We don’t generally think of the place we live in as a component of our health, but it is. Every day, we breathe its air, interact with its materials and components, climb its stairs. If our homes aren’t up to code – literally and figuratively – it can pose a lot of serious risks to our health, in the short and long term.
Whether it’s poor indoor air quality, toxic chemicals or risk of injury, there are dangers lurking in many of our homes that we may not even realize are there. These dangers can cause many problems, such as respiratory issues, developmental delay in children, cancer or even death.
What are some of these common household health hazards, and what can be done about them? Read on to find out how to protect your family and yourself.
Carbon monoxide (CO), sometimes called the “silent killer” because it is odorless and colorless, is a gas that comes from fuel-burning appliances in your home, such as furnaces, water heaters and stoves.
CO interferes with your body’s ability to transport oxygen through your bloodstream. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, fatigue, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms. At high enough concentrations, CO exposure can be fatal.
How to Deal
The best strategy to deal with CO is to prevent it from ever becoming a problem. Make sure all your gas appliances are properly maintained. Have your furnace and water heater serviced by a qualified professional every year. Have your chimney checked out every year as well.
Install CO detectors on all levels of your home, in places where they will wake your home’s inhabitants if they go off. Make sure the detectors you purchase are battery-powered or have a battery backup. Test the alarm at least twice a year, replacing batteries when needed. When you first buy your detectors, make note of how often they need to be replaced. Most detectors will need to be replaced every five to seven years.
Mold can cause a lot of problems for homeowners. Not only can it cause significant property damage, but also there are health risks that come with exposure to mold, especially for young children or those with respiratory issues such as asthma.
Some people are more sensitive to molds than others. Those who are affected might suffer from coughing; a runny or stuffy nose; sneezing; and itchy eyes, nose, and throat. If an individual has asthma, mold exposure may trigger or exacerbate asthma symptoms.
Pay attention to any musty smells that develop in your home. Look for signs of water damage. If you can’t find any visual evidence of mold growth but you’re experiencing unexplained symptoms similar to those caused by mold, consider hiring a professional inspector.
How to Deal
If you find mold in your home, you not only want to clean up the mold growth but also work to eliminate the sources of moisture as well. If you don’t do this, the mold will just keep growing back.
You can clean up smaller levels of mold growth (growth that covers an area of less than 10 square feet) on your own. Use detergent and water to scrub mold off hard surfaces. Make sure it dries completely. However, anything that is absorbent or porous, such as carpet, may need to be thrown out, as it’s difficult to fully remove mold from these materials.
For growth that covers more than 10 square feet, you should consider hiring a professional to do the cleanup.
If the mold-causing moisture is due to leaks in your plumbing, make sure to get them fixed as soon as possible. Keep humidity levels low with the help of an air conditioner or dehumidifier. Run the fan in your bathroom or open a window after you shower. If your home recently flooded, make sure the area was properly cleaned up and dried. Also, watch out for spots where rainwater may be seeping inside.
Owners of older homes need to be concerned about lead exposure. If you live in a home that was built before 1978 (when lead-based paint was first banned), there’s a good chance that the paint used on your home contains lead. Have your home tested by a certified inspector.
In addition, if your home’s plumbing was installed before 1986, you should check to see if the pipes are lead. If they are, consider replacing them.
Lead poisoning is mainly a concern for households with children under the age of six. However, high levels of lead exposure can have adverse effects in adults as well, such as high blood pressure, kidney damage and reduced fertility.
In children, lead exposure at any level can affect IQ, can impact bone and muscle growth, and can lead to developmental delay.
How to Deal
If you find sources of lead in your home, take action to limit exposure. If your house or apartment has been painted with lead paint, assess the condition the paint is in. The worry with lead-based paint comes when it starts to deteriorate and flake. Flakes of paint can chip off onto the ground where small children can consume them, or the paint chips can crumble into dust that contaminates the air.
When you’re cleaning areas that may be contaminated, the key is to clean wet, not dry. Wet-mopping and wet-dusting will prevent lead particles from getting into the air. Wet-mop your floors and wipe down any dusty areas with a wet paper towel or something similarly disposable.
