Making Your House a Healthy Home
If you’re like most Americans, you spend much of your time indoors. Have you ever stopped to think about whether the air you’re breathing at home is healthy? Research has found that in some homes across America, the quality of indoor air can be worse than outdoor air. In part, this is because many homes are being built and remodeled tighter. You don’t have to be a building scientist to deal with the quality of air in your home; however, you should understand a few basics to get you started.
Biological Pollutants (like molds
and dust mites)
Molds, mildew, fungi, bacteria, and dust mites are some of the main biological pollutants inside the home. Some, such as pollen, are generated outside the home. Mold and mildew are generated in the home and release spores into the air. Mold, mildew, fungi, and bacteria are often found in areas of the home that have high humidity levels, such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms or basements. Dust mites and animal dander are problematic when they become airborne during vacuuming, making beds, or when textiles are disturbed.
Allergic reactions are the most common health problems associated with biological pollutants.
Molds and dust mites thrive in areas of high humidity. Mold grows on organic materials, such as paper, textiles, grease, dirt, and soap scum. Mold spores float throughout the house, forming new colonies where they land. Dust mites thrive on dead human skin cells and are found in textiles, such as bedding, carpeting, and upholstery. When these textiles are disturbed during vacuuming, making beds, or walking on carpet, the dust particles become airborne. Pollen, plant material that enters through windows or on pets, and animal dander also become airborne when disturbed. Infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses are generally passed from person to person through physical contact, but some circulate through indoor ventilation systems.
Allergic reactions are the most common health problems associated with biological pollutants. Symptoms often include watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing, nasal congestion, itching, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. Dust mites have been identified as the single most important trigger for asthma attacks.
Addressing the Problem
There are no practical tests for biological contaminants for use by nonprofessionals. However, there are signs to watch for. You can sometimes see and smell mold colonies growing on surfaces. Mold growth should be suspected wherever there are water stains, standing water, or moist surfaces.
Prevent mold growth by keeping basements, bathrooms, and other rooms clean and dry. Use a disinfectant to clean surfaces that have mold on them. If carpeting or furnishings become wet, they must be quickly and thoroughly dried or discarded.
Humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and air conditioning condensing units should be regularly cleaned with a disinfectant, such as chlorine bleach. Keep humidity at acceptable levels (less than 50 percent), and make sure there’s plenty of ventilation, especially in areas where moisture tends to build up.
People who are sensitive to dust mites may need to replace carpeting in their homes with hard surfaced flooring and use area rugs that can be removed and cleaned. Vacuums with high efficiency filters or central vacuum systems can help reduce the airborne dust generated by vacuuming.
Cleaning Up Mold
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if the moldy area is less than about 10 square feet, in most cases, you can handle the job yourself, following the guidelines below. If you have health concerns, consult a health professional before starting cleanup.
If you choose to hire a contractor to do the cleanup, make sure the contractor has experience cleaning up mold. For do-it-yourself cleanup, note that the use of a disinfecting chemical or biocide that kills organisms such as mold (chlorine bleach, for example) is not recommended as a routine practice during mold remediation, although there may be instances where professional judgment may indicate its use (for example, when immune-compromised individuals are present). In most cases, it is not possible or desirable to sterilize an area; background levels of mold spores will remain, and these spores will grow if the moisture problem has not been resolved. If you choose to use disinfectants or biocides, always ventilate the area. Outdoor air may need to be brought in with fans. Never mix chlorine bleach solution with other cleaning solutions or detergents that contain ammonia because toxic fumes could be produced.
In instances when a biocide is not used, simply damp-wipe surfaces with plain water or with water and detergent solution (for wood, use wood floor cleaner); scrub as needed. Always dry completely after cleanup is completed.
In order to limit your exposure to airborne mold during cleanup, you should wear an N-95 respirator, available at many hardware stores. In order to be effective, the respirator or mask must fit properly, so carefully follow the instructions supplied with the respirator.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2011.