Ideally, your home is a calm and quiet place of refuge, where you can seek solace and relax from the real world and just enjoy its tranquil beauty. Of course, it might be hard to enjoy a peaceful home when every few minutes you are sneezing, wheezing or coughing.
While you might initially attribute these symptoms to whatever bug happens to be going around; however, if they persist despite medical intervention and plenty of chicken soup — or if you feel better once you are at work or out running errands — it might be time to take a hard look at your house as the culprit. The following home issues might be the cause of your troubling symptoms:
You might associate this chemical with dissecting frogs in biology class, because formaldehyde is a strong embalming agent used to preserve them in jars. It can also be used to kill bacteria and fungi (including their spores) and has been used to make other chemicals and different types of industrial and home products. And it’s found in home furnishings, foam beds, household cleaners, paints, textiles, wood flooring, landscape and yard products, medicinal and personal care products, and pesticides.
Formaldehyde is highly toxic to all animals, regardless of the form it’s in. In liquid form, it’s very corrosive, and ingesting just 1 oz. can cause severe injury to the upper gastrointestinal tract and even death. Formaldehyde, a strong-smelling gas at room temperature, can be released (off-gased) from all sorts of materials and products made with it.
Some people are much more sensitive to formaldehyde than others, and they find that is causes a variety of symptoms and adverse health effects, such as eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions. Long- term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has even been associated with cancer in humans and laboratory animals.
Formaldehyde is just one of several gases present indoors that may cause adverse health effects and illnesses. Many other gases, molds, and respiratory illnesses (e.g., colds and the flu), can cause similar symptoms, so it may be difficult to pin symptoms to a specific chemical.
Toxic Cleaning Chemicals
Those cleaning products that you’ve used to eradicate germs and keep you healthy? They too might be making you ill. If you’ve got more headaches, find yourself wheezing or having red and itchy eyes when you are at home, it might be due to the chemicals you use to clean and disinfect your kitchen and bathroom. For some people, the “spring breeze” or “lemon fresh” scents in the cleaners are enough to make them feel ill. Instead of harsh cleaners, try using a mixture of vinegar and water to clean glass or baking soda to scrub your countertops. You can also buy all natural cleaners like Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day household products; available at most grocery and big box stores, these cleaners are made with essential oils and other natural ingredients.
If there is the slightest sign that your roof is leaking into the home in one place or another, you should have it repaired immediately. This applies to any sort of water leak. It’s not something to put off for long, because other than compromising the structure and even the foundation of your home, a leaking roof can lead to mold and mildew, both of which cause serious health issues like nasal congestion and asthma. These symptoms and conditions can be worse in people who are young, elderly, or have pre-existing health issues like chronic sinus problems. If you notice that you have a constant runny nose or nagging cough when you are at home, it’s time to have your roof inspected by a professional. If the inspector finds leaks and/or other damage, replacing the roof will likely ease your symptoms. But be extra careful during the rush to repair. Here’s how to avoid contractor scams.
A soggy HVAC
As it turns out, your HVAC is doing more than cooling your indoor air during the warm months; it is also leaving small amounts of water in your home’s ducts — another perfect home for bacteria and mold. Author of “My House is Killing Me” Jeff May says the HVAC is actually the biggest source of indoor air pollution in the home. All of the microbes happily growing inside your HVAC ducts are often the cause of frequent headaches, coughing, allergy symptoms and breathing issues. To prevent these trace amounts of H2O from turning into a cesspool of nastiness, have your air ducts professionally cleaned at least once every other year; more often if you use the AC often.
Expansive Soil and Home Foundations
Frank Bradshaw and his 13-year-old granddaughter were fighting for their lives in a defective home built on expansive clay soil — soil that’s great for cotton farming but caused their concrete slab foundation to crack and develop plumbing leaks inside. Their doctors said their survival depended on getting out. Frank is a wheel chair bound disabled Vietnam vet with respiratory problems caused by Agent Orange and made worse by critical levels of mold in their home. His granddaughter has severe asthma caused by the mold. To make matters worse, he and his wife Sandee bought their home in Hutto, TX eight years ago but can’t sell it today due to its many construction defects that the builder won’t fix, defects seem to be in hundreds of homes and caused realtors to black-ball the neighborhood.
Advancements in housing – from indoor plumbing to building codes and contractor licensing – were once driven by the need to protect the health, safety and welfare of occupants. But those goals are too often overlooked today, as home builders focus more on profits and protection from lawsuits with tort reform legislation. Still, it’s important to remember how housing affects health, because conditions in and around the home can cause or contribute to disease and health concerns that put young children and the elderly at risk.
I learned this while researching for a paper on Soil Issues for Residential Construction in Texas. The paper describes the challenges of building on expansive clay soil and the health effects of residual pesticides. Arsenic was used by cotton farmers for decades, both as a pesticide to control boll weevils and, in higher concentrations, as a defoliant at harvest time. The problem with Arsenic is that it stays in the soil for decades, and it can take a long time for symptoms of Arsenic poisoning to show up. Still, contractors continue to build new homes on old farmland, protected from liability by the Brownfields Law.
We tend to worry more about inside exposures to toxins, irritants, allergens, and gases that can cause disease and hurt our health, because that’s where we spend so much time. These contaminants include mold, mildew and pests that can trigger asthma, as well as asbestos, lead-based paint, radon gas, carbon monoxide, and even second-hand tobacco smoke.
A few years ago there was a national scare caused by sulfur dioxide gases given off by Chinese drywall that was blamed for foul smells, health problems, corroded copper pipes and wires, and depreciated home values. And if it can corrode metal, what might it do to your lungs and health? As described here, widespread problems with Chinese drywall in at least 19 states and about 100,000 homes hit the national news, caused lawsuits, and prompted Congressional action.
An Ounce of Prevention
Prevention is far less expensive than the cost to detect and remediate contaminants, and remediation is far less expensive than the healthcare costs if unsafe conditions are not resolved. But what’s the cost of a life? Unfortunately, most housing-related health hazards are overlooked until after illness develops, which is why I wrote this article.
Besides saving lives, home fire sprinklers (1) reduce fire damage by up to 97%, (2) reduce water usage to fight home fires by upwards of 90%, and (3) reduce the amount of water pollution released into the environment. That’s why the latest International Residential Code requires automatic fire sprinklers in new home construction, just like we see in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, apartment buildings, and commercial buildings. But builders have opposed rules to require sprinklers in homes and have successfully lobbied many state legislatures to prevent adoption of the new building codes.
National Center for Healthy Housing
I just discovered the NCHH and added them to our list of Resource Links. NCHH brings the public health, housing, environmental, and regulatory communities together to combat disease and injuries caused by hazards in the home. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation conducts applied research, program evaluation, technical assistance, training, outreach, and political advocacy focused on reducing the health consequences of indoor exposures.