Regularly wash your child’s hands, and keep their toys clean and free of dust as well.
Be careful any time you do any renovations that could disturb the paint. Sanding or drilling can create toxic dust from the paint. If you have to sand, make sure to wet the surface first.
If you decide to remove the lead paint, make sure you know what you’re doing or have a professional do it for you. If you don’t follow proper precautions, you could do more harm than good. A professional will have the proper training and certification to safely remove lead paint.
If you can’t afford complete removal, encapsulation might be your best bet. Encapsulants are special coatings that seal in lead paint. You can also enclose the offending paint by covering it with a new surface, like fresh drywall.
If you have lead pipes and are worried about water contamination, have your water tested. Take precautions, such as installing a certified water filter. Flush the pipes by running water for 1 – 2 minutes using cold water before using it. Use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, as hot water absorbs more lead.
If you’re concerned that your child is at risk, consult their doctor to have them tested for lead poisoning.
Another concern for people in old homes is asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been used in building construction materials for its strength and resistance to heat. It’s also a known carcinogen. Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. Many homes built before 1980 have components that are made of asbestos-containing materials.
When these materials become damaged or worn, the microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the environment. When a person inhales these fibers, they get trapped in the lungs, where they don’t break down. Continued exposure allows these fibers to accumulate and cause scarring.
If you’re planning on doing any sort of renovation that involves disturbing the materials in your home in any way, have the area tested for asbestos before you begin.
How to Deal
Visually inspect the asbestos-containing material. Don’t touch it. If it isn’t damaged and is in good condition, leave it alone. Asbestos-containing materials generally won’t release fibers if they’re in good condition and are left undisturbed.
If the material looks damaged or worn, contact an asbestos professional to evaluate the area and discuss your options. Never try to deal with asbestos on your own. If the material is only slightly damaged, you may consider simply limiting access to the area.
Your asbestos professional may find that complete removal of the asbestos-containing material isn’t necessary. Instead, they may seal or enclose the material. This may entail using a sealant to bind the asbestos fibers so they cannot be released into the air or placing a protective cover over the material.
Radon is a gas that occurs with the breakdown of naturally occurring radioactive elements, such as uranium, in rock and soil. When the uranium in the rock and soil your house is built on starts to break down, radon gas can seep into your house through any openings that exist, such as cracks in the foundation.
Radon is a problem because it can cause cancer. In fact, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Because it’s an odorless, invisible gas with no immediate side effects, it can go undetected in your home for years.
How to Deal
Radon is present to some degree in all the air we breathe. However, the problem comes with long-term exposure at higher concentrations. According to EPA estimates, one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has elevated radon levels – defined as 4.0 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) or higher. The ideal level for inside your home should be 2 pCi/L or lower.
Your first step is to start testing regularly for radon. You can buy do-it-yourself test kits at home improvement stores, or you can hire a professional tester to do it for you.
There are two types of radon tests: short-term and long-term. Short-term tests give you quick results, usually after a testing period of two to 90 days. Long-term tests have a testing period of over 90 days, so they give you a reading that is more accurate to your home’s average radon levels year-round.
The EPA recommends you start with a short-term test, and if the results show levels of 4 pCi/L or higher, follow up with either another short-term test or a long-term test, depending on how quickly you need results. If your first short-term test shows a level higher than 8 pCi/L, you should immediately follow up with another short-term test. If your levels are closer to 4 pCi/L, use a long-term test.
If you find that your home has elevated radon levels, you can have a radon reduction system installed. These work by installing a vent pipe and fan that sucks radon from beneath your house and vents it to the outside. Contact Utah's radon office to obtain a list of qualified contractors who can perform this job for you.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in many common household products, including paints, varnishes, pesticides and cleaning supplies. They’re chemicals that are emitted from these products in the form of gases, and they can be harmful to your family’s health.
VOCs can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, and cause liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Some VOCs are also suspected or known to cause cancer, says the EPA.
