- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

COPPER HILL, Va. — Jon Roberts endured severe asthma attacks and a nettlesome cough until he identified the ailments’ triggers.

What he found helped inspire Mr. Roberts, 26, a self-described misfit and entrepreneur, his wife, Katie, 25, and friend Matt Sebas, 24, to venture out on a green limb.

In April, the trio began Eco Solution, a business in Floyd County that sells environmentally friendly, nontoxic building supplies.

They started small, hoping for support from residents who try to live simply and with little environmental impact.

But Eco Solution’s founders are thinking big. Mr. Roberts said he thinks Eco Solution’s small headquarters could provide a nucleus for other “green” or organic product businesses that could share the property.

He envisions an eco-village, where businesses, seminars and a cafe with healthy fare could make the site a destination for travelers along the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway and for residents of the Roanoke Valley.

It all began with paint.

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Sebas first teamed up in a painting and wallpapering business. Beset by symptoms he attributed to allergies, Mr. Roberts conducted Internet-based research about environmental toxicity and had determined he was chemically sensitive.

Medical researchers disagree about whether the condition, known as “multiple chemical sensitivity,” actually exists.

People with MCS report a variety of symptoms that can be triggered by even low levels of everyday chemicals found in products such as soap, perfume, newsprint ink, carpeting, household cleaners and paint. Among the symptoms reported is asthma.

Mr. Roberts changed his lifestyle and diet. He and his family moved from Roanoke, where air quality is sometimes poor in summer, to inhale the mountain air of Floyd County.

He and Mr. Sebas decided their Eco Painting & Wall-papering business would offer customers lines of paint, sealers and stains said to be nontoxic or free of “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs).

VOCs are carbon-containing chemical compounds that readily evaporate into the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer.

They are considered important contributors to what has been called “sick building syndrome.”

Mr. Roberts said his body reacted favorably to reduced exposure to VOCs and other lifestyle changes. “I don’t have asthma and allergies anymore,” he said.

Over time, many customers wanted to buy the nontoxic paints and sealers and do the application work themselves.

So, the Robertses and Mr. Sebas decided to become dealers and distributors of lines that include BioShield Paints, AFM Safecoat and Real Milk Paint.

The partners concluded that it made sense to broaden their product lines to include sustainable flooring, cotton insulation, recycled glass tile, a specialized type of pressurized lumber, bamboo plywood and other environmentally friendly building products.

Kevin Kelleher, a family physician, and his wife, Michelle, contracted last year with Eco Painting & Wall-papering to stain and seal the couple’s log home with nontoxic products.

Dr. Kelleher said the estimate provided by Mr. Roberts and Mr. Sebas was competitive with other painting contractors who intended to use conventional stains and sealers.

He said their commitment to nontoxic products was persuasive.

Dr. Kelleher has asked Eco Painting & Wall-papering, which continues as a companion business to Eco Solution, for an estimate for painting his medical practice office.

Although he acknowledges disagreement in the medical community about whether MCS is a valid diagnosis, Dr. Kelleher said, “I don’t think there’s any controversy about people being sensitive to fumes.”

Those fumes, he said, can originate from gasoline, perfume and paint, among other sources.

Mainstream manufacturers of paint, companies such as Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore, have introduced products with low or zero VOCs content, in part because of increased restrictions in some states that target VOCs emissions.

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