response to comments made by Kevin Mullen, the owner of Empire, regarding his reaction to my presence in any space he and I occupy simultaneously. You see, Kevin suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). I know and understand this. We’re all aware at our place of work, and we all abide by Kevin’s request not to wear any scented products in the office. I get it, and I practice it. And, more importantly I’ve spent the last 1.5 years researching this issue and developing a program at Empire, the Reside Healthy Standard, which lays out a process to build healthier homes by reducing toxins (chemicals) in materials through research and selection, and constructing homes that improve human health and wellbeing. If anyone at Empire is aware of the negative effects of chemicals on Kevin, it’s me! But all this knowledge and effort hasn’t stopped Kevin from commenting on my presence exacerbating his condition, and my response, “I don’t know what to tell you. . ..” But a funny thing happened on the way to the office the other day. Well not the “office”, but one of our show homes that I work out of one day a week (Thursdays).
Is It Me?
At the show home we monitor the air which helps inform the Reside program. Among several measurements the monitors track, VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, is of most importance to my research and the Reside program. After a month of monitoring I noticed on Thursdays, the day I’m working in the show home, total VOCs spiked dramatically. On all other days of the week when my colleague is working there, VOC readings remained low—even on days when a lot traffic came through the show home. And not only were the Thursday readings high, they were triple the norm. You can see the spikes in the chart below. So, Kevin was right, it is me!
That Ah-Ha Moment!
I still didn’t know what to tell him, but then the other day a whiff of chlorine in a coat closet at home led me to an ah-ha moment!
We have a hot tub at home and store the chemicals for it in the same closet where I hang my jackets—the ones I wear daily in and out of the office. When I opened the closet recently, I noticed the smell of chlorine (a VOC). I didn’t pay attention as it’s a smell that’s always been there. Never questioned it. Didn’t have to. But the Reside research I was doing at the time was about chlorinated chemicals used in many home finishing and household cleaning products. Bam—a connection. In my research I learned that products with chlorine, even trace amounts, can seriously affect persons with MCS. Another connection. So, are these connections real? Well the fact that I always wear one of my jackets at the office and show home (connection); having eliminated all other personal care product possibilities (connection); possess verifiable data—the VOC readings above (connection), and discovering that chlorine and many other chemicals are absorbed by clothing and can linger even after washing (connection); I felt there were too many connections to ignore.
Can I draw a straight line from the chlorine in my closet to Kevin’s reaction in my presence? The connections are too numerous and not to mention, reasonable.
What this story highlights is there are innumerable, ubiquitous chemicals surrounding our lives that can and do have an impact, we just don’t realize it until something goes awry and we are forced to connect the dots. It also shows how something so remote and mundane—hot tub chemicals in a closet—can have such a pronounced, lingering affect.
Now we’ve come full circle: the research into Reside has created a connection to a challenge Kevin faces which is the reason for Reside in the first place—design and build homes that are less toxic, have a smaller chemical footprint, and are less harmful to human health. I believe this chlorine—closet—my jacket connection, is real. The research and unintended real-life experiment are evidence of this connection.
So, the chlorine is now in a cabinet in the garage. My jackets will be washed, and monitoring will continue at the show home. I’ll let you know in a month if my ‘a-ha’ moment and theory proves true. Either way, I think I now know what to tell Kevin!