Introduction to House Hunting for your Healthy Home
I’ve written a long draft on the topic of house hunting for your healthy home. If you’d like a copy, just email me – firstname.lastname@example.org. Here, though, I want to give you a few simple and basic principles of what to look for if you’re in the market for a purchase or rental and want to reduce your risk of mold or an issue from electromagnetic fields. First, I’m going to address the issues that you can’t change after moving in. These issues relate to climate change, nuclear power plants, and electromagnetic fields issues.
Avoid houses by the shore
…and in low-lying areas. Ice is melting faster than any computer models suggest, and no one knows how much the sea level could go up by the end of the century. It could be considerable. As one political commentator/comedian pointed out, the public gets misled by these TV debates where one person believing in global warming debates one climate change denier. What would be more realistic and truer would be for 97 scientists to debate 3 climate change deniers. The evidence is in. There is no question. It is too late to turn back the melting ice. Buy a house in-land and with the money you save, rent a place at the shore for your summer vacation.
Am I wrong in saying this? Remember, I’m sitting in the audience on the side with the 97 scientists, not with the 3 climate change deniers. My grandparents had property on the ocean, south shore of Long Island, NY. In the hurricane of 1939, that property went underwater. They paid taxes for some years but eventually gave up. The property never emerged.
For John Oliver’s performance, go to
Avoid exposure to radiation from nuclear plants
Stay 15 miles or more from a nuclear power plant. For more information on this subject, review the website, www.radiationandpublichealth.org. Of course, none of us can avoid this radiation completely, as it travels around the world, but at least we can avoid cozying up to it, especially being down-wind of it.
Avoid elevated AC magnetic fields from powerlines
Some neighborhoods, especially older city row house neighborhoods, or older neighborhoods with houses close together, have issues with elevated AC magnetic fields from powerlines (more correctly known as “neighborhood distribution lines”).
This is easy to figure out. Get yourself a gaussmeter (rhymes with “house”) online. One supplier is www.lessemf.com. You can get one for under $30. The less expensive gaussmeters have to be rotated where you are measuring to find the direction of highest reading. A more expensive gaussmeter, known as a triaxial gaussmeter, does the rotating for you, so you just read the number.
Try to get a gaussmeter that gives you a number, rather than a series of indicator lights. Sometimes with an inexpensive gaussmeter, the first light goes on at 2.5 mG (milligauss), but that isn’t sensitive enough for our purposes. You want to be able to get a reading below 1 mG.
The more conservative scientists prefer levels of 1 mG or lower for prolonged exposure. Click here for a literature review of health effects linked with elevated exposures. ALARA is a rule-of-thumb guideline. ALARA stands for “as low as reasonably achievable.” The only safe number is zero, so we get as close as we can.
Once you have your gaussmeter, familiarize yourself with it. Use it around appliances such as hair dryers and electric stoves. If there are 2 scales, make sure you don’t confuse one with the other. You might turn down a house that is good, or approve one that has elevated AC magnetic fields.
At the house, locate the neighborhood distribution lines. If they are across the street, that’s good, because your house is farther away. Stand under them (or over them, if they are buried). Take a measurement. Walk toward the house and take a measurement at the front wall (or rear wall if the lines are in the back of the house). What number do you get?
Tip: Don’t measure near the electric box, because that is always elevated due to the motor. Don’t measure above the incoming water pipe, because that could give off magnetic fields, and don’t measure under the incoming electric line, because that could give off elevated magnetic fields. If you’re kind of stuck for where you can measure, go to a place in the yard that is parallel with the front of the house and take a measurement there.
Tip: You are really trying to measure the AC magnetic fields that would be present on the plot of land the house sits on at a given distance from the neighborhood distribution lines. It’s ok to measure in the yard, at a spot equidistant to the neighborhood distribution lines with the front of the house. Get your number. Next, get a measurement in the yard equidistant with the back wall of the house (or measure at the back wall of the house).
