Protect the air your family breathes

We Canucks spend most of our time indoors; the federal government estimates that more than 90 per cent of our day is spent in offices, malls or other enclosed spaces. Much of that time is spent in our homes. Yet on hearing the phrase “air pollution” people think–and are concerned about–the air outside. The reality is that the amount of toxins in the air of some homes can be as bad as, or worse than, that in a big city.

Biology vs. chemistry

Indoor air contaminants fall into two main categories: biological ones, such as mould, pollen and pet dander; and chemical ones, such as the combustion gases from HVAC equipment, off-gassing from building materials and cigarette smoke. These various impurities can lead to a number of illnesses, ranging from minor throat irritation and allergies to pneumonia and even cancer. Yet most, once identified, can be reduced or even eliminated. The best way to deal with dust and pet hair is to clean and vacuum your house frequently.

Mould occurs if the indoor air is too moist, typically in the basement (although it can happen anywhere in the home). Running a dehumidifier during muggy summer days is often enough to keep moisture levels down. Excessive dampness, say from a major water spill, may require more drastic measures. (The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. has detailed brochures on its website, explaining how to conduct a DIY cleanup and determine when you need to call in the pros.)

Bedrooms and other living spaces

Have you ever noticed how your house has that new-car smell after a renovation? That smell (in your home and car) is from the off-gassing of chemical components in the newly installed materials. The odour and off-gassing are often temporary, but you can reduce the long-term impacts by choosing the right building products to work with.

When painting, use products labelled low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) to minimize the noxious odours, or buy natural materials such as clay-based or milk paints. Always paint in a well-ventilated area (if there aren’t any windows in the room, consider wearing a respirator), and remove as much furniture as possible to prevent it from absorbing the smells.

For flooring, choose natural materials over manmade. Glue-down vinyl is probably the worst offender when it comes to off-gassing. And although carpet is the softest on the feet, synthetic materials will off-gas and all types of carpeting trap dust and allergens. Solid wood, floating laminate or tile flooring, on the other hand, won’t.

If you, as a reader of this magazine, are in the market for a kitchen or bathroom overhaul, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell you on the craftsmanship advantages of solid-wood cabinetry over cheaper particleboard. One feature you might not have considered is that particleboard cabinets are typically constructed with formaldehyde glues. And while formaldehyde may be the ideal solution for preserving frogs in biology class, it’s not so good for living things to be breathing in. If you do choose cabinets with particleboard, you can lessen off-gassing by applying a low-VOC sealer before installation.

Fuel surcharge

Even if you don’t have a wood stove or fireplace, there are several sources of combustion that can lurk in a house, including gas stoves, gas-, propane- or oil-fired furnaces, and water heaters.

The wisest–and potentially life-saving–approach is to install a carbon-monoxide detector on each floor, in relatively close proximity to heating and cooking appliances. As with your smoke detectors, ensure that the backup batteries are replaced frequently.

There are several products on the market to improve the quality of air coming out of your furnace. The simplest is your air filter. Forgo the cheapest brand on the shelf and opt for one that will trap dust and other particulate matter in the air. When comparison shopping, look for the MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating: the higher the MERV, the more the product will filter out.

A humidifier–either built into your furnace or a standalone room-sized model–can help alleviate dry, chafing air in winter. But you need to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on filter changes so the machine doesn’t become clogged or a breeding ground for bacteria.

Working in the garage

Most woodworkers know about the risks of airborne dust particles. But if your workshop is in the basement or an attached garage, you’d be wise to be extra cautious. Install an airtight door to separate your shop from the rest of the house, seal off the ductwork before sanding or painting–or paint and stain outside the home when possible–and, if you haven’t already, install a proper dust-collection system.

An attached garage also adds the potential for carbon-monoxide exhaust from the car to enter your home. Make sure you open the garage door before you start the car. Break the habit of idling to get the heater warmed up; it’s bad for the environment and your engine. Installing a carbon-monoxide detector in the adjacent room is a worthwhile safety precaution.

Between your paints and solvents, and all the gardening fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention that half-full can of mower gas, your garage or workshop can unwittingly become a hazardous materials depot. If space in your yard permits, you can store many of these volatile items in a detached storage shed, although some products (such as paint) shouldn’t be allowed to freeze.

The hazards of housecleaning

The cleaning products aisle is piled high with containers that claim to sanitize your home and the air. And most of us have likely sprayed something in the air or on the furniture for that fresh scent. Yet, as the author of The Virtuous Consumer, Leslie Garrett, likes to say, “clean doesn’t have a smell.”

When shopping for cleaning and toiletry items, look for unscented varieties. You can also opt for certified organic products or those with the Health Canada Ecologo on them to ensure that the ingredients will minimize the negative impacts on your indoor air quality.

Your home should be a haven, not a hazard to your health. By carefully considering the products you bring into it, you and your family will be able to breathe easier.

Fire retardants

It’s sadly ironic when products designed to help us actually end up hurting us, which seems to be the case with a class of fire-retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

For decades PBDEs have been added to myriad products–from the wiring in TVs and stereos to the foam in carpet underpad, couches and mattresses–for their ability to slow the spread of flames. Unfortunately, the chemicals have slowly been spreading throughout the environment, showing up in unwanted (and frightening) places like the human bloodstream and breast milk.

In lab testing, mice exposed to PBDEs (albeit in doses far higher than you’d be exposed to at home) had delayed behavioural and nervous-system development, and inhibited liver and thyroid functioning. PBDEs are also a possible carcinogen.

While Health Canada says “there is no clear evidence of any adverse effects” to humans from exposure, it does offer tips for minimizing your contact with these chemicals, including frequent vacuuming and cleaning to remove potentially contaminated dust, and reducing consumption of fatty foods (the chemicals build up in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans).

Although the European Union has led worldwide efforts to ban the production and use of most PDBE formulations, DecaBDE is still used in Canada. This is despite objections of groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

If you are concerned, buy PBDE-free products that use naturally fire-resistant materials in lieu of chemical treatment. Swedish-based retailer Ikea, for one, uses cotton or wool filler in its mattresses to comply with fire regulations.

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