Tips For a Healthy Home
By Rachel Oppitz, ND
Research shows that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, therefore it makes sense to keep our homes as free of toxins as possible. Whether your home is an apartment, condominium, or single-family dwelling, you should know about three areas of home safety—indoor air pollution, drinking water quality, and electromagnetic fields. It’s important to realize that, unlike much that happens in the world outside your door, you have a great deal of control over what goes on inside.
1.) INDOOR AIR QUALITY
Surprisingly the air inside some homes is more polluted than the outdoor air. Today’s well-insulated, energy efficient homes are more likely to have poorer air quality than older, draftier homes because they trap pollutants inside. Obvious irritants include cigarette smoke and animal dander; equally problematic and less obvious are odorless radon gas, formaldehyde fumes, and household chemicals. Exposure to indoor pollution can contribute to many health issues including headaches, fatigue, asthma, allergies, and cancer.
Measures to improve air quality:
• Test your home for radon. Radon may be colorless and odorless, but elevated levels can cause lung cancer. Radon is released from uranium in the soil or rock on which homes are built. Radon kits are available at hardware stores; be sure the kit meets EPA requirements. If your home tests positive, consult a trained contractor.
• Don’t allow smoking in your house. Secondhand smoke (environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)) results in thousands of lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers each year. ETS can also worsen asthma and increase the risk of respiratory and ear infections.
• Ventilation. Keep doors between rooms and windows open whenever possible. You can also promote air circulation with fans vented to the outside. If you use a fireplace or wood stove, be sure to burn only dried, aged wood; make sure that the smoke is going up the chimney; also have the chimneys and flues cleaned regularly.
• Minimize moisture. Wet surfaces and damp environments can breed mold, mildew, and dust mites. To reduce moisture, install exhaust fans in kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, and dry out damp basements with a dehumidifier.
• Vacuum frequently, especially if you have pets. If you have allergies or asthma, use microfiltration vacuum bags or a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) vacuum cleaner; both trap tiny particles. Keep pets off furniture and wash their bedding regularly to reduce dander and hair.
• Remove shoes on entering the house. Dirt, pesticides, and other pollutants are easily tracked into your home from outside. Be especially mindful of this if you have crawling babies and small children who like to puts fists and fingers into their mouths.
• Choose low-emission carpets and pressed-wood furniture. Carpeting traps pollutants and also off-gases harmful chemicals, especially when new. Use short-pile area rugs instead, or ask your retailer for carpet brands that have the lowest emissions. Furniture made from pressed wood (particleboard) emits formaldehyde, a chemical that can trigger asthma attacks and may cause cancer. Choose varieties stamped with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) emissions seal, which have reduced formaldehyde content.
• Consider an air filter. If you have good air ventilation, you don’t necessarily need an air filter. These devices can alleviate symptoms in people suffering from allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems, when used in conjunction with proper ventilation and housecleaning.
• Don’t use artificial air fresheners. Many products (air fresheners, deodorizing sprays, scented candles, and commercial potpourri) contain chemicals that may act as carcinogens when inhaled. If you want your house to smell like fruit, flowers, or herbs, use the real things.
• Use professionals for major jobs. Lead paint and asbestos (found in insulation, some paints, and vinyl floor tiles) have not been used in homes since the 1970s, but these toxins may still be present in older buildings. They cause few problems if they are in good condition and left undisturbed. It’s the removal process that releases dangerous compounds. If you decide to remove either substance, hire a trained contractor to do the job.
2.) WATER QUALITY
The U.S. enjoys one of the safest water supplies in the world, yet recent data show that during the mid-1990s more than 45 million Americans were drinking tap water polluted with pesiticides, parasites, radiation, toxic chemicals, lead, or fecal matter. The health effects of contaminated water can be immediate and obvious (diarrhea, headaches, and nausea). But often, the pollutants in water take years to do their damage, and some have been linked with cardiovascular problems, infertility, and cancer. Contaminated water is a particular threat to infants, small children, pregnant and lactating women, and people with compromised immune systems.
Measures to improve water quality:
• Read your CCR. All public water utility companies that serve more than 10,000 people are required to send bill-paying customers a yearly Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Your CCR will tell you where your water comes from and if it exceeds limits of any of the 80 contaminants currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. You may also find your CCR on the EPA’s website, www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo.htm. If you live in a small town, you will need to call your local public water utility to request your CCR. • Test your water. If your water comes from a well, you will need to get your water tested annually to find out what’s in it. The EPA’s safe water hotline (800-426-4791) or website www.epa.gov/safewater can give you contact info for your state certification office, which can help you find a list of certified labs to test your water. • Purchase your water filter based on what it removes. No one filtration product can remove all contaminants. Find out what is in your drinking water first, then look for a filter that specifically removes those contaminants. • Choose certified filters only. The nonprofit group NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International tests and certifies home water treatment units to make sure they remove the contaminants they claim to. Certified products carry the NSF seal on the box. You can also search the NSF website (www.nsf.org) for a list of certified products, or request their $5 consumer guide, Water Wise, which lists all units tested and the contaminants they remove (800-NSF-MARK). • Bottled water. Bottled water is a good choice when dining out or traveling, but is expensive and some brands of bottled water have been shown to contain contaminants. A quality home water filter will produce water that is as clean or cleaner than bottled water at less than 10 cents a gallon.
3.) ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS
Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are created by electrical currents that flow from an electrical appliance when it’s operating. Some research has suggested a link between EMF exposure and certain types of cancer, although this topic is extremely controversial and evidence is mixed. Over time, even weak electromagnetic fields may impair the immune system, possibly predisposing to degenerative diseases. A 1999 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences concluded that, although evidence for such risks is currently weak, EMF exposure “cannot be recognized as entirely safe” and that “lingering concerns” exist.
Measures to limit exposure:
• Don’t use electric blankets or heating pads. Electric blankets and heating pads generate strong EMFs that come in close contact with your body. Choose conventional blankets or down comforters for your bed, and non-electric heating pads or hot water bottles if you need local heat.
• Put a safe distance between you and your appliances. Large appliances often emit weaker EMFs than do smaller appliances. Keep beds and seating areas at least several feet away from television sets, VCRs, stereos, etc.
• Use personal-care appliances carefully near your head. Limit the use of plug-in electric appliances such as hair dryers, curling irons, and electric razors, which can emit strong EMFs and are usually pointed right at your head. Also be aware of plug-in electric alarm clocks and clock radios—move them several feet from the head of the bed or use battery-powered varieties.
• Use microwave ovens sensibly. Don’t look into a microwave for prolonged periods of time while it is operating. Never use a microwave with a loose or broken door as it leaks radiation.