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How to Have Healthier Air in Your Home

Posted by freddysetiawan on July 21, 2009

How to have healthier air in your home.
Open windows, be careful with cleaners and check housewares.

Good ventilation is probably the single most important step you can take toward making your home healthier, experts say. For the most part, the air you breathe while you’re at home isn’t nearly as clean as the air you breathe while you’re outside (even if the outdoor air is fairly smoggy).

Even if you don’t notice any ill effects right now, it’s a good idea to try to clean up the air in your home, says Robert Phalen, founder of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at UC Irvine. Chronic exposure to allergens may lead to sensitivities over time.

We asked a number of doctors, researchers and building consultants to tell us about possible home air hazards and how some of them can be eliminated — maximizing effectiveness and minimizing expense.

What we’re breathing

Carbon monoxide: You can’t see it, smell it or taste it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. At lower exposures, it can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, and is easily mistaken for the flu. At higher exposures, it can kill you within minutes. To be safe, make sure all your gas appliances (furnace, stove, water heater, etc.) and fireplace are working properly. If you have a space heater, make sure it’s vented to the outdoors. As an extra precaution, install a carbon monoxide detector. And never keep the motor running in a car or truck inside your attached garage, even if the garage door is open.

Radon: Like carbon monoxide, radon is colorless, odorless, tasteless and deadly. Unlike carbon monoxide, it takes a while to do you in. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, the EPA estimates, and the second-leading cause, behind smoking, of all lung cancer cases in the country. Formed naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium, the gas often seeps into basements through cracks in walls and floors — and from there it makes its way upstairs. “In general, it’s not much of a problem in California,” says Dr. Jonathan Samet, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Institute for Global Health at USC. “But nationally it’s recommended to have houses checked, and that’s a reasonable thing to do.” In fact, you can get a kit and test your house yourself. If you find radon in dangerous levels, hire a professional who can determine the best treatment.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): A group of chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde, which can evaporate at room temperature, these compounds can be found in a long list of products we use in our homes, including electronic devices, solvents, air fresheners, cleansers and disinfectants, cosmetics and moth balls, as well as building materials and furnishings, including paints, upholstery, carpets, vinyl floors and composite wood products. VOCs have a wide range of known health effects, from none to grave, depending on the chemical. In particular, the EPA recommends minimizing any exposure to benzene, methylene chloride and perchloroethylene emissions.

For all VOCs, outgassing (in which the chemical evaporates and enters the air as a gas) occurs at room temperature — but the warmer, the faster. Also, the newer the product containing the VOC, the more outgassing occurs. In fact, one way to minimize outgassing in wood furniture is to buy it used, suggests Mary Cordaro, a building consultant in Valley Village who inspects and tests homes for contaminants and provides remediation services.

Chlorine: Many common household cleaners are loaded with toxic chemicals that can irritate your eyes and throat, etc., and can even be fatal if swallowed. For this reason — and to be ecologically friendly too — “the home environment should be kept clean with minimal use of harsh cleaning products,” says Dr. Ware Kuschner, an associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He does research on the health effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Some cleaners can be even more dangerous if mixed. For example, Dr. Paul Blanc, professor of medicine at UC Berkeley and author of “How Everyday Products Make People Sick,” says poison control centers get thousands of calls due to “bleach misadventures” — the combination of bleach with hydrochloric acid (commonly found in toilet cleaners) — a dangerous misalliance that produces chlorine gas. If this happens to you, you’ll know by the dreadful smell and by the way your eyes sting and your skin burns if you get any on you. It’s a dramatic illustration of why our experts emphasize the need to follow instructions.

Oddly enough, you’re likely to have a less dramatic run-in with chlorine gas every morning when you hop into a hot shower. There’s chlorine in the water, of course, and when it heats up, it can evaporate as a minute amount of chlorine gas that you’re well-positioned to inhale. If you’ve remained blissfully unaware of this situation all your life, that’s because the EPA has set the limits for chlorine in water so low that only a few extremely sensitive people ever notice anything — and they’ll probably just get a whiff.

The answer for the few, says Lou Alonso, an environmental consultant in Malibu, is a $20 shower head with a carbon filter. But if you’re not among those who have noticed the chlorine, it’s probably safe to save your money.

