Tight houses are great for efficiency. They keep heated and cooled air inside, where you want it. But they also trap in the bad stuff—toxins from cleaning supplies, mold and other nasty pollutants that can make you sick.
Indoor pollutants cause a range of health issues such as asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart attacks and nausea, says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association. The most dangerous are carbon monoxide, radon and secondhand smoke. “Carbon monoxide can cause premature death, radon causes lung cancer, and secondhand smoke causes heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and premature death,” she says.
Houses more than 20 years old may harbor lead-based paint and asbestos. Lead is particularly dangerous for young children; exposure can lead to convulsions, coma and even death. Asbestos, which can lead to lung cancer, can be found in older homes in deteriorating or disturbed pipe insulation; fire-retardant acoustical material; and floor tiles. (If you plan to make repairs that might disturb asbestos, contact a professional.)
Several other seemingly benign products can pollute indoor air. Formaldehyde, that awful-smelling substance that preserved frogs in biology class, can be found in textiles, adhesives and particleboard products such as cabinets and furniture. Paints, air fresheners, dry-cleaned clothing, aerosol sprays, adhesives and fabric additives used in carpet and furniture can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic chemicals that outgas into the air. Dogs and cats can track pollutants from litter boxes and outdoors.
Is your house unhealthy?
Monitor your home to improve indoor air quality.
1. Look for signs of pollutants: unusual odors; stuffy air; lack of air movement; dirty or faulty central air or heating units; excessive humidity; mold or mildew
2. Test for radon. This naturally occurring, invisible and odorless radio-active gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Get a test kit at your hardware store or at www.nsc.org.
3. Get a carbon monoxide monitor if you have a combustion appliance, including a gas water heater, gas stove or wood stove, or an attached garage.
Once you know your indoor air is clean, keep it that way. For more information, check out the article Seven Steps to Cleaner Indoor Air.
Environmental Protection Agency
carbon monoxide detectors
HEPA filters, shoe racks and healthy home products
Indoor Air Quality Association
nontoxic cleaning products
Beth Swanson is a Miami-based freelance writer with a background in eco-living and balanced lifestyles.