Creating a Healthy Home

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Creating a Healthy Home

The home. For many, the idea of home elicits a feeling of safety, comfort, and coziness. We take pride in our homes, using them for entertaining, for shelter, and for breaking bread with friends and family. We spend some of our most unforgettable moments at home, celebrating life’s joys, enduring life’s hardships. It is where we nurture family and care for our furnishings, our plants, and our pets, not to mention ourselves. Perhaps that’s why we often take for granted our home’s health.

Unfortunately, the very spaces where we spend so much quality time are often riddled with health and environmental threats. Construction materials release toxic fumes, mold, mildew, and fungi growth due to improper drainage or poor ventilation; and pollen, dust, and mites from pets, shoes, and open windows can all create a polluted environment in our very homes. In The New Natural House Book (Fireside, 1998), author David Pearson writes, “The problem has arisen in recent decades because of widespread introduction of synthetic building materials and finishes, furnishings, fabrics, and household chemicals. All of these have joined established pollutants, such as dust, bacteria, and fungi to create a far more dangerous environment for us all.” What’s more, the energy used in homes accounts for more than 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So not only are our homes the perpetrators of indoor pollution, they contribute significantly to outdoor pollution as well.

The good news is, with a bit of education and environmental awareness, there are many simple and cost-effective ways to make your home both healthier and more energy efficient. But first, here’s an overview of the many causes of indoor air pollution and a run down of the household goods, systems, and fixtures that are notoriously inefficient.

Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs

These organic chemicals are found in a mind-boggling array of household goods from paint and interior finishes to cleaning products and office equipment. Dry cleaning and aerosol sprays are also well-known sources, as are many hobby supplies, stored fuels, and automotive supplies. VOCs release gases during product use and to a lesser degree, when they are stored. Exposure during use can be dangerously high, and elevated concentrations may remain in the air long after the activity has been completed. Symptoms include: headaches, nausea, eye, nose, and throat irritation, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Some VOCs are known to cause cancer in humans. Specific chemicals to avoid include methylene chloride which is found in paint strippers, adhesive removers, and spray paints; benzene, which is found in tobacco smoke, stored fuels, paint supplies, and automobile emissions; and perchloroethylene, the chemical most often used in dry cleaning.

Formaldehyde

This particular VOC is an odorous, strong smelling gas emitted from construction materials made of pressed wood such as hardwood plywood wall paneling, particleboard, and fiberboard as well as from furniture and cabinetry made of these materials. Other sources include tobacco smoke, wrinkle free textiles (such as drapes), and glues. A major contributor to the presence of formaldehyde in the home is urea-formaldehyde foam insulation or UFFI. Unlike many VOCs, formaldehyde continues to outgas at a fairly consistent rate given a constant temperature. Emissions are increased with exposure to heat and may also be affected by humidity levels. Formaldehyde is classified by the Occu-pational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a carcinogen.

Pesticides

While we are aware of the many benefits of avoiding pesticides on our food, we may be less knowledgeable about the presence of pesticides in our homes. And avoiding airborne exposure is equally important, since according to the EPA, 75% of U.S. households used at least one form of pesticide last year. Pesticides include products designed to control insects, termites, rodents, fungi, and microbes, which includes disinfectants. The main ‘killer’ in pesticides is not the only potentially harmful ingredient, as many other organic compounds may be included to carry that chemical to its prey. These inert ingredients may also increase household levels of VOCs and other indoor pollutants. Sources include not only products used in the home, but also contaminated soil tracked in from outdoors.

Biological contaminants

Biological pollution includes pet dander, mold, fungi, bacteria, and pollen. Sources of these contaminants include plants, pets, inadequate draining systems or ventilation, standing water, and outside air. Symptoms range from allergic reactions, hay fever, and asthma to skin rashes and headaches.

PVC or Polyvinylchloride

This synthetic material, a flexible plastic often known simply as vinyl, is ubiquitous in most homes. From shower curtains to siding, food containers to carpet backing, this easy to produce toxic substance is literally everywhere you look. PVC is known to leach toxic stabilizers such as lead, cadmium, and phlatate plasticizers into water and food when used for storage, and emits deadly gases when exposed to extreme heat or flame. The manufacturing of PVC products creates dioxin, a potent carcinogen which accumulates in the body’s fatty tissues and also in breast milk. And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, PVC is also non-recyclable and interferes with recycling other plastics.

Inefficient appliances

Older models and budget-variety appliances may be a significant energy drain in your home. If your refrigerator or clothes washer is more than ten years old, it may require up to twice as much energy as comparable models today. Considering that appliance use amounts to 18% of an average home energy bill (according to energystar.gov), that’s a difference that adds up, not only on your monthly statement, but in greenhouse emissions too.

Old single pane or leaded glass windows

They may be full of charm, but single pane windows are a major source of heating and cooling loss in a home. Their inexact fit in the frame and thin, non-reflective panes can result in significant energy loss, making your home more expensive to heat in the winter and more difficult to cool in the summer. If your drapes flutter with a strong breeze, you’ve got a problem.

Insufficient insulation

When was the last time you took a gander at the insulation in your attic? How about your basement? Any idea what the ‘R’ value is of your walls? Old, sagging or ill-fitting insulation, even when there is enough of it, can be another source of heat loss. To work properly, insulation must be flush to the surface and allowed to billow out to its full depth in order to provide the level of insulation promised by its ‘R’ rating. If you’ve got patched or puckered insulation or if it’s thinning, you’re losing energy straight through your walls.

