What a Gas!

I slept sitting up Monday night, propped up by pillows. The sleep was not great, but it kept me from coughing my head off completely. I developed this dry, hacking cough a week ago on the heels of my new patio door install. At least the cough is dry during the night, in the morning I hack up (brace yourself, this is gross), great gobs of yellowish-brown phlegm.

I have a stinking suspicion that my “cold” is related to living on a construction site. The dust on my dining room table was thick and brownish after the install. Coincidence? Part of the finishing process includes applying a sealant called Tremco 830 to the interior door frame. I had been hearing about the smelly stuff from my neighbours who had already been through the process. They said it lingered for weeks. Apparently Tremco gets smellier as it cures, called outgassing. Sure enough, within a couple days, my place smelled like it had been doused in nail polish remover.

I decided to do a little investigating.  A little ahead of lunch break, I took some left over Easter ice cream cake down to the crew office and pumped the head construction guy for information. “So is it safe to sleep in that toxic stuff?” I asked. “It’s not toxic,” he assured me. “So I won’t get a brain tumour?” I asked. “Ha,” he said, “problem is, it won’t appear for 25 years.” “Well, I’ll come after you in 25 years if I do get one,” I said. He laughed, thinking I was kidding. The DQ treatment got me the name of the product.

According to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), at least two of the chemicals (xylene and ethyl benzene) in the sealant are acutely toxic when inhaled and are linked with cancer, birth defects, heart muscle sensitization and arrhythmia, hearing loss, brain, liver and kidney damage and central nervous system effects and well, there’s a very long list.

The MSDS warns workers to wear safety glasses, gloves and avoid contact with clothes and shoes. They should wear a respirator mask if they’re going to be exposed beyond recommended time limits. I sat on the couch watching the guy who applied it in my suite, he wore none of the protective gear, neither did I.

There is a stern warning about using the product only in well-ventilated areas and to provide maximum ventilation in enclosed areas. Use local exhaust when the general ventilation is inadequate. It also warns not to inhale the vapors.

My suite is 600 square feet, the patio door is my only window, so there is no cross-ventilation. I leave my door open as much as I can, but with the crew sawing, hammering and stirring up dust above, beside or below me on a daily basis, it is not always possible. On the MSDS I found exposure rates for rats and mice in parts per million up to six hours, but unless you are able to measure the amount in the air, it’s impossible to figure out safety levels for a human breathing it all day and all night.

A few days after the install was completed, my eyes began to burn. I was feeling light-headed and even tasted the chemicals in my food. The MSDS says Tremco may cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, and fatigue, moderate irritation to the respiratory system, temporary redness and discomfort to the eyes. Last week I started getting a sore throat, swollen glands and this damn cough.

I sent a note to the strata president and the owner of my suite expressing concern for the air quality, especially since we have quite a few seniors in the building. There was no response from the former and a “hope you feel better” response from the latter. Guess it’s every person for themselves when it comes to resident safety. Who is charged with this kind of environmental health, I wondered? Must be Vancouver Coastal Health.

I called their environmental health department, the air quality officer I talked to was empathetic, said the product was dangerous especially in a contained environment. He said he’d send someone over, but when the field officer called, he said there was nothing he could do, it was an approved product. He showed more concern for the workers who are working with it. “But they are outside, they applied it inside,” I explained. He asked me several times if they had applied it inside, as if he couldn’t quite believe it. I asked him if he could do any air quality tests. He said he didn’t have the equipment. I told him not to bother coming over. No need to piss off strata council if the guy couldn’t dig up better evidence than I had collected. (I have gathered my own phlegm and dust samples in baggies, very Harriet the Spy, but probably not useable.)

After coughing most of the night and sleeping very little, I woke up with a very bad headache yesterday, so bad I felt sick to my stomach. I rarely get headaches. I went to see my doctor. She found nothing that confirmed that this “cold” has been caused or aggravated by the on-going construction. If it persists though, she recommended I get a chest X-ray. I offered her my baggies, but she declined. Still my symptoms are on record now. The paper trail begun.

In my research, I also read that the vapor concentrations in enclosed areas may ignite explosively. Wow, good thing I didn’t blow up me and my dinner guest the other night when I struck a match to light candles. Although if given a choice, I’d rather go out in a blast than slow death by poison.

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