Poisonous chemicals and dangerous fungi may be lurking right under your nose.
If you don’t think that toxins are lurking, undetected and invisible in your home, this fact will make you sit up and take notice. The air inside our homes may be anywhere from two to 100 times more polluted than the air just beyond our front doors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. How could this be? It turns out that the air we breathe in our homes may contain contaminants, fungi or chemical by-products that can harm our health.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when reading about all of these dangers, but the good news is that by taking simple steps you can stay ahead of the game in terms of protecting yourself and your family…
THE THREAT: MOLD
Especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast, information about mold contamination has been making headlines. This may come as no surprise to you: It is estimated that about half of all US homes are contaminated with mold. Mold (and its cousin, mildew) are fungi, and their spores are everywhere, both indoors and out. But mold needs moisture to grow, which is why it thrives wherever there is moisture in your home—in large areas, such as damp basements, or even in small piles of damp clothing.
If you’re exposed long enough—mainly through inhaling mold spores—you may become allergic, experiencing a chronic runny nose, red eyes, itchy skin rashes, sneezing and asthma. Some types of mold produce secondary compounds called that can even cause pneumonia or trigger autoimmune illness such as arthritis.
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What you may not know: Moisture control must begin promptly—you have about 24 to 48 hours to completely dry out wet areas or dampness before mold starts to grow. This time frame can help you cope with small areas of moisture and reduce your exposure to mold.
Examples: It’s important to quickly dry wet clothes left in a gym bag or in a washer or dryer…damp windowsills…and spills in the refrigerator. You can reduce or eliminate mildew in your bathroom by running the exhaust fan for a half-hour after showering—and leaving a window open if possible. When cleaning pillows and duvets, make sure to wash and dry them according to manufacturers’ instructions—otherwise the filler may retain moisture, encouraging mold growth.
To remove small areas of mold (it can be black, brown, green, yellow or white and may have an acrid smell), scrub them with a mixture of one-eighth cup of laundry detergent, a cup of bleach and a gallon of water.
Mold on a wall often is a sign that mold is also within the wall, so you’ll need to consult a professional about removal, especially if the area is larger than 10 square feet.
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THE THREAT: WATER
Up to 700 chemicals have been found in tap water, many of which have been linked to cancer, hypothyroidism and immune system damage. Chemicals such as cadmium (a highly toxic metal used in batteries)…perfluorochemicals (used in making Teflon-coated pans)…and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs (the coating on electrical transformers used in fluorescent lighting), among others, make their way into our tap water when they are dumped into soil, contaminating groundwater.
You can find out details about the water in your area by going to ewg.org/Tap-Water and entering your Zip code. At this site, you will find out about some of the contaminants in your tap water, such as lead and barium. You also will find out which ones might exceed health guidelines. In high amounts, these contaminants may cause brain damage, cancer and liver and kidney damage.
What you may not know: Contaminants in tap water, when heated, can become inhalable gasses in the shower. When inhaled while showering, chloramines and chlorine, which often are used to treat drinking water, vaporize and can raise risk for bladder cancer, hypertension, allergies and lung damage.
To prevent exposure to inhalable gasses and chlorine, buy a showerhead filter. It should remove chloramines, chlorine, lead, mercury and barium. Good brand: Santé (SanteforHealth.com, various models are available for under $200).
THE THREAT: RADON
Radon is an invisible, odorless toxin created naturally during the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. This radioactive gas can sneak into your home via cracks in the foundation. It is the number-one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers—and smokers are even more susceptible.
Most people know about testing for radon when they sell or buy a home. The EPA recommends in-home testing for anyone who lives in a basement or on the ground, first or second floors. You can purchase an affordable short-term test kit. (One brand to try is Kidde Radon Detection Kit, $17.97).
Long-term radon testing kits take into account weather variations and humidity levels that can throw off short-term results. If a short-term kit reveals elevated levels, then you need to do long-term testing.
What you may not know: The EPA sets an acceptable level of radon at anything below 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). However, in 2009 the World Health Organization determined that a dangerous level of radon was 2.7 pCi/L or higher. My advice: Do periodic testing and keep 2.7 in mind for acceptable radon levels.
THE THREAT: PCBS
These toxic chemicals could be wafting through your home and you wouldn’t know it. PCBs were used to line and insulate electrical wiring and were in paint, caulk and fluorescent light ballasts in homes until it was found that they off-gas, which means that the chemicals in them begin to evaporate, causing health problems for residents. Besides increasing risk for cancer, PCBs can adversely affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
What you may not know: PCBs were banned in the late 1970s but remain in many older homes built before 1977. Once released into the environment, PCBs don’t easily break down. You won’t know if PCBs are being released.
Most electricians are now trained to check your home’s wiring to ensure that it isn’t rotting or producing PCBs. A PCB remediation company can test for the toxin and remove it. Air-quality testing costs approximately $550.