Air Quality

Most Californians think of their home as a haven from the air quality problems that sometimes plague them outside. Home is the one place you expect to be able to breathe easy.

Unfortunately, the air inside your home can be more polluted than the air that's outside. This can be especially true when the weather cools and you spend more time indoors with the heater on and your windows and doors closed.

Poor inside air quality is sometimes blamed on energy efficiency measures - measures designed to tighten buildings, reduce the leakage of air, and decrease the amount of energy needed to heat or cool. Even "leaky" buildings, however, can suffer from unhealthy air when the sources of pollution are inside.

The good news is that energy efficiency and good indoor air quality can go hand-in-hand. Year round you can take measures to keep your heating and cooling costs in check, even as you protect your home from pollution by invisible contaminants.

Common Pollutants

Pollutants in your home can be organic - such as molds and mildews - or they may be the unintended result of such manufactured products as chemically treated building materials, foam insulation, carpeting, particle board furniture, aerosol sprays, paints and paint thinners, cleaning products and insect sprays.

The most effective way to deal with most indoor pollution is to reduce its source. While you probably can't eliminate all of the most common air pollutants in your home - cooking and cleaning odors, and biological contaminants like viruses, animal dander, dust mites and pollen - you can effectively reduce your exposure to them. Installing and using exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms, and venting your clothes dryer to the outdoors are ways to accomplish this.

One of the simplest methods for reducing allergens is to keep your home as clean as possible. You should check the air filters in your furnace and air conditioner every month and replace them when they're dirty. You may want to consider using air filters and vacuum cleaners with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

Be wary of products that give off fumes, such as sprays and cleaners, paints or hobby products. Make sure you have adequate ventilation when you use them, and keep volatile substances like gasoline, lighter fluids, barbecue charcoal starters and other combustible products in a well-ventilated area, preferably in a storage area outside your home.

Store household cleaners and toxic substances well away from children, and be careful not to mix certain household chemicals together. When combined, chlorine bleaches, drain cleaners, and common household cleansers can let off noxious fumes that can sometimes be fatal.

Some homeowners have complained of air quality problems after installing new carpeting. If you're sensitive, you might want to ask your carpet retailer for information on carpet emissions before making your purchase. You can also request that the carpeting be unrolled and allowed to air out in a well-ventilated area before it's installed. Ask your retailer or installer to use low-emitting adhesives, consider leaving your home while the carpet is being installed, and open your doors and windows to let fresh air inside. It's a good idea to keep fans running for 48 to 72 hours after installation to exhaust fumes outdoors.

If you're building a new home, explain any concerns you have about indoor air quality to your architect or contractor. They may be able to help you purchase building materials and furnishings that are low emitting. And if you've just moved into a newly built house, it's a good idea to increase the ventilation rate during the first 12 months or so. This helps to dry out the moisture initially contained in new concrete, drywall, plaster, lumber and other materials, as well as to exhaust air pollutants. Some building materials emit air pollutants at a high rate to begin with, but their emissions decrease significantly over time.

Indoor pollution affects people in different ways. In some it can cause health problems such as headaches, nausea, asthma, allergy attacks or frequent eye, nose, and throat irritations. At its most extreme, it can cause death.

You can avoid most of these hidden dangers to your family's health with a simple combination of sunlight, fresh air and good ventilation. And the good news is you can do it without sacrificing the energy efficiency you've gained from an airtight home.

Carbon Monoxide

Although it's a relatively uncommon occurrence, carbon monoxide poisoning in the home can be deadly.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It results from the incomplete burning of fuels such as wood, propane or natural gas, kerosene, or gasoline. Carbon monoxide can be released into your home by improperly working combustion appliances such as furnaces, gas dryers, water heaters, fireplaces, wood stoves, or fuel-burning space heaters.

There are simple ways to protect yourself from possible carbon monoxide poisoning. By maintaining your appliances according to manufacturers' recommendations, you not only protect your family's health and safety, but also help to preserve the energy efficiency of the appliance. That's why you should inspect your combustion appliances, as well as your chimneys and flues, periodically. Promptly repair any damages. If you're worried about carbon monoxide, you can install a device that will alert you to its presence in your home, much like a smoke detector will warn you in case of fire.

Lead

This heavy metal can be a harmful indoor pollutant, particularly in older homes in which lead-based paints were used. You and your family can be exposed when paint that contains lead is improperly removed by dry scraping, sanding, or open-flame burning. Old lead-based paint is the most significant source of exposure today, and the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services called lead the "number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States."

Lead can affect practically every system in the body. At high levels it can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. Lower levels of lead can adversely affect the brain, central nervous system, blood cells, and kidneys. Fetuses and young children are especially susceptible - lead is more easily absorbed into growing bodies. Exposure can cause delays in physical and mental development, lower IQ levels, shortened attention spans, and increased behavioral problems. And unfortunately, youngsters may have higher exposures since they are more likely to get lead dust on their hands and then put their fingers or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths.

Most homes built before 1960 - and some built as recently as 1978 - contain leaded paint. It can be found on window frames, walls, or the outside of the house.

The good news is that as long as lead paint is in good condition, it's usually not a problem. If it is in good condition, do not disturb it. Don't sand it or attempt to burn it off - people have been poisoned by scraping or sanding lead paint. These techniques generate large amounts of lead dust.

Don't attempt to remove lead paint yourself. Instead, hire a person with special training. Your family, especially children and pregnant women, should leave the building until all work is finished and clean up is done.

Do not burn painted wood since it may contain lead.

In addition to lead-based paints, your family may be exposed to lead in other ways. You may unknowingly bring lead into your home on your hands or clothes if your work involves construction, demolition or painting, handling batteries or repairing automobile radiators. Hobbies such as soldering and creating stained glass can contribute lead to the home.

Before the dangers of lead were realized, it was commonly used in water pipes and many other products. For years it was added to gasoline to raise octane. In some areas, the soil near highways can still show a higher concentration of lead today, the result of years of exhaust from cars and trucks using leaded gasoline. You can increase your exposure to lead by tracking contaminated soil into the house.

If any of these conditions apply to you, use doormats to wipe your feet before entering the home. If you work with lead in your job or a hobby, change your clothes before you go home and wash these clothes separately.

To remove lead dust, mop floors and wipe window ledges and chewable surfaces such as cribs with a solution of powdered automatic dishwasher detergent in warm water. (Dishwasher detergents are recommended because of their high content of phosphate.) Most multi-purpose cleaners will not remove lead in ordinary dust.

For general information about lead poisoning and prevention, contact the National Lead Information Center Hotline at 1-800-LEAD-FYI [1-800-532-3394].

Asbestos

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral once commonly used as insulation and as a fire-retardant. While it is seldom used today, in can still be found in older homes, in pipe and furnace insulation materials, asbestos shingles, millboard, textured paints and other coating materials, and floor tiles.

The health danger from asbestos is caused by airborne fibers too small to be seen. Once inhaled, they can remain and accumulate in the lungs and can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings), and asbestosis (irreversible lung scarring that can be fatal). Symptoms of these diseases do not show up until many years after someone has been exposed.

Fortunately however, asbestos is not a significant problem in most homes. Even if the mineral is present in building materials, it will not release fibers as long as it is in good condition and left alone. So don't cut, rip, or sand asbestos-containing materials.

Before you remodel your home, find out whether asbestos materials are present. If you discover products containing asbestos, leave them alone and prevent them from being disturbed. Consider the option of sealing off the materials instead of removing them. If any asbestos materials are more than slightly damaged, or if your remodel will significantly disturb them, you need to call in a professionally trained contractor to remove them.