Understanding leads to support. I often wonder if it was easier for my husband to grasp the idea of hypersensitivity to problematic biotoxins because, in his work, he spent all day thinking about things on a molecular or atomic level. I asked him if he would write piece about that and he said, “Um, how about a Q&A?” Here it is:
Q. What is your experience with working in clean rooms?
A. The first clean room I worked in was at the University of Iowa experimenting with processes to create semi-conductor lasers. That clean room was a “class 10,000” clean room. When I started working in computer chip manufacturing, I worked in a “class one” clean room.
Q. Can you tell me what the different classes of clean rooms signify?
A. The details are complicated. Think of it roughly like this: it refers to the number of molecules larger than one micron per cubic foot. So a class one clean room has one or less molecules of that size per cubic foot. A class 100 clean room would have 100 molecules or less per cubic foot.
Q. How big is a micron?
A. Well, your average human hair is about 75 microns wide. And, truthfully, for the kind of work I was doing, one particle with a one-micron diameter would still be problematic. But we were limited by the capacity of HEPA filters to clean the air. HEPA filters don’t clean on a nanometer scale.
Q. For comparison, what “class” would standard indoor air be?
A. I’m not sure. Probably around a million.
Q. What is involved in creating a clean room?
A. For a class one clean room, the ceiling, itself, was made of HEPA filters. The floor is made of a metal grating that is raised and negative air pressure pulls air down from top to bottom. So air is constantly being pulled through the HEPA ceiling, past the scientists and equipment and down through the floor. In addition, all the machines are vented directly out of the clean room, where it can be scrubbed.
Clean rooms also involve head-to-toe gowning procedures.
Q. What is gowning?
A. First, you put on a spun-bound bouffant cap. Then an inner pair of gloves. This is followed by little booties over your shoes. There is a bench which runs the length of the gowning room that you sit on to put the booties on your shoes – called a crossover bench – that keeps the floor that your shoes touch separate from the floor that your booties touch. Then you put a polyester hood over your head, followed by a Gortex bunny suit that is neck to ankle. Then, knee-high polyester boots. Last is latex gloves and safety glasses.
A. (Smiles and laughs.)
Q. How do you keep the clean room clean?
A. A lot of monitoring helps. There constant, 24-hours a day, cleaning with 6% isopropyl alcohol wipes.
Q. Did changes in the outdoor air ever cause problems?
A. They did trace some particle spikes to when the wind shifted such that a local dairy farm was upwind of the facility.
Q. Ah, the shit hit the fan.
A. (Laughs.) Exactly.
Q. Tell me the story about the new mom and the mystery of the boron particles.
A. There was a sudden quality drop in our computer chips. Through some exhaustive troubleshooting, it was found that the wafers the chips were being made on were contaminated with boron particles. And that was really strange since we didn’t use boron in our processes at all.
Q. So where did it come from?
A. They traced it to an employee who was a new mom. She had been washing her baby’s diapers in borax – not her own clothes – and the boron in the Borax was traveling with her to work. Enough to cause problems with the chips.
Q. So it got through all those gowning measures?
Q. Did they ask you to not use borax?
A. Yes. No borax. No perfumes or colognes. No makeup.
Q. Interesting. Let’s talk about how this affected your thought processes when I was contemplating mold avoidance as a way to help my immune system calm down. When I suggested to you my doctor’s opinion that my hypersensitivity to mold was similar the sensitivity of the people with severe peanut allergies to peanuts, how did that hit you?
A. It made total sense to me. I remember we were on a flight once and there was a little kid with that kind of peanut allergy a few rows ahead of us. The flight attendant informed us that we couldn’t have any peanuts because it could cause an anaphylactic reaction. I never realized that immune systems could be so sensitive before that. That poor kid. Computer chips are similarly hypersensitive.
Q. What do you think about the idea that, given that kind of hypersensitivity, contaminated items can really be cleaned?
A. They can’t. It’s not possible. Operating rooms aren’t even that clean. The only option is to get yourself to a location where you are not reacting.
Q. So when Lisa Petrison said that a single contaminated item could keep someone sick, that made sense to you?
A. Yes. In a clean room, one contaminated machine can shut down everything.
Q. How would you describe mold avoidance’s effect on me?
A. It worked! You have so much more energy. You’re so much happier. You’re not even carrying your Epi-pen around anymore! Even before we got married, your ability to do anything was severely limited by your incredibly fragile back. Protecting your back doesn’t even cross your mind anymore. I love watching your joyful little dances. It’s so obvious how much better you feel across the board.
Q. Aw…. What about your own health? What have you noticed?
A. I am sleeping much better. I used to wake up at 4 AM and not be able to go back to sleep. I sleep in now. All of my bladder problems cleared up completely, too. Which is nice. I also feel like my neck, which gave me lots of problems, is better. My inflammation levels are down.
Q. Knowing what you know about clean rooms and mold avoidance, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about trying mold avoidance?
A. Since you can’t get your things “clean-room clean,” and even small exposures can keep you sick, get rid of them and find an environment where you can heal. I’m surprised at how little we have needed to be happy. Don’t think about the replacement cost of everything you are getting rid of. You really don’t have to replace everything you let go. Only a small number of belongings are needed to have a happy life.
Q. Anything else you want to say?
A. In all the clean rooms I worked, if we ran into a problem, we would stop at nothing to figure out a solution. The best solutions always come from finding the root cause, but it can sometimes take several iterations to find that. The important thing is that you don’t give up.
In many cases, the only solutions come from finding the root cause. I think that was where you got with your health. You were trapped by the way your doctors were only treating your symptoms. You’d have improvements for a time, but, overall, you kept getting sicker. Eventually, we had to find the root cause and when we did, it changed everything.
Q. Thanks for doing this.
A. Sure. You’re welcome. (Smiles.)
Sara and her husband are living full-time on the road in their converted cargo van. Sara’s beloved mold avoidance book: Camp Like a Girl can be found here and her book Migraine: Finding My Own Way Out can be found here.