Let’s say that the neighborhood distribution lines measured 6 mG (milligauss) right under them, and 2 mG at the front wall of the house. The back wall measured 1 mG. The farther away you get, the lower the AC magnetic fields are from the neighborhood distribution lines.
Do you see how to interpret these numbers? If we are considering 1 mG or lower our target number, here’s what we know from these numbers:
- The front yard will be higher than 2 mG, maybe close to 6 mG as you get closer to the street.
- The interior of the house will drop from 2 mG at the front wall to 1 mG at the back wall. No place will be lower than 1 mG. In the summertime, when neighborhood electric usage is higher, these numbers may be somewhat higher. While these readings aren’t too bad, more cautious folk would probably pass on this house.
- The backyard – maybe a child’s play area – should be below 1 mG.
Want to try another example?
In this example, the AC magnetic fields under the neighborhood electric lines are 2 mG. The area of the yard on a parallel line with the front wall is 0.5 mG, and the spot in the yard on a parallel line with the rear wall is 0.1 mG. In this example, you know that:
- The front yard will be between 0.5 mG and 2 mG, as you get closer to the neighborhood distribution lines.
- Inside the house, AC magnetic fields will fall from 0.5 mG at the front wall to 0.1 mG at the rear wall.
- The backyard will be under 0.1 mG.
This would be a fine house, from the standpoint of AC magnetic fields related to the neighborhood distribution lines.
Let’s do one more example, with numbers from an actual house where my client had breast cancer. After she and her husband saw the numbers, they decided to put the house on the market. In this case, the neighborhood distribution lines were in the backyard.
Under the lines, the measurement read 20 mG. At the rear wall of the house, readings were 14 mG. At the front wall, they were 9 mG. This is what we know:
- The backyard is between 14 and 20 mG – way too high.
- Inside the house, the AC magnetic fields range from 14 mG at the rear wall to 9 mG at the front wall. There is no place in the house that is lower than 9 mG — and our target is 1 mG!
- The front yard drops off from 9 mG.
This house cannot be made healthy. There is literally no practical way to shield from these AC magnetic fields, because they go through almost everything and emanate from the wires in concentric circles. That is, even if you could put a metal shield over the back wall of your home, the fields would go right around the metal shield.
The take-home lesson is to buy a gaussmeter and screen every apartment or home you are considering. This is one mistake that you will not be able to correct. Weed out houses before you get involved in paying inspector fees or getting your heart set on a particular house. Almost all other issues you can deal with later, but not this one. If you buy a house with high AC magnetic fields, you are stuck with it.
Of course, avoid proximity to cross-country power lines.
Avoid cell towers
Be cognizant of radiation from the outside as you are house hunting for your healthy home. Granted, you don’t have control over where cell towers are placed. Two clients built their dream house, only to have the church next door rent out its bell tower to a cellular company for an antenna. They and neighbors fought it the best they could but lost. These clients put their house on the market, with full disclosure about why they were selling. It took a year to sell it, but eventually some buyers came along who didn’t believe all that stuff about cell towers.
Try to keep your distance from cell towers, radio/TV antennas, and airports. In the summer, tree leaves will help shield from this radiation to some extent. Houses with brick, stone, or stucco siding offer better shielding than wood frame houses – but windows are mostly the entry areas.
Avoid houses in heavily trafficked areas
From lead to suspended microparticles from vehicle exhaust… air is better away from traffic. You need a good source of fresh air, if at all possible.
Avoid moldy homes
Here are some simple guidelines for reducing the risk that you will buy or rent a moldy home as you are house hunting for a healthy home:
- Watch where rainwater would flow. If it heads toward the house, beware. Ask if any steps have been taken to intercept the water. One client called me some months later, after I had called out on rainwater heading toward the back wall of a house (with dampness confirmed with a moisture meter at the lower part of drywall). He wanted to thank me and let me know that he had a relative in the area who told him that the house had been flooded in recent heavy rains. This stuff isn’t rocket science. It’s mostly commonsense, with a trained eye.
