Home is where the heart is, but it’s also where tons of health hazards dwell. What you breathe and touch could actually be making you sick.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not when it comes to the hidden health dangers in your home. Odorless gases, fumes from your carpet, even the innocent-looking cleaners in your cabinet can harm you and your family.
So what can you do? Find out what’s lurking in your home-sweet-home and protect your family with these experts tips
Does your bathroom, closet or basement have an old musty odor? Blame mold spores. They make themselves at home in damp spots.
“Mold can grow within 24-48 hours where there’s moisture and what they consider a food source,” says Jeff May, co-author of My House is Killing Me! and The Mold Survival Guide (both from The Johns Hopkins University Press).
It doesn’t take much to make mold happy and multiply: It chomps down on dust, wood, paint, paper, cotton or oil, among other things. It’s attracted to modern building materials like drywall.
Complex heating and cooling systems can make mold matters worse, especially if you suffer from allergies or asthma.
Mold spores can trigger asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, the Mayo Clinic reports. Allergic reactions include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- itchy, watery eyes
- inflamed sinuses
Common spots to find the fuzzy stuff – it often grows in a circular pattern and can be black, brown, white, yellow, pink or greenish-blue – are basement walls and carpets, closets and on wooden backs and bottoms of furniture stored in damp spaces.
- Use a dehumidifier to keep the humidity in mold-prone rooms below 50%.
- Operate an oscillating fan in the bathroom after showering and fix leaks as soon as possible.
- Keep rooms well ventilated.
- If you suspect mold, check the area with a flashlight (some of the fungi can only be seen with a bright light).
2. Dust mites
You can’t see these microscopic critters with the naked eye, but they can wreak havoc on your health.
They may be one of the most common causes of allergies and asthma and can trigger the same miserable symptoms.
Dust mites, too, need moisture and feed off the dead skin cells our bodies shed.
Their favorite hiding place? Beds, pillows, mattresses and sheets.
Face it: Dust mites are a part of your life.
“There’s no way to get rid of dust mites, so you need to put a barrier between you and them,” says Linda B. Ford, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and associate professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Here are some tips:
- Allergy covers can help because they’re woven, so even dust mites can’t slip through them. Seal your mattress, box spring, comforter and pillows. (You can usually buy allergy covers where sheets are sold.)
- Wash your bedding and area rugs in hot water (120 degrees F) at least once a week.
- Put items that aren’t machine washable – like a special pillow or stuffed animal – in the freezer for a couple hours at a time to kill dust mites.
- Don’t go to bed with wet hair − you’re just giving the mites more moisture.
- Regularly vacuum all floors, especially carpets, where dust mites can hide.
3. Carpet chemicals
Redecorating or renovating your house can give you a headache – literally.
When your wall-to-wall or area rug gives off that new carpet smell, it’s usually shedding 4-PC, a chemical in carpet backing.
Though the smell probably will go away within days or weeks, it can cause temporary headaches and hoarseness in people sensitive to chemicals.
Ideally, new carpet should be aired before installation. But if that’s not possible, keep the carpeted room well ventilated and stay out if you’re sensitive to 4-PC.
“If the odor is strong despite ventilation for a week, you may want to have that carpet removed,” says May, who adds that some carpets never stop giving off 4-PC.
Here’s how May tells if carpet odor is giving off gas:
1. Take a clean, fragrance-free paper towel and fold it in half twice.
2. Place it on a section on the rug and cover it with aluminum foil secured with tape.
3. After 24 hours, fold the towel inside the foil quickly.
4. Then go outside and unwrap it just enough to take a whiff.
5. If it stinks, your carpet is giving off gas.
To tweens, toddlers and preschoolers, prescription and over-the-counter medications may look as tempting as candy, thanks to their interesting shapes and colors.
- Store these drugs where kids can’t find them and use a safety lock on that cupboard or cabinet.
- Never leave meds within easy reach, such as your purse, night-table or countertop.
- Make sure all bottles have child-resistant caps.
- Never call any drugs candy – no matter how desperate you are to get them to take it when they’re sick – or they may dip into the “sweet stuff” on their own.
- Most important: Put the number of your local Poison Control Center where you can easily find it in an emergency. Need the number? Visit the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).
They may keep your favorite sweaters from resembling Swiss cheese, but the stinky naphthalene balls that keep moths away also emit chemicals that can irritate people.
“Most of them are pesticides, which can be harmful to anyone’s health,” May says.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “acute exposure through inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact is associated with anemia, damage to the liver, and, in infants, neurological damage.”
Signs that you’ve had short-term exposure to naphthalene include headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, anemia, jaundice and convulsions.
Play it safe by replacing moth balls (and their horrible aroma) with natural moth repellants like cedar blocks or chips or dried lavender. Even white peppercorns are reputed to ward off these flying insects.
6. Cleaning products
More than one million children under 5 years old are exposed each year to potential poisons such as medicines and household chemicals, the AAPCC reports.
And like medications, the bright colors and sweet scents of cleaning products make them look appealing to little ones.
But there’s nothing pretty about health problems they can cause. The most common products ingested by children are drain, oven and toilet bowl cleaners, bleach, detergents, furniture polish and rust remover.
- Change your current cleaning products for organic ones without harsh chemicals
- High, not low: Under the kitchen and bathroom sinks are common places to store cleaning products, but it’s better to keep them on high shelves, out of reach of kids.
- If you have to store cleaners in low cabinets, use baby-proof locks and make sure all tops are properly closed.
- When you take products out to clean, make sure they’re way out of your child’s reach and securely closed.
- Put a danger mark on all hazardous products (draw your own or use a sticker) and teach kids to steer clear when they see it.
7. Carbon Monoxide
This odorless, colorless gas is toxic and may even kill you. And you may not even realize it’s in your home!
Typically, the danger comes from fuel-burning appliances: furnaces, stoves, fireplaces, clothes dryers, water heaters and space heaters, as well as automobile exhaust from attached garages.
Low levels of this toxic gas may cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue, according to the EPA.
Higher levels can lead to impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, unconsciousness and, at very high concentrations, death.
- Buy a carbon monoxide detector, something the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends for all homes. Make sure it’s installed properly and test it regularly.
- Make sure fuel-burning appliances are installed correctly. To stay safe, have a pro inspect all your fuel-burning appliances annually.
- With gas stoves, use an exhaust fan vented to the outside.
- Make sure the flue is open when using your fireplace and that your space heater is vented.
- Never let your car idle in the garage.