By Alex May, April 1, 2008
Could your cushions, curtains and carpet actually make you sick?
Indoor air pollution in residential homes is rapidly becoming a health risk we all need to think about, with nasty-sounding things called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) to blame.
VOCs a blanket term to describe chemicals that vaporise have been linked to asthma and other respiratory health problems and there are plenty of them in household furnishings, paint and cleaning products.
The Healthy House author David Baggs, who also runs a website called Eco-specifier, says toxin-emitting VOCs are a real risk, especially in homes with new furnishings or renovations.
''We know for a fact that formaldehyde and benzine are carcinogens, yet these chemicals can be emitted by furniture in the home,'' he says.
Particle boards, laminates, polyurethanes and other chemical finishes emit high amounts of VOCs sometimes called off-gassing when they are new and slowly pollute the home. ''Especially if the room is not ventilated,'' Baggs says, noting that over time the VOC emissions tend to become lower.
America's environmental authority EPA claims indoor air pollution is one of the country's top five health risks and Australian researchers at Curtin University are working out ways to banish the nasty little VOC critters from our homes.
But VOCs aren't the only culprits behind an unhealthy house. Dirt, toxins, mould and dust can cause respiratory problems and allergies.
Damp carpets may not only attract dustmites, but create mould between the floor and carpet-backing that can't be vacuumed up or even detected by the home owner.
''Choosing the right materials for a house is important, but keeping it clean and the way you keep it clean is also the key,'' Baggs says.
Cleaning products are full of chemicals that make chores simpler many give off unhealthy fumes that can irritate children's eyes, nose and lungs. Some cleaners are corrosive and even contain ingredients that are suspected of causing cancer.
Cleaning chemicals can also leave behind chemical residues. Children tend to touch everything, eat food off the floor and put their hands in their mouths and may ingest chemicals along with their toys and food.
''It pays to have a low-harm approach to cleaning chemicals and only use something that isn't toxic,'' Baggs says.
How to have a healthy home
- Choose furnishings wisely natural finishes such as oils, waxes and polishes are better than polyurethane, varnishes, melamine or paint which can emit Volatile Organic Compounds.
- Paint can be a major source of indoor air pollution, especially when it is freshly applied. When re-painting, choose low-VOC options or natural paints. Old paints manufactured more than 30 years ago contain high lead levels, so make sure it's not flaking or creating lead dust.
- Heaters can pollute the indoor air and should be fluted (and cleaned). An unfluted gas heater can emit dangerous vapours.
- Mould is a major indoor air polluter, and can occur at all times of the year in damp areas of a house or apartment, especially in south-facing areas of the home. Poorly maintained air-conditioning systems can also spread mould through a house.
- Cleaning a house regularly is the key to a healthy home but not if you use harsh chemicals. Minimise the effect of cleaning products by sticking to low-harm options such as vinegar instead of bleach.
- Regularly air your house by opening the windows and doors to flush out dirt and mould. Vacuuming with a HEPA filter machine will keep dust mites at bay.
- Indoor house plants can be natural air filters which cleanse the air of VOCs and other pollutants.
- Keep a doormat at the front or back door to stop dirt and pollutants being tracked through the house or make residents take off their shoes to leave the dirt at the door.