Was “home sweet home” ever more than wishful thinking? After all, back in the days of yore, people lived in homes that weren’t all that sweet, what with the smoky fire in the middle of house, bugs inhabiting straw pallets, and animals penned up close by. These days, with our scientific know-how and technological marvels, our homes must be so much healthier, right? Well, yes, but there are still a few problems, including chemical pollutants and biological contaminants. Bed bugs aren’t prevalent, but dust mites are. Our fires may not be smoky, but they do produce carbon monoxide and other hazardous gases. And as for those animals . . . raise your hand if your pet sleeps in your bed.
If the list seems daunting, don’t worry. Here and elsewhere on the site, we’ll walk you through not just the problems but the solutions too.
You can’t see it or smell it, but radon kills about 20,000 Americans each year. It’s the number two cause of all lung cancers, and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers in the United States.
How are we exposed to radon? Uranium is naturally present in most soil. When uranium decays, it produces radon, a radioactive gas. Worldwide, radon is almost always present at low levels in the outside air; it only becomes a health concern if it enters a house through cracks or gaps in the foundation and gets trapped inside the building. Radon can also get into a house from well water, and sometimes from building materials like granite and other stone; however, it’s soil gas that’s the main source of radon pollution.
Radon is more of a problem in certain regions than in others, but it’s found in all 50 U.S. states, and any home can have a radon problem. To be safe, the U.S. EPA and Surgeon General recommend testing all homes below the third floor for radon.
You can test your home using an inexpensive kit available online and from many hardware stores. If the results show more than 4 picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L), it’s a good idea to hire a qualified radon tester to conduct a more precise long-term test (typically more than 90 days). If that test confirms the elevated radon levels, you should fix your home.
Retrofitting most homes to reduce radon levels isn’t complicated, but you’ll probably want to hire a state-certified radon mitigation contractor. A basic mitigation system consists of a pipe and a fan that pulls radon from below your house and vents it to the outside, typically through the roof. The cost of reducing radon in a home ranges from about $800 to $2,500, according to the EPA.
These days, many new homes are “radon resistant.” In such homes, builders have put plastic sheeting under the slab or over the crawl space floor, sealed and caulked all cracks and openings in the foundation, and installed a vent pipe. Before buying a house (whether or not it has radon-resistant features), consider asking for radon test results or request that a test be conducted.
2. Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are one of the main sources of air pollution in our homes. VOCs are a huge class of carbon-based chemicals that share a common trait: they are volatile at room temperature, meaning they readily release gases into the air we breathe.
We’re all familiar with the names–and often the smell–of many VOCs. Formaldehyde, propane, butane, toluene, acetone–the list goes on and on. Our homes contain hundreds of products that release minute quantities of these gases: paints, adhesives, carpet, many plastics, cleaning products, and personal care products, to name a few. Sometimes your nose will detect VOCs, for instance, when you walk into a freshly painted room or open a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Other times it’s not so obvious. For example, cabinets made with conventional plywood, medium-density fiberboard, or particle board can emit low levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde for years after they were first made.
The federal government and some states regulate VOC emissions from certain products. But what these regulations are concerned with is outdoor air quality–primarily how certain VOCs react with sunlight and other chemicals in the atmosphere to create smog. While reducing smog is laudable, these regulations do little to ensure we’re breathing clean air in our homes. In fact, studies have found that levels of many VOCs are commonly as much as ten times higher inside our homes than outside.
The list of health effects from VOC exposure is enough to scare the daylights out of anyone: nausea; cancer; memory loss; eye, nose, and throat irritation; kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage. Will you experience any of these effects due to VOCs in your home? No one knows. (The EPA puts it less bluntly: “At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes.”) A lot depends on the level and length of exposure. Also, people react differently: some are very sensitive to very low levels of chemicals, while others may not notice any ill effects at high levels.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to reduce VOC exposure. This list will get you started; other articles in our Home Health Center provide even more guidance.
- Ban smoking in your house. Tobacco smoke contains benzene, a VOC linked to leukemia.
- When using paints, solvents, and cleaning supplies, ventilate. Open windows to get fresh air, even if it means wasting some heating or cooling energy.
- Make sure opened containers of paints, solvents, and other harsh chemicals are tightly sealed. If possible, store them away from your home in a detached garage or shed.
