Friday, June 15, 2012

Toxic Shock Syndrome (Part II)

[You can read Part I of Toxic Shock Syndrome here.]

Right Lane, Cadman Plaza W. Left Lane, CRAZY LAND.

Photo credit: kelpenhagen
I love New York. For twelve years I have thrived on its unique energy, soaking up everything it has to offer – from its great restaurants and entertainment to its vibrant street life and colorful mosaic of characters. I even love the subway. Yep, I said it. I heart the MTA.

But when Henry was born, my relationship with the city changed. 

All of a sudden New York seemed incredibly loud and dirty and chaotic. Because it is all of those things and always has been. But I had swallowed the red pill and found myself suddenly floating in a fluid-filled sac, a big plug emerging ominously from my cervical spine. 

I felt an aching, somatic need to shield my baby from this toxic environment I had chosen to raise him in. With a sinking feeling, it dawned on me that Henry had never inhaled a breath of fresh air in his life.

And now we were moving to Brooklyn and were going to live along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I began to panic. Was I trading one toxic environment (cigarette smoke) for another (vehicle emissions)? Was I the most irresponsible parent on our blue marble?

We did some cursory research on air quality and learned from Captain Obvious that… wait for it… air quality in New York City is not good. Anywhere. Especially in Manhattan, where cars idle all day long in traffic jams up and down the avenues.

In a misguided but loving attempt to calm me down, Rayne used Google Earth to measure the distance between our Upper East Side apartment and the FDR Drive as compared to the distance from our new apartment and the BQE. Here is what he sent me:

See, he said. It’s really no different than our current location. (Relax! Take the blue pill!) 

Unfortunately, his argument backfired. Because, as we all learned from Morpheus back in 1999, once you swallow the red pill, you can’t go back.

You’re right! I told him. We need to leave New York immediately!

I then began a frenzied search for houses in Orange County, New York, which is just far enough to be a horrendous commute, but not far enough away to really qualify as country living. Now, before you think to yourself, ‘poor Rayne,’ I want to stress that he also got swept away by this idea, because, as much as he loves New York, he is from Oregon, and he loves greenery, too. (Also, barbequing.) 

Clearly, however, Orange County was not an immediate (or even long-term) solution to our problem, which was that I was completely unraveling over the idea of moving across the street from the BQE. As we backed off the suburban ledge, my practical side finally and thankfully kicked in. I researched all the possible ways I could reduce the toxicity of our apartment. I read tons online, including scientific papers that I could barely understand. I badgered my friend who is a water expert in San Francisco until she put me in touch with her friend who is an air quality expert. I also cried. A lot.

I concluded that I would have to be super-vigilant about everything else that I could possibly control, since I obviously could not control vehicle emissions from the BQE. Rayne gave me free reign to implement such “mitigating factors” in our new home, with the vague caveat that he was going to cut me off if I started to go (further) off the deep end, or “into crazy land,” as he put it. I knew better than to balk. 

To make a long story short, here is what we have done in our new apartment:
       1. I found some research done for NASA in the 1970s that talked about the best indoor plants for reducing toxicity and allergens in the space shuttle. If it was good for space, where there was no air, well, it might be okay for us, too. I then cross-referenced that list with the ASPCA’s list of plants that are poisonous to dogs. We bought four huge plants from this little stoner haven in Prospect Heights. (“You want, like, all four?” the shop girl asked with a slightly dazed look in her eyes.) 
2. We researched and installed a Rabbit air purifier, which is on the wall in front of Henry’s play area. It is a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filter, which is regulated by the Department of Energy.  

3. We invested in an expensive vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter (the Miele S7280 Jazz Upright). 

4. We spent an extra $600 to have our apartment painted with low-VOC paint. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, and it’s what makes paint fumes smell so bad and what makes those emissions so dangerous to inhale. We used Harmony paint from Sherwin Williams. It definitely made a difference. It didn’t smell like paint at all.

5. I bought a book on green housecleaning (Easy Green Living by Renee Loux) and all new cleaning supplies.

6. I insisted we pay extra for an organic drycleaner.

7. I make everyone take off their shoes in the entryway so as not to track whatever is on the disgusting streets into our home. (I actually read somewhere that this is effective.)

8. I wet dust regularly and Swiffer like it’s my job (it is!).

9. Needless to say, I keep our windows shut.

Do I feel better? Sort of. I love our new neighborhood. With the exception of our street, it’s greener and quieter, and I’m finding my places – yoga studio, doggie daycare, running path, nail salon, favorite restaurants. I can feel myself settling in. Our apartment is open and light. The kitchen is happily yellow and big enough for us to cook together. The nursery gives everyone a little more breathing room.  Rayne loves sitting on the roof deck at night. I haven’t smelled even a whiff of cigarette smoke. Even our dog, Hudson, is finding his favorite hiding spots. 

Most of all, our affordable living situation allows me to stay home with Henry and stretch my creative wings instead of returning to work full-time. I am one lucky Moo Cow.  

I’d like to say that, in retrospect, the tears, research and subsequent “improvements” to our apartment were overkill. But who am I kidding? I’m still plotting on the edge of insanity. (We could get a weekend place in the country! We could petition the city to reroute the BQE! We could move to the suburbs Denver!*) And if you enter my apartment with your shoes on, I will tackle you to the ground. 

*While you might think that Denver is just a city I pulled out of the air for dramatic effect, you’d be wrong. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last two years, and I’ve decided that Denver is the optimal place for us to live. I arrived at this conclusion despite never having been to Denver, or even Colorado for that matter. Completely reasonable.