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Is the Air in Your Home Polluted?

Your home should make you more healthy, not less. Put your pollution radar to the test and answer these four questions.

Is the Air in Your Home Polluted?

Ahhhh, home at last. Time to unwind, kick off your shoes, and take a deep breath of . . . pollution?

Yep. Indoor air -- in homes and offices -- can be more polluted than outdoor air. And the average home contains hundreds of sources of worrisome pollutants, from cleaning supplies to carpets.

So how concerned should you be?

Research suggests that you'd have to breathe in unusually high levels of household pollutants for a long time to suffer serious health effects. But if you're sensitive to chemicals and allergens, even low levels can trigger irritating reactions.

But your home should make you more healthy, not less. Put your pollution radar to the test, and answer these four questions:

1. Pungent formaldehyde can be found in which of these products? (More than one answer may be correct.)

a. Cosmetics and nail polish
b. Glues and adhesives
c. Pressed-wood products (plywood, particle board, and medium-density fiberboard)
d. Foam insulation materials
e. Mouthwash
f. Wallpaper
g. Wrinkle-resistant drapes, linens, and other fabrics
h. All of the above

The answer is "All of the above."

While formaldehyde is a "probable" carcinogen, experts say the effect of typical home levels on cancer risk is low. Still, who needs it? And if you or your kids are sensitive to the stuff, you want to clear the air of it.

What you can do:

  • Buy solid-wood products; antique furniture; glass; or metal, such as stainless steel. (If you do buy pressed-wood furniture or paneling, be sure it conforms to low-emission standards. Agency stamps that certify such products include ANSI, HPMA, CPA, NPA, HPVA.
  • Pass on treated fabrics whenever possible.
  • Check personal-care product ingredients for formaldehyde, and toss 'em if it's shown.
  • If you suspect levels are high -- your eyes, nose, and throat are irritated; you have headaches; you are dizzy and nauseated -- buy a test kit, or have a professional testing company test the air.

Related: Clean up indoor air with these plants.

2. Which of the following household products is likely to contain other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or chemicals that become gas at room temperature?

a. Air fresheners
b. Tap water
c. Freshly dry-cleaned clothing
d. None of the above
e. All of the above

The answer is "All of the above."

VOC levels vary from home to home and room to room. If you painted a room in the past year, if you bought new carpet or furniture, or if anyone smokes in your house, you've inhaled VOCs. In fact, VOCs -- also released by heavily chlorinated tap water and perchloroethylene (PCE) in your just-dry-cleaned sweater -- are two to five times higher indoors than outside.

Related: Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals. Here are a few you could be inhaling.

At high levels, you may feel dizzy, nauseated, tired, and uncoordinated. Your ears, nose, and throat may become irritated, and you may have a skin reaction. A study of young children suggests that high levels of VOCs in the home may be linked to asthma.

What you can do:

  • Buy floor models of furniture and appliances that have had time to "off gas."
  • Buy solid-wood, glass, or metal (stainless steel) products.
  • Let fresh air in rather than using an air freshener. Weather permitting, open doors and windows, and use fans to bring outside air in.
  • Keep temperature and humidity as low as you can while still feeling comfortable; it can help decrease "off-gassing."
  • Do indoor construction and painting when you can vacate the house for a while or when it's warm enough to open all the windows and doors.
  • Buy low-VOC, air-friendly cleaning products, or make your own. (Go to www.cleanaircounts.org for recipes.)
  • Use VOC-free or low-VOC paint.
  • Store materials with high VOC levels (solvents, most paint) in a garage or shed, not in the house.
  • Keep household cleaners tightly sealed when not in use.
  • If your dry-cleaned clothes have a chemical odor, ask the cleaner to dry them properly. If it happens again, try a different dry cleaner, preferably one that doesn't use perchloroethylene. Take cleaned clothes from the plastic wrap, and let outdoor air circulate around them for an hour.
  • If your water has a strong chlorine smell, open a window or turn on the exhaust fan when taking a hot shower or bath. Chloroform is a by-product of chlorinated water.
  • Have your home tested if you have sensitivity symptoms.

3. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America. Where does it come from?

a. Radiators
b. Fluorescent lighting
c. Soil and groundwater
d. Wood-burning stoves or fireplaces
e. All of the above

The correct answer is "Soil and groundwater."

Radon, a radioactive gas, is naturally released by minerals such as uranium and radium in well water, soil, and rock in certain areas, and by some building materials made from earth or stone.

When radon is in the soil beneath your house, it wafts in through cracks in the foundation, gaps in floorboards, and openings around pipes. Once inside, it can build up to dangerous levels. It's estimated that high radon levels can be found in 1 of every 15 homes in America; in some parts of the country, that number jumps to 1 in 3.

What you can do:

  • Check the indoor air at the lowest level of your home with a radon test kit. For an additional fee (usually $5 to $25), the kit maker will analyze the results. Or you can have a professional do it.
  • Retest every 2 to 5 years or if you do any renovations, put in a new heating system, or install central air conditioning.
  • If radon problems are detected, have them fixed promptly by a qualified radon mitigation contractor.

Related: Try these easy ways to reduce your exposure to toxins.

4. Dust mites, pollen, dust, mold, bacteria, insects, and animal dander trigger allergic reactions and hay fever-like symptoms in sensitive people. Where do these irritants lurk in your home?

a. Carpets and rugs
b. Fluffy toys
c. Beds and bedding
d. Air-conditioning systems
e. All of the above

The correct answer is "All of the above."

These biological bad guys are everywhere, including on pets and in the bathroom.

If you have respiratory complaints; eye, nose, and throat irritation; frequent headaches; or feel tired or dizzy, see your healthcare provider for allergy testing.

What you can do:

  • Dust and vacuum your home, including upholstered furniture, frequently.
  • Consider investing in a HEPA-filter vacuum, which improves air quality and reduces allergens.
  • Don't let moisture or humidity build up anywhere. Mold and dust mites flourish in warm, damp environments. If you spot mold, remove it immediately. Try to identify the source of the moisture and fix the problem.
  • Use exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen to help keep humidity levels low.
  • If you use an air conditioner, humidifier, or dehumidifier, make sure they're well maintained and cleaned regularly.

July, 2011