A Healthy Living Indoor Environment

There is a lot of focus this time of year on making New Year’s resolutions. How many of us fail to follow through with these? How about making some simple changes to your home that will continue throughout the year to provide benefits for you and your loved ones?

Ensuring that the home we live in is healthy

In the winter, in colder climates, we spend much of our time indoors. Today’s homes are not only well-sealed to keep the cold out and the heat in, we also are using more and more man-made, toxic chemicals in our homes. There are over 50,000 chemicals used in industry and over 500 new chemicals added every year. We are exposed to an increasing number of them in our homes. The toxicity of new chemicals must be checked for safety and health more carefully before marketing. Current testing doesn’t even address the issue of what happens when we are exposed to two or more of these chemicals simultaneously.
In addition, there are many natural, normally-occurring dangers such as radon, dust mites, mold, and allergens that can have a negative impact on our health. How closely have you examined your indoor living environment and taken steps to make sure it is as healthy as it can be for you and your loved ones?

A healthy home should not expose you to mold, mildew, dust mites or contribute significant quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other hazardous chemicals into your indoor environment. It should have plenty of fresh air for you and your family. 

Besides keeping you and your family healthy, your home can also help to ease stress and enhance your sense of wellbeing. 

Some points for you to consider for ensuring a healthy indoor environment include:

Maintaining an ideal moisture level

Too much moisture is probably the primary cause of health problems in homes today. Standing water, dampness, and high humidity result in mold and mildew growth, dust mites, and other problems.

Keeping water out

Strategies for keeping water out include deep roof overhangs, surface grades sloping away from the house, eaves troughs and downspouts that move roof water away from the foundation, and proper flashing around chimneys, dormers, windows, doors, and other openings between the outdoors and your indoor living environment. If you have soil that has a high clay content, or a water table that is close to the surface you may need foundation footing drains connected to a sump pump to keep moisture levels below 17% in basement floor or even on-grade slabs. Have a reliable contractor check your slabs for moisture level.

Getting moisture out

Strategies to get rid of moisture include installation of quiet bath fans with automatic (hydrostatic) controls, kitchen range-hood fans that exhaust to the outdoors, rainscreen detailing on exterior walls to allow trapped moisture to escape, and continuous soffit and ridge vents in the attic. In the summer, you may need a dehumidifier to help with controlling indoor humidity even if you use a central air conditioning system. This can especially be a problem in unfinished basements and crawl spaces

Various “operation and maintenance” measures are also very important in dealing with moisture: fixing roof leaks that are found, fixing plumbing leaks, never drying firewood in the basement, always operating vent fans when showering, and avoiding too many indoor plants (especially in the summer when relative humidity levels are high).

Keeping pollutants out

One of the easiest ways to cut down on pollutants and moisture being tracked into your home, is to have a place at the entrance to remove shoes and a no-shoes policy in the home. It is also a great way to reduce cleaning needs.

Avoiding radon

Radon, a naturally-occurring gas created by the breakdown of uranium in the ground can enter the home through floor drains and cracks in the foundation. Exposure to radon gas which is cannot be detected without special equipment has been linked to lung cancer, even in people who have never smoked. Have your home checked by a radon mitigation specialist to determine if it is present in your home and your family is at risk.

Avoiding VOCs

Specify zero-VOC or low-VOC paints, sealants, and other materials with chemical constituents. With recent advances in finishes and adhesives, for most applications there is no longer a compromise in performance or durability when selecting low-VOC products.

Avoiding hazardous chemicals and components

A wide range of chemicals are introduced into our homes through building materials, furnishings, and others such as cleaning products. Hazards we should try to avoid include brominated or chlorinated flame retardants, bisphenol-A or BPA ( used in epoxies and polycarbonate plastics), phthalate plasticizers (used mostly in flexible vinyl or PVC), and formaldehyde. It’s a good idea to learn about these hazards and select products that are free of them. Try to avoid insulation materials that include fiberglas with urea-formaldehyde binders and cellulose and natural fibers with brominated flame retardants, for example, and cabinets made with particleboard, plywood, or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) that contain adhesives with urea-formaldehyde binders.

