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Seeking a Cure for the Sick Home

Mary Cordaro is among a new breed of eco-savvy consultants who specialize in taming the allergens that can be hiding all over the house.


Mary Cordaro's 1950s ranch house fits snugly into its Sherman Oaks neighborhood, a pleasant three-bedroom yellow stucco with gray trim and a large camphor tree shading the frontyard.

Nothing outwardly sets it apart from the other houses on the block, but looks are deceiving.

This is a radical house. It's a mold-free, mildew-free, dust-mite-free, lead-free laboratory for healthy living, with air so pure and ducts and filters so clean that a visitor who comes in wheezing with allergies feels better immediately.

It's a work in progress for the soft-spoken Cordaro, 46, a dogged reformer who has spent the last 10 years fine-tuning an environmental-consultant career she backed into while seeking help for her allergies.

Since she and her husband, screenwriter Scott Davis-Jones, bought the house in 1990, she has painstakingly converted it to a model of a healthy home. Along the way, she has developed an inventory of natural furnishings, paints and building products to help her clients deal with allergies and chemical sensitivities triggered by indoor pollution.

"The point is to get [the home] as tuned to nature as possible," she says of her showcase house. "Your house should be a healing environment."

Cordaro is one of a new breed of designers who look at a house, in her words, "as a living organism with interrelated parts, not just a structure to decorate and fill with furniture."

Matt Freeman-Gleason, owner of Environmental Home Center in Seattle, a major supplier of natural building materials, says the number of environmental consultants nationwide is starting to grow. "Mary has been an early adapter," he said. "She has a really clear contextual understanding of environment, design and material and how to put them together. She knows a lot."

Environmental consultants are on the cutting edge of a healthy-home movement that continues to grow as more Americans fall prey to "sick building syndrome," which was once viewed largely as a workplace problem.

We are discovering that the American home, which should protect us from the stressful world, is not always a haven. Instead, from roof to basement, a home can be an alarming mix of fumes from paint and dozens of other chemical products, carpeting, vinyl, pressed wood, mold and mildew, along with contaminants such as dust and other microscopic particles, often tightly sealed up in the name of energy efficiency. "Think of it as a toxic soup," says Mary Ellen Fise of the Washington D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America, which has targeted indoor air as a priority issue.

The culprits are not only the plastics, glues and petrochemicals in building materials, but the luxury carpet, the designer wallpaper and the very sheets and comforters we sleep in. Such materials can generate unhealthy gases, molds and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor pollution levels can be anywhere from two to 100 times higher than those found outdoors, as residences are increasingly closed up for air-conditioning.

For some people that's not a problem, but for others, the house they live in is literally making them sick. The American Lung Assn. puts allergy sufferers at 40-plus million, a rise of almost 15 million since 1995. Cordaro, whose Integrated Environmental Solutions takes a team approach to solving allergy problems, thinks a full-scale homeowner education effort is in order.

"My clients are a lot of desperate people, and by the time they call me when they are sick with allergies, it's almost always too late. The new coat of paint or the adhesives in the framing or whatever is making them sick is already up."

She can identify. Growing up in Inglewood in the smoggy 1950s, she remembers that her "lungs hurt all the time."

Nobody made the connection with pollution, but her childhood allergies increased during her college years (El Camino College, UC Santa Barbara and graduate school at San Franciso State). By her late 20s, Cordaro "really felt rotten all over," with asthma, fatigue and vertigo. "I was taking too many antibiotics, so I started trying holistic alternatives." A determined student, she learned about diet and health, then airborne allergens and other irritants, and began to make the environment-illness connection.

"I learned how dust in carpets can affect you, how water condenses under wallpaper, all of the basics. I got my feet wet."

When she and her husband (a non-sufferer) bought their house, it was a chance to change her environment. She slowly began renovating, combining everything from the ancient art of feng shui to recent advances in the building sciences.

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