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How to Detox Your House

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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