- If your garage is attached to the house, don’t run the car’s engine in the garage. Also make sure the door between the house and garage is tightly sealed, and seal or caulk any cracks or gaps in the garage walls or ceiling that could let polluted air escape into the home.
- Choose carpet that’s Green Label Plus certified or skip wall-to-wall carpet entirely.
- Choose formaldehyde-free cabinets, furniture, and other composite-wood products.
- Choose zero- or very low-VOC paints, sealants and adhesives.
- Look for products that are certified for low emissions by GreenGuard or Scientific Certification Systems (SCS).
- Choose formaldehyde-free sheets and other textiles.
- Choose low-toxic cleaning products.
- Buy clothes that don’t need dry cleaning or use a green dry cleaner. Conventional dry cleaners use toxic perchloroethylene, which can pollute your air. If you can’t avoid conventional dry cleaning, air newly cleaned clothes outside before bringing them inside.
- Avoid or minimize your exposure to products containing methylene chloride, a particularly toxic VOC. It’s found in spray paints and solvents like paint stripper and adhesive removers.
3. Problems with Plastics
Although VOCs are the primary indoor air pollution culprit in our homes, they’re not the only chemical that can compromise human health. Many of the “miracle” plastics developed by science and industry in the past half-century turned out to have hidden health burdens. While completely eliminating harmful plastic items from your home may be next to impossible, you can reduce your exposure. Here are some tips; check out the rest of our Home Health Center articles for more guidance.
This estrogen-mimicking chemical is thought to interfere with the development of the reproductive and neurological systems in fetuses and infants. While it is used in a wide range of products, experts believe the main source of human exposure is from hard-plastic, polycarbonate baby and water bottles and resins used to line metal food cans. To avoid this problem, replace old polycarbonate bottles with BPA-free water bottles and baby bottles and eat more fresh food or food stored in glass instead of metal.
Like BPA, phthalates are believed to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Phthalates are used in plastic products to make them softer and more flexible and are also found in thousands of cosmetics, fragrances, and other grooming products. To steer clear of phthalates, don’t buy vinyl products; there are many good substitutes for vinyl flooring, siding, window frames, shower curtains and other common vinyl products. Have a look at our recommendations for healthier personal care products, which also sometimes contain phthalates.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a synthetic chemical thought to be a carcinogen, is turning up in the bloodstream of humans and mammals across the globe. PFOA and related perfluorochemicals have been used for decades to make a variety of plastics, resins and coatings, including waterproof clothing, Teflon and other nonstick cookware, stain treatments for carpets, greaseproof liners of food packaging. It’s even used in some personal care products. In 2006, DuPont and other PFOA manufacturers reached a voluntary agreement with the U.S. EPA to eliminate use of PFOA and other perfluorochemicals by 2015. In the meantime, you can use cookware without the nonstick surface. Choose carpets, furniture, and clothing that are not treated with stain- and water-resistant chemicals. Eat more fresh food and less packaged and fast food. Look for personal care products without “perfluoro” or “PTFE,” which may break down into PFOA.
4. Pesticides and Herbicides
Pesticides and herbicides are biocides: they’re designed to kill living organisms. Makers of these chemicals may claim the products are safe when used properly, but why take the chance? Banning pesticides from your home and garden is an especially good idea if you have young children–their developing bodies are particularly vulnerable to pollutants.
In our homes there are three main paths for pesticide contamination:
Ant, roach, and rodent poisons
- If these pests are in evidence, thorough air sealing will help block the cracks, crevices, and penetrations that give them a red carpet into your home. If you see a trail of ants, try to follow it to find out how they’re getting inside, and block that hole with caulk.
- Make your home less hospitable to pests. Store dry food in well-sealed glass containers. Make sure your kitchen trash, recyclables, and composting containers seal tightly, and clean them out regularly. Don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink or crumbs and spills on floors and counters. Fix leaks and moisture problems because insects can be attracted to water.
- Don’t use rodent poisons inside or outside your house; not only are they a danger to children and pets, they can also harm birds and other wildlife that eat the poisoned rodents. Instead, use snap traps–they’re inexpensive and available at any hardware store. Live-catch traps may be more humane, but you need to release the rodents where they won’t be a problem for other people; also some states have regulations prohibiting people from transporting live wild animals.
