Reducing Allergy and Asthma Triggers
Allergies and asthma are on the rise, and our homes may be contributing to the problem. The following strategies will help reduce troublesome substances such as dust, cleaning products, and pollens. The trick is to identify what triggers are causing problems for people living in the house (usually in consultation with your doctor), and target those first.
To start with, choose cleaning products carefully, reducing the hazardous chemicals or fumes associated with them. Use pump sprays, for example, instead of aerosol spray cans. For drain maintenance, choose enzyme treatments and augers, rather than chemical drain cleaners. Using cleaning products in a well-ventilated area will help, too.
Also limit your use of substances such as pesticides and fertilizers, especially those containing synthetic organics, and keep your doors and windows closed if your neighbor is applying them. In general, avoid or limit the use of any product with label warnings that include the words corrosive, explosive, or poisonous.
One key action to improve your home's health is to stop smoking. Period. If you can't quit, at least smoke outside the house, especially if you have children at home.
Dust and Dust Mites
Dust can contain all sorts of unpleasant things, from dirt and food particles to pet dander and dust mites (microscopic insects that feed on the substances in dust, including invisible flakes of skin). Reactions to these range from irritating (sneezing and watery eyes) to dangerous (asthma attacks).
The key to reducing dust is twofold: Choose furniture and decor elements that are easy to clean, and clean them regularly. Wood, vinyl, and tile, for example, clean more easily than carpets, which can trap up to 70 percent of dust particles even after vacuuming. Window blinds are easier to clean than curtains, as is furniture with a smooth finish and few intricate details.
Dust surfaces including windowsills and furniture weekly, with a water-dampened or specialty dusting cloth (aerosol cleaning products can emit harmful substances themselves, while dry cloths just spread the dust around). Vacuum after dusting, using either a central vacuum system vented outdoors, or a stand-alone vacuum with a high-efficiency filter (these reduce the dust from the vacuum's exhaust). Replace vacuum bags or clean dirt receptacles frequently.
If you're removing old carpets, vacuum them first to reduce the dust that they'll raise. If they're dirty, dusty, or moldy, protect yourself with gloves, safety glasses, and a nose/mouth mask.
Bedding such as sheets and pillowcases should be washed weekly in hot water and dried in the dryer (hanging sheets and clothes to dry outside is great for reducing utility bills, but the items can end up covered with pollens and dust). Mattresses and pillows can be sealed in dust mite-proof (sometimes known as hypoallergenic) covers. Curtains, area rugs, bathmats, cushions, and pillows should be washed regularly.
Cleaning tasks should also include washing or replacing filters monthly on such systems as forced-air furnaces or air conditioners. To reduce outdoor allergens in the house, caulk or weather-strip your doors and windows. To help eliminate indoor pollutants, maintain good ventilation; range, bathroom, and clothes dryer vents should be installed and vented outside the house.
As wonderful as pets can be, they can contribute to allergies and asthma difficulties. If you want to keep your pets but are concerned about the dust and dander that they generate, consider a few precautions. Keep pets out of sleeping areas and away from upholstered furniture and stuffed toys. Brush their coats regularly, outdoors if possible. Train dogs to wait for their feet to be washed or brushed off when they come inside. If you can, choose pet breeds that tend to have lower allergy triggers.
In severe cases, you may be forced to find a new home for your pet. If you can't find good adoptive homes yourself, take your pet to the local humane society or animal shelter. Never abandon a pet.
Volatile Organic Compounds
That “new smell” that comes with recent furniture purchases or construction may be a warning sign. Many items-including carpets, furniture made from particleboard or plywood, plastics, paints, and cleaning products — give off high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when they're new. Some VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene, which aren't exactly substances that you want in your home.
The best defense against VOCs is prevention. Choose furniture and construction materials that don't release (or off-gas) these particles: solid wood, products labeled as low-emitting or containing phenol formaldehyde (softwood plywood) rather than urea formaldehyde (hardwood or finished-grade plywood), and fibers such as wool, cotton, or nylon. Avoid urea formaldehyde foam insulation (a type of expanding-foam insulation).
Cost can force you to choose higher-VOC substances such as plywood, but sealing exposed edges and surfaces by painting or laminating them will help.
If you can, leave new items such as furniture or carpets (unrolled) outside or in a garage for a few days. Inside, protect them from direct sunlight or heat. VOC release is highest during a product's first few weeks or months and tends to increase with higher temperatures and humidity levels. If you need to have the item indoors right away, open the windows to increase ventilation.
If your home is not ventilated properly, it can create a phenomenon known as backdrafting, in which exhaust gases from furnaces, stoves, and fireplaces are drawn back into the house. These contain combustion gases, which can irritate breathing passages, aggravate existing breathing problems, and even cause death, in the case of carbon monoxide (there's a good reason why these gases are exhausted outside the house).
To maintain a good ventilation system, ensure that any appliance that burns fuel (e.g., furnaces and stoves) is adequately supplied with fresh air. In addition, these appliances and their intake and exhaust systems should be inspected and serviced annually by a qualified technician. You can help by changing or cleaning any filters regularly and by updating the technology whenever you can to replace older, less efficient models. Also ensure that range hood, clothes dryer, and bathroom exhaust fans are vented outside the house.
An air-cleaning or air-purifier system can reduce the allergens and hazardous substances in your home's air-but they need careful installation and maintenance, because they can produce ozone, which itself irritates breathing passages. Clean system filters regularly, and consider the benefits of the systems versus the risks. I