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May 20th, 2008
By André Fauteux

They are soft, cozy, colourful, warm, and comfortable; they dress our interior decors marvellously well, but they can reveal themselves to be very noxious to our health.  Carpeting is a choice receptacle for all sorts of pollutants, and even cleaning them can be noxious.  Here are some of the reasons.

The 20% of Canadians suffering from a pulmonary illness are certainly more aware than others on the question:  carpeting, rugs and other similar floor coverings, as with upholstering materials, are collectors of dust and other allergen carrying micro organisms, not to mention irritating chemical emanations.

According to Don Fugler, main researcher at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the quantity of dust removed from carpeting is many times superior to that of a hard floor.  And, if a broom can remove up to 95% of undesirable particles on a hard floor, passing the vacuum only removes, on average, 40% of dust on carpeting.  “In fact, there are three types of elements which lodge in carpets and are real sponges.” Explains the researcher: “They can be of a biological nature (skin, hair, food, mites…) or mineral (earth, sand, lead…) or even chemical which notably comes from materials used during construction, particularly paint vapours.

To limit this interior pollution it is recommended, among other things, to remove shoes before entering the house, to vacuum carpets more than once a week, and to cover carpeting and furniture well during renovations.

So much for the ABC’s of regular maintenance.  But the choice of having carpeting at home also has its risks when it comes to deeper cleaning.  The two principal ones are mould and chemical products.

Give me Air!

The number one rule when comes time for cleaning is to take advantage of the best possible ventilation to allow for evacuation of toxic emanations of certain cleaning products, and a faster drying if we use liquid products.  We should therefore choose a warm and dry period for this type of household activity because the danger of carpeting which stays humid too long resides in the formation of microscopic mushrooms known as mould.  The 270 recognized species in Canadian homes all have the particularity of releasing chemical substances and spores which, according to Don Fugler, may have “at best, negligible effects on our health, or at worst, cause allergies and serious illnesses.”  Other than persons already suffering from respiratory troubles, individuals having a weak immune system are at risk, as are pregnant women, children and older persons as well.  Also, knowing that certain moulds are invisible, we will work harder to dry our carpeting and we will privilege rugs and carpets which we can take outside to fresh air, rather than carpeting and other unmoveable floor coverings.  Another good reason for proceeding with cleaning carpeting in a well ventilated environment: the chemical agents contained in certain cleaning products.  Other than pesticides, whose noxious effects we need not be reminded of, stain removers and protectors are the most dangerous because they often contain chemical solvents which give off toxic emanations.  And to complete the difficulty chart, the composition of synthetic carpeting poses a problem due to substances contained in certain glues and various treatments administered at the time of manufacture (fungicide, pesticide, waterproofing, stain repellents and colour fixatives) can be activated by chlorine contained in cleaning water or in reaction to other products.  In passing it is interesting to note that many carpets contain volatile organic elements (VOE), such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, who have the sad characteristic of releasing gas and vapours up to five years after installation, and solidify before re-depositing themselves on any surface of the house.  Some of these are cancer-causing; others affect the nervous and endocrinal systems.

We can then understand very well that the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) would sanction the acquisition of coverings in non-treated natural fibres and suggests asking the manufacturer of your future carpeting to air it out for three days before delivery and to leave our windows open for at least the same amount of time after installation.

Gray Zones

On the CMHC Internet site, many articles relate to perfluorooctyle sulfonate (PFOS), a substance appreciated for its hydrophobal and lipophobal properties, which is to repel water and oils.  PFOS was the main ingredient in the Scotchgard® line of products, manufactured by 3M Corporation and distributed for 40 years before being removed this year from the ingredients of these products.  Long thought totally inoffensive, PFOS has revealed itself to be a persistent organic pollutant (POP) of which traces have been found almost everywhere in the animal world, including humans, whose body takes an average of four years to be able to totally eliminate (the highest concentrations were found in children).

Illnesses attributable to PFOS are numerous; according to the Environmental Working Group, an ecological research group based in Washington, these are various irritations (eyes, nose, lungs), headaches, fatigue, nausea… We haven’t yet studied the cancerous effects in humans, but according to the conclusions of the most recent studies, doses measured in children and adults are sometimes even higher than those causing cellular, thyroidal and reproductive disturbances as well as malformations and cancers of the pancreas, breast, testicles, prostate and liver in laboratory animals.  For its part, the Cooperation and Economic Development Organization (CEDC is an international organization grouping together thirty or so countries, including Canada) are even studying the possibility of the occurrence of PFOS in the development of bladder cancers, but research has barely begun and we are still incapable of measuring the real effects of this substance on the environment and the human being.
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March 19th, 2008
By Morris Charney

For most people, discussions on energy efficiency are academic.  They only seriously think about it when paying their heating bills, when it is too late.

It’s during winter that energy inefficiency is most obvious.  In fact, the enormous icicles and ice barrages that accumulate on roofs are flagrant proof of heat loss and an inefficient use of energy.  I am always surprised to hear intelligent people say that this is typically normal for our Quebec winters – just like apple pie is American.  What nonsense!