- An ant in the house now and then is no cause for panic or pesticides. If you have a large number, check your potted plants. Ants often make nests there. If you find a nest in a houseplant, take it outside and flood it repeatedly with water. If blocking points of entry and keeping food inaccessible doesn’t help reduce the number of ants in your house, you may want to consider one of the less toxic chemical controls, such as diatomaceous earth, boric acid, or pyrethrum. Follow product directions carefully since these chemical powders can be unhealthy to breathe.
- While a few ants won’t do any harm, you should draw the line at cockroaches. Besides the yuck factor, they can spread disease, and their feces can induce allergic reactions. Follow the housekeeping suggestions described above, and trap roaches with nontoxic sticky traps placed where they hide and in their lines of travel.
Lawn and garden pesticides and herbicides
Chemicals used in the yard can affect your health during application, especially if the directions aren’t followed to a T. Even if you do follow directions, you can track the chemicals into your house on your shoes. Chemical residues also get onto the hands and feet of children and on pets’ paws, and from there into their mouths. The safest approach is to use nontoxic or less-toxic means of controlling pests and weeds. Check out our Pesticides article for dozens of tips.
And consider having a no-shoes rule in your home. Even if your yard is free of hazardous chemicals, your neighbors’ yards may not be.
Chemical residues on food
The pesticides and herbicides routinely used in conventional agriculture can remain in minute quantities on the food we eat. Buying organically grown food and growing your own food without hazardous chemicals are two of the most powerful steps you can take to protect your family and the environment. Read our Food article to learn more about why eating well matters to people and the planet.
You’ve probably encountered the sensationalist media stories about house-eating toxic molds. The truth is, mold spores are floating everywhere, in the air inside and outside our homes. There’s no way to keep mold spores out of the air. The trick to controlling mold in your home is controlling moisture–mold thrives on moisture.
If mold is allowed to multiply unchecked in a building, it can eventually cause serious damage to the structure. It also has the potential to affect health. Not everyone is bothered by mold but for some people, exposure may trigger allergic reactions, asthma episodes, or other respiratory problems.
If you find mold in your house, don’t delay in identifying the source of moisture and fixing the moisture problem. Most hard surfaces can be cleaned of mold using a detergent and water; you can also use a mild bleach solution. The key is to make sure the surface dries completely–the mold won’t grow back if there’s no moisture. Although mold can grow just about anywhere, it’s typically found on paper, wood, carpet, and food. Absorbent materials that are badly infested with mold, such as furniture, carpet, and ceiling tiles, may have to be thrown away.
If your home has been flooded or has a major mold problem, you may want to hire a mold remediation company. Check with your state health department; some states regulate companies that do mold assessment or remediation.
Here are some tips for dealing with mold.
- Fix leaks right away. This means both plumbing leaks and leaks in the building shell, such as in the roof and around doors, windows and the foundation. Water seepage through the foundation may require installing a foundation drainage system such as a French drain. If the ground slopes toward the house, you may need to do some landscaping work to modify the slope.
- Keep gutters in good shape and make sure they drain water away from the house.
- Seal cracks and crevices to reduce the amount of moisture-laden air sneaking into attics and wall cavities. Learn more in our Air Sealing and Weatherization article.
- Use your kitchen range hood fan and bathroom fans. Cooking, washing dishes, showering, and bathing create a lot of humidity, which mold loves. The fans extract humid air from inside the home and dump it outside. (Recirculating range hood fans that don’t vent to the outdoors won’t help with humidity.)
- Make sure your clothes dryer vents to the outside.
- Keep indoor humidity levels within the 30% to 60% range. (Humidity is the amount of moisture in the air. Below 30% your house is going to be very dry; above 60% your house will be very humid. You can buy a hygrometer, which measures humidity levels, in hardware stores. They’re often combined with a thermometer.) In humid climates, dehumidifiers and air conditioners can help keep indoor humidity in check.
- If you have condensation on walls or pipes, adding insulation may help. Adding storm windows or replacing single-pane with double-pane windows can eliminate or reduce condensation on windows.
- If you have a crawl space under your house, sealing it with plastic sheeting can help prevent moisture vapor from rising up into the house.
- Vacuum regularly. Household dust contains all kinds of nasty particles, including mold spores.
6. Other Biological Contaminants
Pet dander, pollen, and feces of dust mites and cockroaches can trigger allergic reactions, asthma episodes, and other respiratory problems. Good housekeeping, especially dusting and vacuuming regularly, will help keep these particles in check. Here are more quick tips:
- You can buy mattress and pillow covers that work as dust mite barriers.
