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7 Ways Your Home Is Making You Sick

Top sources of dust, mites, and mold that can cause asthma, allergies or worse

By Andrea Atkins | Grandparents.com | August 20, 2014
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Digital Vision

(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

It often starts when someone retires, says Jeff May. All of a sudden, the retiree is spending a lot more time in his home — the home he has lived in for years — but he finds he can't breathe. He's wheezing and sneezing and uncomfortable all the time.

How can this be?

Because now the retiree is spending more time in a house where something is triggering an allergic or asthmatic reaction. And while it may sound surprising, your house can actually be making you sick, says Jeffrey May, author of My House Is Killing Me.


Where Indoor Pollution Lurks


"The whole concept of indoor pollution is pretty new," says May, an expert in the dangers of mold and other home pollutants. "For a long time, our focus was on what was going on in the environment outside our homes. But in the last decade or so, we've realized that the indoor environment can be making you sick."

So what kinds of things happen to make you feel this way? May says dust mites, mold, and other microbial growth are usually the culprits.  To find out where they lurk, and what to do about it, read on.

1. Heating and Cooling Systems




HVAC is probably the biggest culprit, May says. When air-conditioning cools your home, for example, it often leaves traces of water in the ducts that become the perfect breeding ground for mold and bacteria. That microbial growth is often the cause of respiratory issues — asthma, allergies, coughing and headaches. But not all air ducts become contaminated, and not all people become symptomatic from those that do.

Solution: Have your air ducts professionally cleaned at least every couple of years. And be sure to service your heating system, as well, to make it operate more efficiently and cleanly. The Environmental Protection Agency says scientific evidence is scant on whether this cleaning will solve your health problems but May disagrees. "Most of the time, most people get better after cleaning," he says. "Most people get a lot better."

(MORE: 3 Ways to Clean Out Your Garage)


2. Indoor Leaks




Unseen leaks may be causing mold growth in your home, which can be problematic for people prone to asthma and allergically-induced breathing problems.

Solution: Check pipes, closets, basements, and attics to ensure all is dry. If you find any leaky areas, clean and dry where the water has accumulated and contact a plumber or roofer to fix the situation. "It's the stuff you can't see that can really hurt you," May explains.


3. The Bedroom and Your Furniture




Do you have a favorite chair? Or a favorite pillow? Have you had your mattress for a long time? These may be places where dust mites live and wreak havoc with your system.

Dust mites are microscopic bugs that thrive on the humidity and warmth provided by our bodies — and they live in every home, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But for someone who has asthma and allergies, they can set off a reaction that is uncomfortable and debilitating.

Solution: Wash your sheets and towels weekly in hot water and make sure they're thoroughly dried. Vacuum and dust weekly to rid your environment of them in carpets, curtains, and furniture.

May says it's most important to encase your mattress and pillows in covers designed to keep dust mites from getting through. Visit nationalallergy.com to see their mattress and pillow covers.

Note: All people have dust mites in their home, but not all people have symptoms from them. Your need to deal with the issue will depend on whether you or someone in your household is suffering symptoms.

(MORE: My Father Is a Hoarder)


4. The Bathroom




Quick! When was the last time you washed the bath mat that's in front of your tub or shower?

If you vaguely remember doing it before last Christmas, better go throw it in the laundry now. Bath mats tend to be breeding grounds for dust mites, mold and bacteria, especially if you step out of the shower and dry yourself on top of them. (Hint: better to dry yourself off before you step out of the tub.)

If you sprinkle yourself with corn starch (some people use it because they fear a connection between talcum powder and cancer) when standing on your bath mat, you may be creating a perfect breeding ground for yeast, bacteria and dust mites, May says. Because corn starch is a food, you're actually feeding the dust mites. "I had one client whose bath mat was like fermenting pizza dough," May says.

Solution: Towel off in the tub to avoid exposing your bath mat to excess water and moisture. Clean it regularly, and avoid corn starch if possible.

(MORE: Why Are Public Restrooms So Problematic?)


5. The Refrigerator




Yes, yes, you clean the inside of the refrigerator, but are you remembering to clean the coils and the tray below it?

Frost-free refrigerators (by far the most common) contain an electric coil in the freezer that melts frost every four hours, according to May. The resulting water drips into a pan, which evaporates with the help of warm air produced by the refrigerator's compressor. But if that pan is filled with dust, your refrigerator is blowing that dust into your home. (Not to mention, the tray also catches anything that's spilled in your refrigerator, so there may be mold on it if you haven't cleaned it.)

Newer refrigerators may not have a tray underneath, but their coils on the back of the machine need to be dusted regularly. If you have a built-in refrigerator, you should be able to lift off the grill and vacuum the coils of the condenser from the front. Be sure to turn off the power to the refrigerator before doing this, and according to SubZero, the refrigerator manufacturer, wear gloves to avoid hurting yourself on the sharp edges of the coils.

Solution: Clean behind your refrigerator regularly. Check your manufacturer's instruction manual to determine whether there is a tray and to learn the best cleaning methods.


6. The Vacuum Cleaner




This essential household item, which we are recommending to take care of most household allergens, could actually be spewing them all back into the air.

"The best vacuum has a HEPA filter," says May. HEPA stands for "high efficiency particulate air" and filters more than 99 percent of the particulates in air. "Some brands boast a 'HEPA-like' filter," May says, "but that won't do the trick because when you vacuum, the machine sucks in air and then filters the dust and expels air. But if the filter isn't really collecting the dust, you're just releasing particles into the air."

Solution: Be sure your vacuum has a HEPA filter. And if you use a cleaning service, make sure they use a HEPA-filter vacuum as well, so your home isn't being contaminated from allergens in previous houses.


7. Cleaning Products




Those products you've been buying for years may cause eye irritation, headaches, breathing problems, and at worst, be carcinogenic.

On top of that, many people clean with them, but don't take precautions against their harmful effects. When you clean with chemical-laden cleaners, be sure to wear gloves, open windows, dilute the product, and do not use more than is recommended on the label.

The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding products with any of the following seven compounds in them because they are known to be dangerous:
  • 2Butoxyethanol
  • Alylphenol extholytes
  • Dye
  • Ethanolamines
  • Fragrance
  • Pine or Citrus oil (which can react with air — particularly smoggy air — and turn into formaldehyde)
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds

Solution: Mix vinegar and water to clean glass, use baking soda as an abrasive scrubbing product and soap and water for many other household chores. Alternatively, look for cleaning products marked "green" and be careful not to confuse "natural" products for those which are safer to use.