Is the Air in Your Home Making You Sick?

Sneezing. Sniffles. Coughs. Headaches. It might not be hay fever. It could be your house.

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Photo by Jon Day/Country Homes and Interiors/IPC Syndication

Did you know that by keeping your home (reasonably) clean and your housewares (more or less) well maintained, you’re doing a hefty favor to your health? Yes, your heroic effort to wrestle that vacuum hose into every last corner is, in fact, making the air in your home cleaner. And clean indoor air means healthier lungs, fewer sick days, and higher-quality sleep, among many other things—even more so than clean outdoor air.



“We spend about 93 percent of our lives indoors, another 5 percent in transit, and only 2 percent outdoors,” says Richard Shaughnessy, Ph.D., the program director of indoor air research at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma. Also, as we weatherize our homes for energy-efficiency, less air can float in and out of our spaces. The result: Irritants (like dust and mold) and airborne chemicals (like lead, toluene, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) are trapped inside with us, and we breathe them in.

Although the levels of these types of pollutants are often very low compared with, say, what’s puffed out of a car exhaust or a cigarette, those small amounts from all those disparate sources add up. Overall, the air indoors can be more polluted than the air outdoors by a factor of two, says Elizabeth Matsui, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, in Baltimore, and the chair of the Environmental Exposures and Respiratory Health Committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

It’s impossible for scientists to parse out the number of illnesses directly resulting from bad indoor air. The truth is, we’re bombarded by potentially harmful molecules everywhere. That’s the trade-off for all the comforts that the modern world has to offer, and it’s unrealistic to think that your home can be your bubble. Still, there’s plenty that can be done to drastically reduce the level of irritants and chemicals that may keep us from feeling 100 percent. So grab that mop. Switch on that vent. Here’s what you need to know for three areas of your home.

The Garage

Dispose of leftover pesticides, paints, and cleaners. When they sit around, they can leak, corrode, or react with the air when the temperature rises. Just as food can become rancid over time, these products slowly change into less stable, more corrosive chemicals. As the temperature rises or as air leaks into containers, these changes can occur even more quickly. Try to buy only the amount that you need for a specific job, then throw out the rest according the instructions on epa.gov. (Never pour them down the drain or toss them in the trash.) If you need to keep leftover products, store them in a ventilated shed that’s not physically connected to your house.

Test your home for radon. Radon is a radioactive gas produced by the natural breakdown of uranium, a compound present in soil. High radon levels can cause tissue damage and increase the risk of lung cancer. According to Glenn Morrison, a professor of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the Missouri University of Science & Technology, all houses have some radon because it seeps into the house through cracks in the floors, walls, and pipes. The garage and the basement are especially vulnerable entry points because such gaps are common there, and those spaces are built directly on the soil. To assess your exposure, start with a kit known as a short-term test (available through the Environmental Protection Agency–endorsed National Radon Program Services; $15, sosradon.org). If the reading is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or more, follow up with a long-term test, performed by a qualified tester. (Search for your state radon office at epa.gov.) This will give a more accurate reading. If the second reading is high, a contractor (also searchable at epa.gov) can lower radon levels by sealing cracks in the foundation and installing a soil-suction radon-reduction system.

The Laundry Room

Keep the washer dry. Some front-loading washing machines can develop mold when the door is kept sealed between uses. To avoid this, wipe down the interior, the door, and the rubber gasket after each cycle, then leave the door ajar for at least a half hour. Once a month (and whenever you notice a moldy smell), run the washer empty on a hot wash cycle with 1 cup of white vinegar or ½ cup of bleach in the detergent dispenser. Clean moldy spots (if any) on the gasket by applying vinegar with a spray bottle. Let it sit 15 minutes, wipe with a wet cloth, and dry thoroughly.

Don’t let the dryer blow air into your home.
This means so-called “dryer heat diverter kits” are a bad idea: They’re designed to dump the dryer’s exhaust air indoors to cut home heating costs. The problem is that they capture not just heat but also moisture, which makes your home vulnerable to mold. A dryer should always vent to the outside of the house, and you should check the vent annually for blockages (such as building materials or debris). Also check for a loose dryer duct: Get behind the dryer with a flashlight and look. If it’s too tight to see back there, hold your hand near the duct while the machine is running. Feel any air? If so, tighten it with a plastic zip tie, then seal around the edges with UL-listed metal adhesive tape (both available at hardware stores).

The Patio

Keep landscaping away from the house. Growing plants, like ivy or bushes against an exterior wall, may encourage mold and allow water and pesticides to seep through cracks in the walls and into the home. In general, grow plants at least 18 inches from the house (you may get away with less space in arid climates) so there’s free air movement. And make sure that sprinkler heads aren’t watering your house. Rain gutters should also be checked regularly for clogs and buildup, which can cause water to pool on the roof or pour down a wall, creating leaks and mold growth.