Avoiding dust mites

Dust mites live on (and eat) human skin particles which you are continually shedding. In fact, over 80% of household dust is composed of dead skin cells sloughed off by you, your family and pets. That’s a lot of food for dust mites! These dead skin cells accumulate in your bed, on your floors and other horizontal surfaces, and in your ductwork, if you have a forced-air HVAC system.

Do you wake up in the morning with a stuffy nose which soon clears upon arising? That is probably caused by your reaction to dust mites (and their feces) in your pillow and bedding. There are several ways to reduce the number of dust mites in your home and your exposure to them.

Reducing dust mites in your bedding

First, wash all of your bedding at least once a week in hot water, or use a water conditioning device connected to your washer such as Laundry Pure™ that adds silver ions and ozone to the wash water. Since most of us do not launder our pillows and cannot launder our mattresses, purchase dust mite-proof covers for your pillows and mattresses.

Reducing dust mites in the air you breathe

Air-borne dust and the dust mites attached to them are inhaled by you and lodge in your airways. Your immune system reacts to them and over time you can become increasingly sensitive to and possibly allergic to them. Every time your furnace or A/C fan kicks on or you vacuum your carpets and floors the dust and dust mites are kicked up into the air and breathed in by you. Some of this dust is so fine that it stays airborne, kept moving by air currents and never settles out.

Keeping the air clean with HEPA vacuums and RCI-type air purification

You can reduce this exposure tremendously by doing three things: first, vacuum at least weekly (more if you have fur-bearing pets) with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum cleaner. Secondly, have your furnace ducts cleaned by a top-notch company (check references) and buy the best electrostatic furnace filters you can find. Third, use a quality RCI & pulsed-ionization air purifier to reduce the amount of airborne dust in your home.

Reducing moisture levels

High moisture levels can also contribute to higher numbers of dust mites. Keep the moisture levels in your home under 40% through the use of dehumidifiers or controlling the amount of moisture added to your indoor air.

Providing fresh air

Bringing outdoor air in

Mechanical ventilation is needed to deliver fresh air throughout a house. Don’t rely on cracks and air leaks to provide fresh air in your home. The best way is to control where, when and how much air is entering the home. With mechanical ventilation, we can control how much air we introduce, where it comes from, where it is delivered, and from where we exhaust the stale indoor air.

The best ventilation system is a “balanced” system with separate fans for exhaust and supply with ducting. In cold climates, it makes sense to use an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV), so that most of the heat from the outgoing indoor air is transferred to the incoming fresh air. They also help to regulate moisture levels indoors, keeping moisture down in the summer and preserving moisture in the winter.

Purifying indoor air

By purifying your indoor air you can reduce the amount of air needing to be brought in from outdoors (saving energy), remove hazardous chemicals and particulates such as dust, animal dander and allergens as well as kill mold, mildew bacteria and viruses in your home.

New, state-of-the-science technology, originally developed for the space program in the ’80s and ’90s has been improved and can accomplish all of these. In space there is no fresh outside air to be brought in. Bacteria, viruses and mold can grow and multiply easily in these sealed environments, so all the air has to be cleaned, sanitized and recycled. Now you can benefit from that technology…..and it is affordable!

Improving psychological health

Daylighting with windows and skylights

Optimal use of outside light during the day (daylighting) and maximizing connections to the outdoors with plenty of energy efficient windows and skylights can help to maintain psychological health. A growing body of research is showing that in offices, these features boost worker productivity, in hospitals they speed recovery from illness or operations, and in schools they improve learning. Design features that connect us with nature are ways to make an ordinary home a great home.

Using full spectrum lighting

In areas where we cannot access natural sunlight or provide windows to the outside we can use full spectrum artificial lighting. This light, which mimics sunlight, has been shown to boost mood and energy levels, decrease hyperactivity and improve short attention span in children, as well as treat mild seasonal depression.

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