Keep Your Home and Yourself Safe

Health-related problems in your home aren't always easy to spot (unless, alas, you have critters). Consult this guide to uncovering hidden hazards.

Photo by  Kang Kim


Why they can be dangerous: Flies transport bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, as they feed, and can also spread conjunctivitis and cholera, says entomologist Ron Harrison. Roaches can contaminate food and trigger asthma, while mice can transmit parasites and germs that cause food poisoning through their droppings.
How to protect yourself: For the occasional housefly or two, flypaper works. So does a swatter with a thin wire stem and a tight mesh head (such as the Old Fashioned Fly Swatter, $2, For an infestation, try the Flypod light trap, which lures flies onto a concealed glue board ($87.50, To keep roaches at bay, don't leave unwashed dishes in the sink, uncovered food on counters, or pet food out overnight. And instead of using those little black disks that contain chemicals, try disposable, nontoxic glue traps (like Sure-Catch, $10 for four, For mice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a simple snap trap baited with peanut butter. Mice can squeeze through areas the size of a dime (eek!), so you'll need to plug any gaps in your walls, molding, and floorboards with steel wool.


Why it can be dangerous: Asbestos is a durable, fibrous mineral that strengthens products and provides insulation and fire resistance. It was used in various residential applications before the late 1970s, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the inclusion of the material in certain items. (The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] banned all new uses of asbestos in 1989, but products that were on the market may still contain it.) Asbestos fibers, when airborne, can become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of cancer, says lung-disease specialist Norman Edelman. Prolonged exposure is even more harmful.
How to protect yourself: Your home may have been inspected in the past, but deterioration over time or a remodeling project could have caused previously encapsulated asbestos to become a danger. Be suspicious if you notice crumbling fibers around roofing or siding materials, acoustical ceiling or vinyl floor tiles, or cement water pipes. Also check your home's original building plan; some builders used the abbreviation ASB to note where asbestos was applied. If you think you might have asbestos (don't touch it), contact a licensed asbestos inspector, who will take samples and send them to a lab to be analyzed. Costs for analysis vary, but plan to spend several hundred dollars. Asbestos removal requires a call to a certified or licensed asbestos contractor and can run you several hundred to thousands of dollars, says asbestos-board executive director David E. Dick. For a list of state asbestos contacts, log on to

Cleaning Agents and Pesticides

Why they can be dangerous: If used improperly, cleaning products, like bleach and drain cleaner, and pesticides, such as baited chemical traps and bug repellent, can cause poisoning, burns, upper-respiratory irritation, or even blindness.
How to protect yourself: Store cleaners and pesticides away from food items, and keep them in a cool location (heat can cause certain ones to catch fire)/ Ideally, they should go in a locked cabinet inaccessible to children or pets. Use the products in a well-ventilated area, wear protective gear (mask, goggles, rubber gloves), and follow directions closely. And let the buyer beware: The U.S. government does not require the full disclosure of a cleaning product's ingredients. So just because a label says "eco-friendly" or "all-natural" doesn't make it so, says Green Guide founder Wendy Gordon, who also cautions against other buzzwords, like "biodegradable," "nontoxic," and "solvent-free." Look for products that list all ingredients; these have nothing to hide.