- Use high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters on HVAC equipment, and replace or clean the filters at the manufacturer-recommended intervals.
- Certain types of air filtration systems may help reduce biological contaminants in the home; learn more in our Air Filtration article.
- To eliminate cockroaches, check out the recommendations in the Pesticides section above.
- Institute a no-shoes rule in your house to keep these contaminants and other unmentionables from being tracked in on people’s feet.
7. Energy-related Risks
Carbon monoxide and other combustion byproducts
Devices that burn fuel inside your home are potential sources of air pollution. Burning gas, heating oil, propane, wood and kerosene produces many potentially harmful fine particles and gases, including carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde, and nitrogen dioxide. The minute quantities emitted by a properly functioning, modern fuel-burning appliance don’t typically cause health problems. However, if an appliance malfunctions it can spew potentially harmful, or even fatal, levels of CO and other chemicals into your home.
Here are tips for keeping your home free of harmful combustion byproducts:
- If you have fuel-burning appliances inside your home (including a gas range), install a CO detector on each floor.
- If you have a gas range, make sure it’s working properly and always use the exhaust fan when cooking. If you have an older stove or oven with a continuously burning pilot light, consider replacing it with a model with electronic ignition. Check out our Ovens and Cooktops article to learn more.
- Older wood-burning fireplaces and wood stoves can be highly polluting. Consider replacing wood-burning fireplaces with a clean-burning, sealed-combustion gas fireplace or a U.S. EPA-certified fireplace insert. Replace old wood stoves with EPA-certified stoves. See our wood stoves and pellet stoves and fireplaces articles for more information.
- If you’re planning to replace a furnace, boiler, or water heater, choose a sealed-combustion model. Their air intake pipes pull air from the outside instead of inside your home, and their well-designed exhaust flues keep combustion gases and particles out of your home. See our heating equipment and water heaters articles for details.
- For high-end kitchen remodels, pro-style kitchen exhaust fans have become very popular. Some of these fans pull more than 1,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air out of the home. If you have a fuel-burning fireplace, furnace, water heater or clothes dryer inside your home, however, a strong kitchen exhaust fan can pull the flue gases, including carbon monoxide, out of those fuel-burning devices and into your home. To prevent this dangerous “backdrafting,” don’t install an overpowered exhaust fan. A good rule of thumb is 40 cfm per linear foot of cooktop. If you have a 36-inch cooktop, a 120 cfm fan will remove cooking odors and moisture without risking backdrafting. Also, when buying new furnaces, water heaters, and gas fireplaces, choose products with sealed combustion chambers. If you do have a powerful exhaust fan, run it on low and open a window a bit to provide additional airflow to prevent backdrafting.
Unlike fuel-burning devices, using electricity won’t create indoor air pollution (although electricity generation is a leading source of outdoor air pollution and CO2 emissions). Does that mean using electricity is healthy? That issue continues to cause controversy.
For many years, questions have been raised about whether humans’ increasing exposure to manmade electric and magnetic fields (also called electromagnetic fields or EMFs) might be linked to cancer or other illnesses. The controversy centers around the low-frequency EMFs emitted by household wiring and appliances.
Electric and magnetic fields are part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that includes static electricity, radio frequency, microwave and infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation and x-rays. Any device that’s plugged into an electric outlet emits an electric field, even if it’s switched off. Magnetic fields are only generated if the device is plugged in and switched on. Both electric and magnetic fields are strongest closest to their source and drop off dramatically as you move away from the source.
The World Health Organization, which has extensively studied the issue and surveyed decades of scientific research, says that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low levels of electromagnetic fields.” EMFs found in the home are low-level fields.
Despite the lack of evidence that low-frequency EMFs cause health problems, some people remain concerned and try to limit their exposure. Easy ways to reduce EMFs include choosing energy-efficient appliances and equipment (our site gives you lots of tips about this) and eliminating “phantom loads” by unplugging appliances and devices that draw energy even when they’re turned off–that includes anything with a transformer, a remote, a timer, or memory.
Some people make sure that always-on appliances like refrigerators are not on the other side of a wall from a bed, since magnetic fields can travel through solid objects. Also, some people concerned about EMFs choose not to use electric blankets.
