Eighteen months of jousting with health-impairing vapors given off by common construction materials, new furniture and cabinetry has been a nightmare for a Durango family.
It was a week or so before Christmas 2007, and 14-year-old Melanie Harper was looking forward to a holiday in Florida with her family when she was struck by headaches, diarrhea and nausea.
"It came on very quickly and seemed like a routine cold," Melanie's father, Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said in an interview last week. "But there was no way we weren't going on vacation."
Upon returning to Durango, however, Melanie's symptoms became more severe, and she began to have bouts of migraines and blurred vision, he said.
The family visited doctors, including two trips to the University of California hospital in Irvine. They also consulted acupuncturists, practitioners of Eastern medicine and homeopathic and holistic healers, Harper said. Blood tests, spinal taps and brain scans produced no definitive answers.
"By that time, she had missed a couple of months of school," Harper said. "She tried to attend class but couldn't get through the day."
About that time, Harper mentioned Melanie's litany of ailments to a homebuilder friend with 30 years in the industry.
"Immediately he said: 'It sounds like VOC (volatile organic compound) poisoning, probably formaldehyde,'" Har-per said. "He told me to go back six months and list the changes in our home environment that Melanie could have encountered."
"In November 2007, we had refurnished Melanie's bedroom with a new bed, dresser and mirror, desk, computer stand and carpet," Harper said. "It was all imported from off-shore and was loaded with formaldehyde. We didn't know it, but we had unintentionally contributed to Melanie's condition when we made her stay in bed when she couldn't go to school."
The Harpers aren't alone. Vapor emissions from a range of products used in construction and home furnishings have tarnished the image of many a dream home as well as impaired the health of the occupants.
The release of formaldehyde and other irritants from drywall, furniture and carpeting has gained national attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated complaints about respiratory problems from New Orleans residents who were housed in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Then in January, builders and homeowners in Florida alleged that sulfur-based fumes from drywall imported from China was causing health problems and corroding copper wiring. Since then, similar incidents involving the same imported drywall have been reported in a dozen other states.
"Indoor air without ventilation is prone to a buildup of vapors," said Mike Meschke, director of environmental health at the San Juan Basin Health Department. "I can see a brand-new bedroom set causing problems."
In the United States, some furniture manufacturers are moving away from VOC-based furniture finishes toward water-based finishes, but they are more expensive, Meschke said.
"Overall, a combination of vapor emissions can bring exposure to a cocktail of problems," Meschke said.
The medical community's official diagnosis of Melanie's condition cited "undetermined causes," Harper said. But environmental specialists detected the presence of formaldehyde in several areas of the family residence, he said.
The Harpers went through the house with a fine-toothed comb looking for anything that harbored formaldehyde or other irritants. As a result, they got rid of Melanie's bedroom furnishings, repainted the entire house, replaced carpets in Melanie's bedroom with bamboo floors and swapped in-floor heating for a system that changes the air four times an hour.
Melanie is showing some improvement. She still isn't back in school but hopes to return to campus in the fall. For the time being, she is home-schooled.
"This ordeal has been very stressful and taken away the sense of home in our house," Harper said. "I'll do whatever it takes to find a solution."