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Maintaining a Healthy Home
by Ruby Bayan

Healthy Home The home is man's refuge and sanctuary from the distresses of the outside world. In fact, today's home design and construction aim to provide the residents the most comfortable abode through a controlled indoor environment, safe from scorching heat, blinding sunrays, freezing temperatures, and city pollution. The modern home is supposed to be the best place to be in. But is it?


"Sick building syndrome", or SBS, was coined in the 70s when building occupants exhibited allergies and ailments in reaction to the structure's modern construction materials. Paints, insulation, carpets and furnishings, which contained plastics, glues, petrochemical ingredients, and volatile organic compounds, became highly toxic to inhabitants of what were intended to be energy-efficient buildings.

Inside airtight recycled-air conditioned structures, these illness-causing chemicals contaminated the indoor air quality and adversely affected the occupants. Furthermore, aggravated by insufficient ventilation and poor lighting, biological contaminants, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, proliferated and spread throughout the buildings via the air ducts.

And because the same toxic materials were being used in constructing equally energy-efficient "sealed" dwellings, homeowners who were just as prone to the syndrome have since become deeply concerned. You should be, too.

Here's a list of common indoor pollutants and causes of SBS in the modern home, and how you can minimize, if not eliminate, your exposure to them:

Volatile Organic Compounds

Also known as VOCs, volatile organic compounds are toxic chemicals present in most cleaners, solvents, adhesives, vinyl tiles, new carpeting, paints, and finishes. VOC emissions and vapors can cause allergic reactions, headaches, dizziness, and eye, nose, and throat irritation.

Because prevention is always better than cure, constructing a home free of VOC products is your best protection against SBS. Refrain from installing synthetic carpets, vinyl plastic wall and window coverings, and polyester fabric accessories. For flooring, choose natural wood, cork tiles, or natural linoleum. For blinds, use aluminum or wood; for curtains and drapes, use natural fiber. Choose paints and finishes that are certified to have low-VOC percentages, and as much as possible, opt for natural oil-based paint, and natural finishes such as mineral-tinted linseed oil and beeswax.

Houseplants have been proven to be effective air cleaners. They can absorb toxic gases and pollutants from the air in the process of photosynthesis. Many common indoor plants, like the English Ivy, pothos, aloe vera, ficus, and dracaena, are rated to be highly efficient in purifying the air in an enclosed room.

Fungi and Bacteria

Fungi (mold and mildew), which release air-borne spores, as well as bacteria and other health-hazardous microorganisms, all thrive in damp and water-damaged floors, walls and ceilings. They have been identified as among the primary culprits of the sick building syndrome, triggering allergic reactions, sinus problems, breathing difficulties, fatigue, and joint pains.

Dark and humid conditions are perfect for the growth of mold and mildew, especially inside a home that is practically sealed from fresh air and sunlight. Adequate ventilation, therefore, is important to prevent the growth of these allergens. Increase air circulation in bathrooms and kitchens -- use exhaust fans when showering, bathing, and cooking. Clean these areas regularly. Consider using de-humidifiers in dark and damp rooms. Fix plumbing leaks that will tend to keep an area moist for extended periods.

Combustion By-Products

Carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are poisonous gases that can come from faulty and un-vented heaters, dryers, fireplaces, as well as stoves that use kerosene, gas or wood. These combustion by-products have been known to cause flu-like symptoms that have led to thousands of deaths in the US every year.

Have your heating and cooking appliances checked regularly for leaks and combustion emissions. Make sure that appropriate exhausts are in place.

Dust and Dust Mites

Particles of dust will always find its way into a home. If allowed to accumulate, they can host tiny organisms called dust mites, and together they can cause allergic reactions, including runny nose, itchy eyes, and rashes.

Aside from the regular use of an efficient vacuum cleaner (one that doesn't just move dust around), a high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) unit will help absorb air-borne dust particles. Regularly replacing air filters and checking for duct leaks that bring in debris from outside will help minimize indoor dust pollution.

Remember that carpets, rugs, beddings, books, magazines, and nooks and crannies gather dust and become host to dust mites. To minimize the presence of these allergens, dust up frequently, change beddings weekly, and replace carpets with hard-surface flooring if possible.

Other Pollutants

Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to asbestos, which was the popular insulator in old residential homes, can cause cancer. Check your home for asbestos and have specially trained contractors remove and replace them with non-toxic foam insulation.

Radon, also found to be a carcinogen, is a radioactive gas produced by traces of uranium present in the soil. Radon has been detected in many old homes with dug-up basements. Have your grounds and basements checked for radon and consult your contractor for suggested remedies.

Exposure to electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, have been determined to cause headaches and fatigue. To check for unhealthy EMF levels inside your home, rent a gauss meter. To be on the safe side, minimize the use of electronic appliances and unplug them when not in use. You can consult electrical professionals about rewiring your home with shielded or grounded cables to minimize EMF emissions.

Other pollutants that can cause various degrees of allergic reactions inside your home are fur, dander, and pet saliva and urine. Keep your home clean and free from contaminants that may be coming from your pets.

For more information on how you can build and maintain a healthy home, visit the following resources:
American Lung Association - for tips on indoor air quality
Health House - for information on healthy home environments

[First published at, 2000]


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