He has a bag full of equipment in hand when he first enters a house, including a gaussmeter, CO2 detector and magnetic-field indicator. But when James Haim does a house call, he turns first to the built-in instrument that he is never without: his nose.
He must be alert to the smells of things such as mold, mildew and new building materials before they fade into the background.
Through his new business, Healthy Living Diagnostics, Haim conducts building checkups aimed at making sure buildings aren't making their occupants sick. He focuses largely on indoor air quality and the presence of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that might pose health hazards for those inside.
Haim, a builder and former Ashland High School teacher, is a "building biology environmental consultant," a title designated by certification from the International Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology. IBE, which began in the 1980s in the United States, grew out of German efforts to study building-related health issues following World War II.
Haim, 48, first heard about the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields when he was a builder 15 or 20 years ago.
"I laughed; I scoffed, just didn't believe it," he said.
But after a year of intensive study and seminars leading to his certification, he has become a believer.
"People's health is definitely being impacted by electromagnetic fields," he said.
A spirited international debate continues, he acknowledged, about the health impacts of EMFs from cellphones and other technologies, with no consensus yet in sight.
When Haim starts his assessment of a building, he begins online, researching local factors that may affect a building and its occupants, such as nearby communications antennae and power substations. Once on site, he will do a thorough visual check of the roof, foundation and drainage, looking for any signs of mold or water intrusion.
Haim offers a whole-home survey for $375, which takes three to six hours, and a "sleeping sanctuary" inspection for $145, which includes a bedroom and the nearest bathroom. Both inspections come with a written report and advice on how to fix problems he finds.
He recently inspected the two-story home of Erik Wallbank and Toni DiLeo, which they built on Harrison Street in Ashland 13 years ago. DiLeo said they wanted Haim to come "because I know we have a lot of electronics in our house," and they had heard about EMF issues.
Haim used various devices to assess the air quality for leaking natural gas or formaldehyde and then took readings for EMFs, first in the kitchen, then throughout the first floor.
No real issues surfaced until the upstairs bedrooms.
One bedroom had a sleeping-area reading on the gaussmeter of .8. A reading below .5 is recommended, Haim said. Normal household wiring in the walls and the presence of a cellphone charger on a night stand were contributing to the reading, he found.
Ideally, there should be no household wiring or electrical devices within 4 or 5 feet of a sleeper's head or body, Haim said. Especially, no cordless phones or "on" cellphones or clock radios. This has led some people to move their beds away from walls, or to install "kill switches," cutting off all bedroom current during sleeping hours, he said.
Electromagnetics and air pollution are most concerning in bedrooms, Haim said, because they can affect sleep, and restful sleep is essential for health.
The bedroom of Wallbank's and DiLeo's teenage son is dense with electronics.
A computer, wireless router, wireless Apple television, printer and other peripheral equipment abound. The readings from Haim's high-frequency analyzer showed high EMF levels for the computer area.
"He sits here for hours and hours," Wallbank said. "He's been having headaches."
Haim suggested options such as relocating some of the equipment away from the computer and replacing the wireless router with an Ethernet cable — and shutting it all off at night.
Haim works with Brigid Crowe, a naturopathic physician whose Ashland office is at Hidden Springs Wellness Center, so people with building-related symptoms can get medical advice if they need it. She also has been certified in building biology by IBE.
Crowe said she sees the wisdom in focusing on sleeping areas.
"I have a lot of patients with difficulty sleeping, and your body does most of its detoxifying at night — and repairing. If you can't sleep, it's really hard to maintain good health," she said. "We've seen so many easy fixes with people just moving their bed."
"There are ways — painless ways — that we can make some changes to address possible health hazards," DiLeo said after Haim's assessment of her home. "I'm moderate; I'm not totally sold that it is a problem. I don't know, but yet, I want to do something about it."