Appliances: Nothing to Sneeze At

  • William Kissel

When Harvard Medical School psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Martha Stark realized that she was allergic to pollen and grasses, she began studying the effects of environmental impurities on mental and physical health. "What I learned was that all of us, every day, are being bombarded by pollutants, most of them man-made, and reacting in some way or another," says Stark, who has now edited two books on the subject.

Three years ago, when a water pipe cracked in her Newton, Mass., home, Stark’s environmental research suddenly moved from the great outdoors to inside her own living space. Although Stark showed no signs of chemical sensitivity, the broken pipe and subsequent water damage led her to Water & Fire, a Newton-based, family-owned builder of custom European-style kitchens and baths, which, in response to the growing environmental health movement, has been experimenting with a brand of chemical-free, recycled wood cabinetry called Medit II.

"A few years ago, people with unexplained ailments were told that it was all in their heads when, in fact, we have discovered that it is their built environment—the outgassing of formaldehyde and other chemicals used in everything from flooring, paint, wallcovering, and compressed wood cabinetry—that is making them ill," says Judy Gamble, a kitchen designer at Water & Fire who worked with Stark. Most cabinetry, she says, is made of plywood or particleboard that uses formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to hold it together. Even if the off-gas odor goes undetected, chemically sensitive people will often experience varying degrees of illness.

Gamble began using Medit II while working at Rëdl, a Canadian firm that developed formaldehyde-free cabinetry. She then brought Medit II to the attention of Water & Fire. Because the cost is greater than typical wood cupboards (three times the price), and because it does not easily lend itself to heavily detailed or ornate designs, Medit II chemical-free cabinetry is included in only a fraction of the 40 upscale kitchens that Water & Fire builds each year. But the company expects that percentage to grow as consumers become more concerned about asbestos, radon, and molds. "This product is easy to live with," says Gamble. "And you won’t suffer any side effects after it has been installed."

Few Water & Fire clients have embraced the concept of a chemical-free kitchen as enthusiastically as Stark. Her kitchen includes gloss white pearl Medit II cabinetry, granite floors set with chemical-free thinset mortar, an Ionizer Plus filtration system for alkaline versus acidic water, UTP (unshielded twisted pair) wiring rather than Romex to neutralize the space’s electromagnetic fields, and Benjamin Moore’s Eco Spec low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. She even had the cellulose fiber wall insulation changed to Icynene foam to provide a more effective allergen barrier. You will not find a microwave oven, a gas stove, or florescent lighting, all of which can produce harmful side effects.

Stark says the six-digit price tag of her kitchen—$55,000 for the cabinetry alone—was well worth the health benefits. She also has a functional space that is visually compelling. That was important because, as she says, "some living spaces that are environmentally safe are so unattractive and poorly designed you’d rather die than live in them."

Water & Fire, 866.EUROBATH, www.waterandfire.com

Photo by Erhard Pfeiffer
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