By the way, it pays to install a bathroom fan, vented to the outdoors, and run it during your shower and for half an hour afterward. This will reduce the moisture in your bathroom, which, in turn, will reduce its attractiveness to mold. And it can draw the chlorine gas out, too.

Secondhand smoke: Secondhand smoke can trigger asthma attacks and increase their severity and is also a risk factor for new cases of asthma in very young children. It has also been associated with other problems, including bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer. But there’s a surefire way to keep smoke out of your home: Don’t let anyone light up inside.

Dust mites: You may not be aware of it, but you’re always sleeping with the enemy — millions of the enemy, in fact — microscopic dust mites that live on dander, yours and your pets’. (Yes, you have dander too — it’s just flakes of dead skin.) According to Environment, Health and Safety Online, 100,000 to 10 million mites may have bedded down in a used mattress, and dead mites and their droppings may account for 10% of the weight of a used pillow. Carpet and upholstered furniture are other favorite hangouts.

All dust mites do to most people is gross them out. But some people can have allergic reactions, not to the mites themselves but to their feces. For most victims, the symptoms are much like hay fever, but asthmatics can also have difficulty breathing. It doesn’t take many of the bugs to be mighty irritating, Phalen says.

To avoid dust mite woes, our experts recommend dust mite barrier covers — Alonso calls them “a condom for the bed” — with a couple of caveats. Cordaro warns, “Only get the kind that don’t have vinyl in them” (because of the phthalates). And Kuschner notes that although the covers are the standard first line of defense against dust mites, two 2003 studies cast doubt on their effectiveness. Researchers found that the covers successfully reduced exposure to dust mites but did not reduce allergic symptoms. Other approaches to the dust mite problem include washing your bedding — frequently — in hot water (the mites will survive if it’s merely warm) and keeping your room temperature cool (below 70 degrees) and dry (below 50% humidity). Inveterate vacuuming doesn’t hurt either.

Pet dander: For most people pet dander is harmless, but others have allergies that can cause itchy, watery eyes, wheezing, sneezing and assorted other sinus problems. Even if you don’t have such an allergy, many experts recommend keeping pets outside — or at least out of your bedroom — or at the very least out of your bed.

Mold spores: Mold spores float around in the air just about everywhere — indoors and out. You can never get rid of them all. But if they find some nice organic substance with a good supply of water, some spores settle down and start growing a family.

For starters, repair any drips or leaks or other reasons for water to turn up where water shouldn’t be. And avoid having outdoor vegetation growing too close to your house. That way you won’t end up “watering” the house — which could make the interior of the walls wet. Mold would just love that.

If just a little bit of mold is growing somewhere in your home, the risk of serious health effects is very small, says Dr. Philip Harber, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at UCLA. On the other hand, a lot of mold can lead to asthma, allergies and other irritations. Any extensive mold damage needs to be cleaned up, and whatever caused it needs to be fixed.

Ventilate, ventilate

The more clean air you bring into your home, the more dirty air gets pushed out — taking its contaminants with it.

In fact, ventilation can mitigate all the problems described above. And it’s absolutely free. At least it can be if you ventilate by opening the windows. But many people don’t. A study last year of 108 households, half in Northern California and half in Southern California, kept track of how often windows were opened during one-week test periods. Almost 30% of households never opened their windows during the winter week, says Bud Offermann, president of Indoor Environmental Engineering, which ran the study. Sometimes it’s not enough, though, and then you might resort to using air cleaners — especially if you have asthma or another lung disorder. Many models are available, some better than others and, often, more expensive than others too. Some simply don’t process enough air to make much difference in air quality, Phalen says, and some produce ozone — i.e., they’re polluters themselves. He suggests checking model ratings in Consumer Reports.

A good air filter on your furnace can also help. Filters generally have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV, rating on their packaging. The higher the MERV, the more particles the filter should trap. The American Lung Assn. recommends filters with ratings of 10 or higher, which should capture more than 85% of particles. In general, the best filters use an electrostatic charge to attract particles. Fiberglass filters are the least efficient.

In fact, a whole range of devices — from germicidal lights (that kill mold and bacteria) to entire home air filtration systems — are available.

For most people, Harber urges perspective. “Don’t spend all your time and money getting rid of dust mites and then let your house burn down because you don’t maintain your smoke detectors.

LA Times


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