Our home is our microcosm. According to The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS), the average American spends 87% of time indoors. Just as the pollutants in the air, water and soil impact all living organisms, toxins and pollutants in our homes affect us on daily basis, whether we work, sleep or watch TV. Let’s pinpoint the biggest causes of unhealthy home environment as well as solutions to these problems.
Probably the most dangerous of them all, carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless gas so homeowners often don’t realize there’s a problem until exposure occurs. Moderate exposure is similar to flu-like symptoms, such as headache, dizziness and nausea, while heavy exposure can prove fatal. Carbon monoxide related deaths spike in winter, when there are more heating appliances in use, while homes are poorly ventilated. In a single incident in January this year, nine Mississauga residents were hospitalized when their home was filled with high level of carbon monoxide. In addition to installing CO detectors, home inspectors recommend inspecting heating appliances and HVAC systems for carbon monoxide leak.
Although paint companies began displacing lead-based products in 1950s, resulting in a total ban in 1978, lead still poses a threat in many homes across Canada. In 2005, Revisions to the Hazardous Products Act restricted lead concentrations in new interior paint to 600 ppm (parts per million), with the manufacturer’s obligation to display the warning ‘Danger. Contains lead. Do not apply to surfaces accessible to children or pregnant women.’ In 2010, however, Canada limited the total concentration of lead in paint to 90 ppm, while lead can still be added to certain types of paint, provided that the 2005 warning is displayed. Young children are especially at risk as they spend a lot of time on the floor, often ingesting dust particles flaking from painted window sills and doors.
For almost a century, asbestos was considered a perfect insulating and fire-retardant material. Its dense, fibrous structure made it ideal for many applications where good heat insulation was needed, such as roof shingles, floor tiles, wall siding, even some plumbing elements. It was only much later discovered that, when disturbed and airborne, those micro-fibres can cause severe respiratory problems, even related to lung cancer. An example of a highly developed country that has addressed the residential asbestos problem seriously is Australia, where numerous government programs work closely with asbestos removal companies in improving public health.
As a radioactive, colourless, odourless and tasteless gas, radon naturally occurs in ground, from where it can be ‘sucked up’ into homes through cracks in the foundation or floor drains. When the pressure in a house becomes negative – more air coming in and more going out through roof vents, radon from the lowest levels can be pulled upwards. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among children and non-smokers, giving it much publicity and research. Experts recommend professional radon testing as a part of regular annual home inspection. If detected, levels can be reduced by sealing the foundation cracks and installing a house pressurization fan in the basement that blows the air from upstairs to lower levels.
High humidity, moisture intrusion and water leak are the main cause of mould. A home with humidity level above 45% can easily become a breeding ground for toxic mould cultures. If you add a small leak under the kitchen sink, mould can take residence and spread throughout the home, flourishing undetected behind your walls. Since mould can lead to an abundance of health issues including asthma attacks, irritation of eyes and nasal passages, it’s important to lower the humidity by natural ventilation and using fans in the bathroom and kitchen. An annual plumbing inspection should detect leaking pipes or fixtures, while dehumidifiers can reduce window condensation and drips by keeping humidity between 35 and 45%.
Even after many unhealthy and hazardous homebuilding and maintenance practices were abandoned, our homes still potentially hold toxic elements that are detrimental to our health. By regular inspection and solutions suggested here, homeowners can eliminate or reduce the exposure and ensure healthier indoor environments for their families.
Will Sandford is a Sydney based wood architect, blogger and contributor on interior design and ecology blogs. Besides that, he is also interested in home improvement combined with green technology. In his spare time, Will enjoys surfing and rock climbing. He is also a regular contributor to SmoothDecorator. Connect with him on Twitter.