- Avoid damp areas – by streams, wooded areas, houses surrounded with vegetation, low-land areas, next to wetlands, in valleys surrounded by mountains, etc.
- Avoid finished below-grade spaces, unless the house is in a desert. This includes finished basements and split and bi-level houses, where part of walls are below-grade.
- Be careful with new stucco homes. Many installers did not observe all the recommended steps, and water leaked in. There are many EIFS lawsuits noted on-line. Replacement of stucco is expensive. Find an inspector certified for EIFS/stucco inspections. EIFS stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System.
- Be careful with brick homes, especially at lower cost homes. If water seeps into the brick with every rainfall, Stachybotrys could be growing on wood sheathing, under the drywall. No mold inspector would likely be able to pick up on that, unless a moisture meter registers moisture at drywall. Brick requires periodic sealing. Throw some water against the brick. The water should pill and run off, not soak in.
- Be careful with neglected houses, especially if walls are drywall. Drywall supports mold growth, plaster for the most part does not. You can often tell the difference by rapping on the wall. With drywall, there is a hollow sound, while rapping on plaster is like rapping on stone.
- If a house smells musty, there is mold growth somewhere. It needs to be found before you can figure out how to clean it up.
- Check the type of filter on the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system. If it’s a cheap fiberglass filter (or even a neglected electronic or electrostatic filter), and if ductwork is flexduct, you may be looking at replacement of the ductwork.
Knowing about mold can work to your favor, too. Two clients got a good deal on a house because other buyers were passing it by after seeing black mold on the plaster ceiling of the kitchen. All the clients had to do was to have the paint wiped off and then scraped off the ceiling and the leak fixed from above, with encapsulation of wood that had gotten wet. It wasn’t a major issue, but other buyers didn’t know that. They acted like black mold had condemned the house – not at all.
House hunting – miscellaneous items
These may not be so “miscellaneous” if you buy a house with them. I don’t have to tell you that there is always something else that can go wrong, and even with all the inspectors you can muster, you still cannot achieve a 100% guarantee that there will be no unpleasant surprises. It doesn’t hurt to have some good luck, too.
- Check out the surroundings – avoid being near sand pits, compost centers, busy fire stations (noise), stop signs, toxic waste sites. Do a google search for “how to find toxic waste sites.” The first selection takes you to the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and you can put in a zip code to see what’s around.
- Be attuned to noise pollution. Noise, too, is an environmental stressor. I wish a policeman were sitting at my corner, to tag the guys coming by with their loud motorcycles. Nearby barking dogs can be even more annoying.
- Be attuned to the neighbors. Is there a pesticide fanatic next door? You could at least get your name on a pesticide notification registry, so you know when to close your windows – check with your physician or health department.
- Is the area aerial-sprayed for the mosquito carrying the West Nile virus? Is that a concern for you?
- Be attuned to ticks. Stay away from woods as much as you can. See the section on Ticks in the Topics A to Z section.
- Be cautious about fixer-uppers. A neglected house could have all sorts of hidden issues, beyond what you see.
- Be cautious about crawlspaces and attics that aren’t accessible. What if they are moldy?
My best wishes for your house hunting for a healthy home! These are some of the highlights of healthy home selection – but the list of what else can be significant is long, and, even if I tried (which I did, in my longer piece mentioned above), there is always something else to be added. Don’t skimp on professional inspections, including, if there is any question, a licensed electrician, licensed plumber, licensed roofer….
I used to own a pre-purchase inspection franchise, and when one of the guys was buying a house, he’d hire another of our inspectors to check it for him. He knew that he was emotionally biased and didn’t want to miss anything. Buying a home is not a time for Uncle Louie to check the house out for you, as well-meaning as Uncle Louie might be.
Next, there are multiple issues with finishing a basement, so click here if you’d like a run-down, or go to the next tab under this House Hunt section.