Small Homes

Fighting Chemical Sensitivities with Small Houses

From the wide array of tiny house discussion lists and blogs I frequent, I like to think I’m familiar with at least some of the more common reasons people find tiny homes appealing—an opportunity to live more simply, a low-cost housing option, a way to have less negative impact on the planet, etc. Today, however, I read about a reason I’d never encountered before—Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

MCS is a chronic condition in which sufferers have anywhere from mild to life-threateningly extreme reactions in response to low levels of chemical exposure. Common triggers can include substance such as: pesticides, secondhand smoke, fresh paint, scented products, formaldehyde, cleaning compounds, and many others.

Just to give you a sense of the scale of the problem, the MCS America website reports that over 1 million Canadians are incapacitated by MCS. And, unfortunately, current disability laws both inside and outside the United State do not currently cover MCS in terms of either protection or services.

I had heard of MCS before, but it had never occurred to me what the impact would be for individuals with the condition in terms of trying to find viable housing

“When one develops MCS… and needs to find a safer place to live, there is no organized help,” reports MCS America. “There are no registries of safer places, no agents who know what to look for, few landlords who understand that even a small repair or touch up with problem materials could result in months of ill health. Rare are the places with safe tenants (who don’t pollute the air) or buildings with safe maintenance plans. Too many people become very ill searching for a safe home, as each subsequent exposure adds to a cumulative toxic load. Many become homeless, and more than a few commit suicide as a direct result of not having access to safe housing.”

After fourteen moves in fourteen years, the were driven out of their final rental home by the unannounced spraying of pesticides immediately outside their front door. They spent the next six months living out of their Subaru Forester, Scout. Thankfully, they have subsequently found temporary housing with friends in Washington state while they work on their more permanent solution… a nearly chemical-free tiny home of their own design, crafted in the shape of a Gypsy vardo.

According to a study headed by the CMHC, 86% of people with Environmental Sensitivities improved significantly after access to safe housing.

Building a tiny home is either within the current skill setor can become with some educationof most reasonably able-bodied individuals. Tiny homes also tend to be lower cost (overall not by square foot) than more traditional homes, which may be a significant concern to individuals with a condition that limits their ability to function in the traditional work sector.

By designing and building their own homes, sufferers of MCS can select materials that are safe for them. (For example Salizar and Little are using denim-based insulation, white oak, milk paint, and a beeswax finish.) They can incorporate items which make day-to-day living much more comfortable: such as Hepa air filters, tightly sealing windows and doors, and appliances such as washer/dryers that have not been compromised with fragranced laundry soap or dryer sheets. (Quick aside: I just looked up the list of chemicals in a standard laundry sheet and it scared me enough to take the last couple of sheets in my box immediately out to the trash and bury them UNDER the used kitty litter, which with my cat is a frightening toxic substance all of its own.)

Moreover, self-building takes times which gives the builders exposure time with any of the products going into their house as an added check of what they can and cannot tolerate. And necessary changes can be made midstream in the project much easier than working with a regular builder. Salizar discovered she had a reaction to their initial choice in insulation, which sent her back to the drawing board. In the case of a tiny home, changes such as these are much less cost-prohibitive than they would be in a larger structure. Additionally, if a tiny, chemical-free home is built on wheels, it allows the MCS sufferer to relocate should something change in their surrounding environment making their current location unliveable.

Both of the blogs are extremely well written and thought-provoking. I recommend taking the time to check them out and to follow their ongoing story of tiny house living.