When Angela Hobbs moved into a newly renovated home with her husband and two boys, she thought the ‘new house smell’ was lovely.
By the end of the first week, the smell had turned caustic. Hobbs became disoriented and forgetful. “By the end of the third month,” she recalls, “I had even forgot to pick up the children from school.”
Once an energetic, organized mother, Hobbs describes how her dream house went to shambles in The Sick House Survival Guide (New Society $27.95). “The Martha Stewart in me was definitely out to lunch. I was living in a pigsty: the laundry hamper was overflowing, the kitchen was littered with dirty dishes, the beds hadn’t seen clean sheets in over a month… not even a mouse could have found supper in my fridge.”
Hobbs and her husband bought rubberized curtains to keep out drafts. “By the time the curtains were up,” she says, “I was dizzy and by morning, I was positively heaving.” Convinced the curtains were the culprit, she took them down—much to her husband’s annoyance. “Curtains don’t make you sick,” he said. He made her promise to see a doctor.
The doctor told Hobbs she was in fine health, and that her dizziness was caused by anxiety. She fought disorientation and forgetfulness by focusing on specific tasks. Her life revolved around checklists. “I accomplished very little and still managed to forget to collect the boys from school at least a couple of times a week.”
Hobbs could no longer ignore the odor in her house. “It would linger at the back of my throat with pungency, like the smell of the skunks that my dog had chased in Quebec.”
The offenders were the wood floors in the bedrooms. Washing the floors had little impact, so she covered them with blankets. “Initially the smell would be contained, but after a few hours the blankets would be saturated.” She went one step further. “I rented a huge industrial extractor fan and set it up in the basement. I attached a long cardboard tube so that it blew any indoor air right out of the basement window.”
She had her first taste of relief. Within half-an-hour, she was able to think clearly and function normally. By evening, the smell was back and she was back to being dysfunctional.
In her battle against the floors, she was losing. She developed jaw pains and started losing her balance. The kids got bronchitis, and were on antibiotics for three weeks. They developed diarrhea. With the washer and dryer going full-tilt, Hobbs got her first ‘head-swelling.’ “The excruciating pressure continued to build until I thought I’d scream, and then, just as suddenly as it had begun, I felt a pop and the eeriest sensation of water trickling down my spine.”
When she developed a ‘clicking’ in her jaw, she went to the dentist. “She advised me I had Temporal-Mandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ) and would need an operation to file down the bone that was causing the clicking and clunking.”
Hobbs blacked-out in the supermarket, experienced nightly seizures that caused her arm to ‘shrivel up and turn purple,’ and vomited daily. “I sweated profusely at night, so much so that I would have to change my bed at least twice a night.”
Still, doctors could find nothing wrong with her. They recommended tranquilizers, or a psychiatrist. In desperation, she called her mother and father. They drove twelve hours and arrived at eleven o’clock that night. They listened carefully as she explained her theory: her house was making her sick. They told Hobbs and her husband to take a walk “When we returned, Mum and Dad had taken over. They greeted us at the door and handed me my toothbrush, pajamas, and a change of clothes… I was to go stay at a motel.”
The next morning, she woke in the motel and felt relief. “For the first time in a month, I was neither dizzy nor nauseous as I got out of bed. I could stand up straight in the shower and took great pleasure in the warm water streaming over my body.”
Complete with an index, worksheets and recommended reading, The Sick House Survival Guide has tips on how to reduce food, water and air chemicals and has a section on reducing electromagnetic fields. 0-86571-485-1
[Jeremy Twigg/ BCBW Winter 2003]