8. Banned Building Materials
Millions of homes harbor lead-based paint, asbestos, and toxic wood preservatives. All three have been banned from building products, but they continue to plague building owners and occupants.
Of the three, lead-based paint is by far the greatest hazard. Young children who ingest old paint chips or get lead-contaminated dust on their hands and in their mouths can develop lead poisoning, a serious condition that can damage the brain and the nervous system.
If you have a home that’s more than 30 years old, be aware that any disturbance of old paint–sanding, scraping, using heat guns or paint strippers–can release lead particles into your home. (And even if you’re not doing any remodeling work, peeling or chipping paint can wind up in children’s mouths or in your whole family’s lungs.)
Even though lead in paint has been banned for thirty years in the United States, imported products made with lead-based paint continue to be sold here in violation of the law. Read our Toys article to learn how to protect your children.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber used in building materials to increase strength and heat resistance until it was banned in the 1970s. High levels of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other fatal diseases. Asbestos-related diseases have primarily been associated with workers exposed to high levels on job. But if you have a home that’s more than 30 years old, when you do home improvement projects it’s smart to take precautions to prevent asbestos from becoming friable and airborne. This can happen if the asbestos-containing material is cut into, damaged, sanded, or removed during remodeling.
Asbestos materials in older homes include duct and pipe insulation, attic and wall insulation, ceiling tiles, wallboard and joint compound, electrical insulation, floor-tile adhesives, roofing, and siding. It’s often impossible to tell by looking at a material if it contains asbestos. You can have a material tested by sending a small sample to an asbestos testing laboratory.
If an asbestos-containing material is in good shape, leave it alone. It’s not harmful unless it deteriorates. If you need to repair or remove it, consult the U.S. EPA’s website; the asbestos section has detailed information on safe handling.
The once-common wood preservative chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was banned for most residential uses at the end of 2003. It contains arsenic and can cause cancer and other illnesses. If you have decks and playground equipment that were treated with CCA, protect yourself and your family with an oil or water-based stain that penetrates the wood surface. Painting the surfaces is not advisable because paint can chip and flake, requiring scraping and sanding that will only increase your exposure to CCA. When working with wood that was treated with this material, shower afterward and wash your work clothes separately. When you dispose of any-old or new-treated lumber, make sure it goes to a lined landfill, and don’t burn it. Burning it can release toxic substances into the air.
For new projects you should use EPA-approved preservatives, such as quat and azole, made from less toxic copper-based compounds. The only way you are likely to run into wood preserved with the banned compound is if you buy from a dealer with very old inventory.
9. Emerging Concerns
There’s lots of good news on the home health front. Lead-based paint and asbestos have been banned for three decades. Radon can be a problem in some homes, but it’s not too difficult to take care of. Mold problems can almost always be solved by drying up the source of moisture. More and more people are becoming aware of potential hazards associated with VOCs, vinyl, and pesticides and are choosing alternatives that are safer for their families.
But it’s not as if our homes will soon be completely safe. New products and technologies are being introduced all the time, outpacing the efforts of risk assessment scientists, regulators, and health advocacy organizations to keep up.
A few years ago, antimicrobial surfaces started hitting the market, and you can now buy soaps, wipes, clothes, carpet, furniture, wall coverings, and even doorknobs impregnated with chemicals that kill microbes that might harm us. There’s little evidence that these antimicrobial products are making us healthier, and growing concern that they are leading to the creation of bacteria (or “super bugs”) that are resistant to antimicrobials. Some of these antimicrobials, like triclosan and silver, are turning up in waterways, where they may disrupt aquatic life and make their way into the food chain.
More recently, some manufacturers of building products have started turning to nanotechnology to create tiny particles the size of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. The promised benefits are alluring: fabrics that clean themselves, coatings that produce power, super-lightweight materials that provide super-high levels of insulation. What are the risks? Nanoparticles can be so small that they might readily pass through skin and lungs and move through the body and even into the brain. And they may wind up polluting waterways and soil yet be virtually undetectable because they’re so small. So far, the federal government isn’t actively regulating nanotechnology.
So next time you hear a pitch for a brand-new building product or high-tech material, remember that a healthy dose of skepticism may be the safest approach for you and your family. Besides asking, “What’s in it for me?” you might also ask, “What’s in it that could harm me?”