By Patricia Greco
Wipe out mold, smoke, dust, and other invisible health hazards that have been trapped in your home all winter.
It was your cocoon for the cold season, but your airtight home could be harming your family's health. By shutting the windows all winter, you also shut off ventilation and air circulation. That means you kept the house warm, but allowed irritating and sometimes toxic particles to build up.
The lack of ventilation in homes is one major cause of indoor air pollution, experts say. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollution is two to five times worse than outdoor air pollution. And the at-home version can cause or aggravate asthma and allergies, which are on the rise in the United States.
You can't fix outdoor pollution (at least, not on your own). But you can detox your home. Start now by following the easy steps in our room-by-room guide.
The Biggest Problems
In your kitchen:
Gas and fumes. You've probably sautéed lots of chicken and baked a few pounds of lasagna since your last spring-cleaning. And with every meal cooked, your kitchen was polluted with a little bit of smoke, soot, and possibly carbon monoxide (if you own a gas stove or range). A certain degree of CO pollution is normal in homes, and the typical level produced by a gas stove — 5 to 15 parts per million (ppm) — isn't likely to make your family sick. But that assumes the burners have been properly adjusted. If they're not set properly (meaning they don't receive the right oxygen-to-fuel ratio), the level of CO, an odorless gas, can reach a danger point. That's why it's important to install a detector — it sounds within four hours if CO levels reach 70 ppm; within 50 minutes if levels get as high as 150 ppm; and within 15 minutes if levels are 400 or more ppm.
Inhaling high levels of carbon monoxide in your home can be fatal; being exposed to even low levels can cause fatigue, headaches, disorientation, dizziness, nausea, and other flulike symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 15,000 people go to the emergency room each year due to nonfatal CO poisoning.
Chemical fumes emitted by certain cleaning products can also cause health problems: Exposure to elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in some sprays can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation. (Research shows that another VOC, used in solid deodorizers like air fresheners, may lead to lung damage.)
Your Detox Duties
Check your burners: If flames are yellow-tipped, that may mean your stove is releasing too much CO. If you see yellow consistently, call your manufacturer to find out if your burners should be readjusted.
If you don't have one already, install an exhaust hood vented to the outdoors. You can buy a good unit for as little as $200 and have it put in for a few hundred dollars.
If you do have an exhaust fan, clean it. A filthy unit won't remove as much smoke and grease as it should. Start by soaking the mesh filter in a sink of hot soapy water (use an all-purpose household cleaner or dishwashing liquid), say GHRI cleaning pros. Then rinse and let dry. Or place the filter in the upper rack of the dishwasher and run it through a normal cycle (check your user's manual to make sure this won't damage the part). You should also get grime off the fan blades with a clean, damp cloth.
To reduce exposure to irritating fumes, cut back on your use of cleaning products. When you do use strong-smelling chemicals, do so in a well-ventilated area, as the label instructs. Or use an all-purpose product that's fume-free, such as one from the green brand Seventh Generation.
The Biggest Problem
In your bathroom and basement:
Mold. The thought of spores colonizing anywhere is gross, but especially in your home. Besides being ultra-ugly and smelly, mold can trigger allergic reactions (watery eyes, runny nose, coughing, and headaches). And research shows that some strains may be toxic.
Mold can be found anyplace that's excessively moist. Typically, that means bathrooms and basements, where humidity levels tend to be high. So concentrate on those rooms — but also give your entire house a once-over to make sure there's no peeling paint, rotting windowsills, or other signs of water damage and mold.
To put a stop to growth, you have to control the moisture level in your home. Indoor humidity should be between 30 and 50 percent (buy a hygrometer at your local hardware store to measure your house's level). If your home is more moist than that, buy a dehumidifier and fix leaks right away (mold grows quickly under the right conditions).
Your Detox Duties
Scrub grout with a mix of 1/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach and six cups water (use a stronger solution if necessary), and rinse. Remember to wear rubber gloves and keep the room well ventilated.
Clean both sides of rubber mats with the bleach solution above, but first check the label: Some brands are machine-washable, so you can conserve your energy and save yourself precious time.
Put plastic shower curtains in the wash for five minutes on the gentle setting. If they're moldy, GHRI recommends adding 3/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach to the load.
Consider installing an exhaust fan that's vented to the outside, if you don't have one in the bathroom already. Ventilation is key to keeping this room dry and toxin-free.
Check cement walls (particularly near the floor, ceiling, and windows) and crawl spaces in the basement for mold. If you find patches, scrub them away (wearing gloves and using lots of elbow grease) with a stiff brush soaked in a solution of one cup liquid chlorine bleach and one gallon water. Do the same thing for painted walls. (Tip: If you have to repaint any areas, mix a mildew-resistant additive into the can first.)
The Biggest Problems
In your living room and bedroom:
Dust and dander. A buildup can cause flulike symptoms and respiratory problems. (That stuffy nose your son wakes up with every morning? Not a yearlong cold.)
Your Detox Duties
Get your air conditioner ready for prime time. A well-maintained unit can help filter out some allergens — but if the filter, drip tray, or other parts are dirty, the AC may actually spit new allergens into the house. If you have a room unit, remove the grill and wipe it with a wet cloth. Take out the filter; if it's reusable, submerge it in hot soapy water for a few minutes, then rinse with clean water and let dry. Before replacing any parts, wipe inside the AC with a damp rag and dust the evaporator coils (located behind the filter) with a vacuum attachment. Then clean the drip tray according to the manufacturer's instructions. Finally, fasten a damp towel over the front of the unit the first time you turn it on, to capture any hidden particles. Have a central air system? Replace your filter at least every three months; if you have the electrostatic kind, clean it. Hire a professional to inspect the system once a year. And, every five years, pay a duct- or vent-cleaning contractor to clean your HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) system. The service is pricey ($450 to $1,000), but it's worth saving for (think of your family's health every time you sock away a $20 bill).
If you have a humidifier and dehumidifier, clean them as well. GHRI gurus suggest rinsing and scrubbing a humidifier's water tank once a week or more. For a dehumidifier, they recommend that you dust the grilles or louvers with a vacuum's soft brush attachment; then scrub the inside of the water container with a sponge and mild detergent and clean the filter. Check the owner's manual for coil-cleaning instructions.
Vacuum upholstery: Don't forget the backs of couches and chairs, where there's lots of hidden dust, dander, and maybe even mold. If your throw pillows are machine-washable (check the tags to find out), do a load; otherwise, give them a spin in the dryer on the no-heat, air-only cycle to "dust" them.
Vacuum mattresses, flip, and vacuum again. If there's a musty smell, wipe surfaces with a solution of one cup rubbing alcohol and one cup warm water. Wipe again with water only and let the bed dry.
Let the Pros Handle:
Lead. Supertoxic, this element can damage the brain and nervous system, and it is particularly harmful to young kids. If your home was built before 1978 (the year lead paint was banned), have the paint tested.
And if your home dates from before 1988, have the water tested as well, since plumbing installed earlier than that may contain lead. Call the National Lead Information Center at 800-424-5323 to find out more.
Radon. This odorless, colorless, tasteless gas is emitted by decayed rocks and soil, and can enter homes through small openings, such as cracks in the basement floor. Frightening find: It's the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country, and the EPA estimates that one in 15 U.S. homes contain a high level of the gas. If you haven't already, get your home tested (visit epa.gov/radon/radontest.html).
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