HVAC Heating, Ventilation & Cooling

Climate control accounts for 45% of household energy bills, according to the Department of Energy. If your system is antiquated, insufficient for the size of your home, or riddled with leaks in the duct work, you may be wasting energy (and money) by inadvertently heating your basement, cooling your attic, and what David Pearson calls the “bellows effect” cold air entering and hot air escaping through windows and door frames.

Feeling daunted? Take heart, there are many basic steps and weekend projects that can easily and affordably make your home healthier. Pearson recommends, “Adapt your home gradually rather than trying to do it all at once. Start simply and easily with items such as better cleaning materials, cosmetics, and clothes; move on to curtains, fabrics, and decoration, and then later to the larger and more expensive items, such as furniture, carpet, and fittings.” See the sidebar on page 56 for ideas to help you get started transforming your house into a healthier more comfortable home.

Chelsea Green Publishing, one of the leading healthy home book publishers, offers a variety of books from The New Ecological Home and Green Remodeling to The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes for the environmentally concerned homeowner. In The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes, authors Athena and Bill Steen showcase homes across the country that make use of straw bale in conventional and non-conventional dwellings. From Tucson to Nebraska to Quebec, each residence offers builders and homeowners the inspiration for using natural materials in their home. While some homes feature soft, organic curves others are more traditional ranch style homes. The combination of a natural foundation with natural paints, resalvaged materials, and alternative energy is the true definition of a healthy and environmentally sound home. For more information on Chelsea Green Publishing, visit www.chelseagreen.com.

11 Easy Ways to Make Your Home Healthier

1. Take off your shoes. Reduce the amount of dust, pollen, and pesticides in your home by having a ‘no shoe’ policy in your house. Leave ’em at the door and you’ll breathe easier and sweep less!

2. Switch to all natural household cleaners. From dish soap to floor polish, natural foods stores offer a great selection of non-toxic cleaning products for your home and your clothing. Favorite brands include Seventh Generation and Ecover.

3. Choose Energy Star. This government backed program has created standards for energy efficiency. Products include household appliances, water heaters, televisions, computers, even whole houses! Selecting Energy Star rated products means you’re saving money on your electric bills and reducing greenhouse emissions. Plus, Energy Star rated dishwashers and clothes washers also use less water.

4. Insulate your water heater. For less than $30, you can purchase an insulated blanket from your Lowe’s or Home Depot and insulate your water heater, allowing you to turn down the temperature and save money and energy with every hot shower.

5. Change your light bulbs. By replacing standard bulbs with compact fluorescents, you’ll have to replace bulbs less frequently while saving on energy. CFs use up to 75% less energy and last up to 10 times longer than standard bulbs.

6. Redecorate with low or no-VOC paints. Water based paints and stains come in a lovely variety of colors and are non-toxic. Bioshield and AFM Safecoat both offer low-VOC paints (bioshieldpaint.com, afmsafecoat.com). Or, choose a natural earthen plaster tinted with mica or clay. TerraMed and American Clay both offer a good selection of shades (americanclay.com).

7. Upgrade your HVAC filters. Another cost-effective way to clear the air, high performance and HEPA rated filters are available for your return vents, helping reduce indoor pollutants by filtering dust, pollen, and other undesirables from the air and keeping your heating and cooling system cleaner.

8. Avoid plastics. By banning vinyl and other PVCs, you’ll keep dioxins out of the air and plastics out of the landfill. In addition, you’ll reduce your family’s exposure to the toxic substances known to leach from these substances. Choose glass for storing food, fabric for shower curtains, and inquire about the backing of carpet and the stuffing of furniture and mattresses to keep PVCs out of your home.

9. Seal air leaks. Check door frames, window frames, and duct work for leaks. Replace worn out weather stripping and patch and insulate duct work in the attic and basement (where energy loss is most likely to occur). Duct mastic and insulation are available at your local home improvement store, and with a little elbow grease, your HVAC system will operate more efficiently and your home will be more comfortable season to season.

10. Buy a programmable thermostat. These handy devices allow you to set temperatures to increase and decrease as appropriate during certain times of the day. Many models offer specifications for days of the week as well as hours, allowing you to control weekend temperatures as well. This helps save money and energy, in addition to making your home more comfortable all day every day.

11. Go solar. You don’t have to be an environmental renegade to incorporate solar power as a home energy source. Start simple and small, purchase enough photovoltaics to run your refrigerator, heat your water, or light your home. The initial expense pays for itself in a matter of years, and you’ll be sparing the earth the pollutants and by-products of traditional energy production immediately.

Inefficient appliances

Older models and budget-variety appliances may be a significant energy drain in your home. If your refrigerator or clothes washer is more than ten years old, it may require up to twice as much energy as comparable models today. Considering that appliance use amounts to 18% of an average home energy bill (according to energystar.gov), that’s a difference that adds up, not only on your monthly statement, but in greenhouse emissions too.

Old single pane or leaded glass windows

They may be full of charm, but single pane windows are a major source of heating and cooling loss in a home. Their inexact fit in the frame and thin, non-reflective panes can result in significant energy loss, making your home more expensive to heat in the winter and more difficult to cool in the summer. If your drapes flutter with a strong breeze, you’ve got a problem.

By Tanya M. Williams

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