When my son was first diagnosed with asthma at three years old (He’s 13 now, yikes!), we were told to make our home “healthier.” At the time we weren’t quite sure what that meant. Was the house supposed to lose weight? Put on some sunscreen? Eat its vegetables? Obviously, the answer we got was quite different.
A healthy home simply refers to a home whose interior environment is one that promotes the overall health of the occupants in a variety of ways, including high indoor quality, a lack of toxic gasses or liquids, moisture management that prevents the growth of bacteria, mold and fungus, the proper remediation of any carcinogenic materials, the elimination of germ or dust collecting surfaces, and a few other steps. Get it? Probably not, so let me tell you what to do.
Indoor air quality is almost certainly a product of what you bring into your house, so don’t bring in things that are bad for you. Or if you do, get rid of them as soon as you can.
The perfect example of this is furniture. Some furniture is made using a lot of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs release mildly toxic chemicals that contribute to illnesses like asthma and allergies. So simply put, when you go to buy furniture either don’t buy anything with VOCs (just ask) or if you do, air it out in your garage first so most (not all) VOCs off-gas. I recognize that we all need to go to Ikea occasionally, so if you get that piece of furniture, air it out before you bring it in.
VOCs are found in a lot of products too, including paint, floor finishes, and adhesives regularly used in homes. The solution to that is the same as above: Use only those items that have no VOCs or are water-based. Yes, they’re more expensive, but it matters. Also, they’re so much more pleasant to be around. I don’t know about you, but to me a freshly painted house smells awful and generally gives me a headache. This is because of the VOCs, so if the paint smells, use something else.
The number one destroyer of homes is moisture, and not just because it rots your sills and your roof, but because it allows bacteria, fungus, and molds to grow. The answer to this problem is to manage the moisture in your home. To do this, you need a humidity sensor to make sure that your Relative Humidity is between 40% and 60%. With less than 40% your nose is about to fall off. But greater than 60% is like living in a Petri dish.
Depending on how bad your allergies are, you may want get rid of anything that will collect dust, like curtains and drapes, old furniture, old mattresses, and even carpet. In fact, if a friend asks me what they should do when setting up a baby’s room, I will say to pull up the carpet, get rid of the curtains, and repaint and cover the floor with no-VOC products.
While hard floors are a nice-to-have from a healthy home perspective, measuring for radon, asbestos, and other types of radioactivity in your home is a must. A radon test involves a company leaving behind a monitor to check for the presence of this highly toxic and common gas. The test is generally around $500, and even if radon is found, frequently there are some very easy steps to get it out of your house so it doesn’t endanger anyone. Radon has been implicated in a host of health dangers, the worst of which is lung cancer. Take this one seriously.
Similarly, have the home inspector look for asbestos in your home. I’m most concerned about wrapping and insulation around pipes, which breaks down over time, thereby releasing the asbestos fibers. I’m far less concerned about asbestos found in floor tiles or shingles (unless you are sanding them or grinding them in some way. Don’t do that.)
With regard to other radioactivity in your home, there was a scare a few years ago about some stone countertops (particularly the most exotic) containing traces of radioactive material. Testing for this requires someone scanning your countertops with a Geiger counter. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, unless your countertops are from some far off place or, you know, glow in the dark or something. The distributor of the countertops should know what their history is, so again, just ask.
What you should worry more about is lead paint, which depending on where you live (like the Northeast) is in practically every home. Again, it’s fairly easy to test for and then clean it up. Remediation generally means stripping it off (expensive and tedious) or “encapsulating” it i.e., painting it over (cheap and easy). For most surfaces, painting it over is fine, however, with windows (which grind through paint and turn it to dust) I would recommend stripping it.
Finally, there are a few really easy things you can do to in your home to have even more impact. First off, most indoor air quality issues arise from what you track into the house, so leave your shoes outside if you can. Also, you know all those chemicals under the sink and down in the basement that you’re saving for the next time you have to strip some paint, kill some bugs, or some other household duty? Get rid of them today. As in, right now. Most of them are highly toxic, a danger to young children, and evaporate over time so that people breath in the fumes. Bring them to your local hazardous waste center and replace them only when you need them. And then once you’re done, dump ‘em. It’s short money to ensure the safety of household members and a healthy home.
As usual, more information can be found on our sister site, 360Chestnut.