How to Deal
You can keep yourself and your family safe by limiting your exposure to VOCs and taking precautions when using products that contain them.
Keep the area properly ventilated when using these products. Keep doors and windows open to ensure that fresh air can flow through the room. When storing them, make sure their containers are properly sealed and kept away from children and pets. Always follow the instructions on the label to avoid misuse.
Many paints sold in stores today are made to be low or zero VOC. When shopping for paint, check the label to see if it contains VOCs. Remember that even if the paint doesn’t contain VOCs, you should still take precautions and never paint in an enclosed area without ventilation.
Unwanted visitors in your home can create an unhealthy living environment if left unaddressed. Certain pests, such as mice or cockroaches, can actually trigger allergies and asthma attacks. If pests get into your food, they can contaminate it with bacteria.
Rodents can harbor diseases, such as hantavirus. Hantavirus is spread to humans by coming into contact with infected rodent urine or droppings. It has a mortality rate of 38%.
Bed bugs can take a large toll on your health – not just physically, but mentally, too. A bed bug infestation can wreak havoc on your mental health, causing anxiety and insomnia, and the bites can cause allergic reactions and infections.
How to Deal
With a pest infestation, your best bet is probably to leave it to the professionals. Most common household pests are pretty difficult to eliminate, and with the health risks that come with them, you want to be sure that they’re fully taken care of.
It’s easier to deal with a pest problem on your own if you’re able to identify where they’re coming from and keep the problem contained to that area.
If you have a pest problem or are trying to prevent one, make sure there’s no food lying around for them to feed on. Sweep up crumbs, clean up spilled food and take the garbage out regularly. Seal any openings where pests could be sneaking into your home.
If you plan on using pesticides, take extreme care and only use the product as designated on the label. Not only can misuse of pesticides be illegal, but it can also very easily create a toxic environment in your home. When possible, use non-chemical methods to deal with your pest problem.
If someone in your household is a smoker, they may be doing more harm to the people in your home than you realize.
Secondhand smoke is dangerous for adults and children alike; although, children are especially vulnerable. In nonsmoking people, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke. In children, secondhand smoke can put them at risk for all sorts of respiratory problems and infections and can put babies at a greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome.
Additionally, exposure to the residue from cigarette smoke left behind on walls, carpets, counters and other surfaces in the home – called thirdhand smoke – is just as harmful to children as secondhand smoke is, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How to Deal
There are many resources out there to help you quit smoking once and for all. Visit SmokeFree.gov for more information.
At the very least, consider enforcing a “smoke-free household” rule, especially if you have children. Don’t allow anyone to smoke cigarettes in your home, and ask that anyone who wants to smoke step outside and do it away from any doors and windows, as smoke that gets blown back into your home can be just as harmful for others to inhale.
We think of our homes as the place where you go to be safe from the world, yet in the average home, we’re surrounded by a variety of things that could seriously injure or even kill us.
Accidental injury, like the kind encountered in the home, is the fourth most common cause of death, according to the CDC.
Common household injuries are falls, burns, cuts, poisonings, chokings, and drownings. Fortunately, all of these are preventable. You just have to take some precautions around your home.
How to Deal
Secure loose rugs so they don’t bunch up and pose a tripping hazard. Install grab bars in the bathroom and put down a safety mat in the shower. Ensure that all stairs in your home have sturdy railings. Keep medications and chemicals properly sealed and out of reach of children.
Teach your kids proper safety practices, and don’t think that you’re too old to go over a refresher yourself. Household injuries can happen at any age.
Always hold the railing when using the stairs. Pay attention to where you’re walking, especially if you’re near a staircase. Don’t multitask when handling sharp or dangerous objects. Keep kitchen knives sharp, as dull knives slip more easily.
Never leave young children unattended in the bathtub. If you have a pool, don’t let children or teens swim alone.
Practice proper fire prevention as well, and teach your kids what to do in the event of a fire. Practice fire drills. Test your smoke detectors monthly and replace the batteries at least once a year. Have a fire extinguisher and make sure everyone in your household knows how to use it. Never leave anything unattended that can start a fire.