At the beginning of winter, heat loss through the eaves or the attic keeps the roof surface warm.  As snow starts to accumulate, it stays, even on slanted roofs.  After awhile, snow becomes the insulation and traps the air. The colder it gets, the more we heat the house and the more heat we lose, the more the eaves and roof surface warm up.

Monster Icicles

One day, the roof surface temperature reaches 0 degrees Celsius and the snow next to it softens and melts.  This melting snow transforms into water which slides down towards the edges.  As water accumulates at the roof edges and rain gutters, the water freezes as it contacts outside air which is colder than the roof surface.  Over time, the result is the formation of spectacular icicles – some reach one storey and more!  The greater the heat loss is, the greater the thickness of the ice barrages behind the icicles and the greater the length of the icicles.

When there’s a major thaw and rain with temperatures reaching at least +6 degrees Celsius, even in the Laurentians, infiltrations begin.  Frequently though, these do not come from the roof as such, they occur horizontally, from the edges.

In fact, the weight of the accumulated ice in the gutters opens up a joint on the edge of the roof, on the ledge or in the soffit, and the water leaking under the accumulated snow and ice in the roof penetrates to the ceilings.  To the greatest surprise of homeowners, even when ceilings have a slight slope, infiltrations can manifest themselves a good distance from the exterior wall.

It’s Raining in my Bed

To my greatest disappointment, this is what my family lived through at the summer cottage of my in-laws in the Laurentians, following a successful surprise party given for André Fauteux, editor of La maison du 21ième siècle.  Water started dripping from the ceiling onto our beds in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately in such cases many homeowners mistakenly blame their roof while the origin of the problem is the house’s heat loss.

Roofers are called in by panicking homeowners, and repairs are scheduled, even if no one has determined what the real cause of the problem is.  Redoing a roof when it is not necessary is a very costly additional energy loss.

Certain customers have told me that they have had their roof completely redone two or three times in 10 years but the problem has not disappeared.  This is outright robbery by the roofers!

In fact, as unbelievable as it may seem, many Montreal eaves contain only from 0 to 4 inches of insulation.  (Note:  It is generally more advantageous to install from 12 to 14 inches for a thermal resistance of R-42 to R-49, if cellulose is used, it being the most economical insulation for attics.)
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November 15th, 2007
By André Fauteux

The Canadian Council of Environment Ministers has planned for 2005 a national ban of the sale of non-certified wood-burning appliances for their weak particle emissions.  Specialists and consumers alike have been demanding a ban since 1990.  But there is a snag :  the ministries’ lawyers discovered too late that the present laws do not give this power to the legislator.  << We will propose an amendment to the Protection of the Environment law from now to the end of the year, but it could take four or five years before it comes into effect >> Alain Gosselin, team leader for Atmospheric Stakes for Québec at Environment Canada.  << I’m a bit discouraged when I talk about it. >>  In 1990, the United States imposed certified EPA 1990 wood stoves and fireplaces, which emit only 2 to 4 grams of particles per hour compared to 30-40 gr. /hr for conventional models.  These appliances cost around $300 more but their more complete combustion reduces the amount of wood burned.  British Columbia is the only province to do the same, by imposing an equivalent Canadian norm, CSA B415.

 In 2000, a committee of experts recommended Environnement Québec follow suit, but changing the law keeps being delayed.  << It is always a priority and we will attempt to act more rapidly (than Ottawa) while harmonizing with the Federal, >> says the chief of service of Atmospheric Quality at Environnement Québec, Raynald Brulotte.  << We must satisfy the new Canadian standard for fine particles, which will be applicable in 2010>>.

But, for the assistant deputy-minister of the same ministry, this is not a high priority. << This would not have such a conclusive effect on the environment >>, said Pierre Baril in a telephone interview.  << The regulatory approach is not always the method which has the most impact.  We prefer a combination of education and economic incentives.>>  Decision which was denounced by Dr. Louis Drouin, responsible for environmental health at Montréal-Center Public Health Center.  << I am surprised and deceived that Québec doesn’t act more rapidly, taking into account that we surpass the Canadian standards for breathable particles in the air about 15% of the time in winter.  For us Montrealers, this is a priority.>>

Effects on Health

As well as emitting cancer-causing pollutants in exterior air and often also in homes, according to Environment Canada, residential heating with wood generates half the fine particles coming from human activities, even more than all transport sectors.  As they penetrate deeply into the lungs, this invisible dust can provoque asthma attacks, cardiac problems and depress the immune system.

<< We do not encourage combustion with wood and we downright discourage it in urban and suburban centers as houses there are closer together >>, explains Alain Gosselin.

He wishes that people will heat in a more responsible manner, for example by burning only very dry wood.  Moreover, he hopes that all elected council officials imitate their American colleagues, who impose casting out old wood-burning stoves when a house is sold, or those of certain cities in British Columbia who forbid use of a non-certified appliance during smoggy winter days.

 



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