Do you live in a healthy home? We often think of home as a safe place. But the reality is that houses, like people, can be unhealthy. So if you aren't sure where yours stands, odds are you're overdue for a checkup.
The Environmental Protection Agency has dubbed poor indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health risks. Even scarier: As Americans, we spend 90% of our time indoors, yet rarely ponder what hazards could be hiding in the air we breathe, points out Lisa Beres, a certified green building expert and author of "Learn to Create a Healthy Home."
So what, exactly, is slowly killing us, and what can we do about it?
“From reducing plastic use to opting for hard surfaces for flooring and nontoxic materials, there is a plethora of things you can do right away to start reducing the toxic exposures you are unknowingly subjecting yourself to," Beres says. "Every improvement will make a difference in your health today, in the future, and, of course, in the health of our planet.”
OK, then. Here are five steps you can take to make sure your home is as healthy as possible.
Tip No. 1: Don’t ignore mold
While you might be able to turn a blind eye to windows that need washing or lawns that need mowing, you don’t want to mess with mold.
“It’s something you probably don’t want to think about, but ignoring it can lead to severe health problems,” says Peter Duncanson, home safety expert and director of systems development at ServiceMaster Restore in Memphis, TN. To keep mold at bay, the key is to reduce moisture in the home. He offers these tips:
- Check for leaky pipes or plumbing that could result in excess moisture, especially in poorly ventilated areas like the basement, attic, garage, and bathroom.
- Always use an exhaust fan when showering, and leave it on even after you’re done. Investing in a small dehumidifier is another way to keep humidity levels in check (ideally at 40% to 60%).
- Service your HVAC system. Rather than let dust and debris, a prime source for mold, sit all spring and summer in the filters and vents, clean the system now so it’s ready for next season.
Tip No. 2: Rid your home of radon
A naturally occurring gas that causes lung cancer, radon can be found indoors and even in drinking water, but because it has no color, odor, or taste, you likely have no idea it’s there. It causes approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year, which is even more than the annual deaths caused by drunken driving (17,400). Most of it comes from the soil under your home, forming as uranium breaks down and seeping up into your house.
Good news: Testing your home for radon is both easy and inexpensive. If high levels are found, radon reduction systems can reduce them.
Tip No. 3: Catch carbon monoxide
“Unlike smoke, carbon monoxide has no color, no taste, no smell and is poisonous,” says Kurt Wedig, president and CEO of One Event Technologies. “What makes carbon monoxide so dangerous is its ability to displace oxygen in the blood, which deprives your heart, brain, and other vital organs of the oxygen needed to function properly. Prolonged exposure or large amounts of CO can overtake a person in minutes without warning, causing them to lose consciousness and suffocate due to lack of oxygen.”
So if you don’t have a carbon monoxide detector, get one. If you do have one, check those batteries regularly. Got it?
Tip No. 4: Butt out
Even if you’d never consider lighting up yourself, make sure no one else does in your house either. Besides the stench (eww!), secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 substances, several of which are known to cause cancer, according the EPA. And just because the smokers take their cancer sticks out to the garage, that doesn’t necessarily help—secondhand smoke has been shown to travel between rooms of a home, and even between apartment units.
Tip No. 5: Don't clean your home sick
While dust and pests can cause problems of their own, the chemicals often used to get rid of them can be even more dangerous. For example, some pesticides can cause serious damage to a person's nervous system and kidneys and even increase the risk of cancer, while many common household cleaners can release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can cause serious health damage as well. The EPA recommends using nonchemical methods of pest control and cleaners without VOCs.