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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Is your house making you sick?
Easing indoor air pollution is a breeze

houseKINGSTON, R.I. – September 11, 2002 -- Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, homebuilders and homeowners focused increased attention on insulation, weather stripping and other energy efficiency measures. But while those steps reduced heating costs and energy use, they can also contribute to unhealthy indoor air.

"Indoor air can be much more polluted than outdoor air because contaminants become concentrated without sufficient air exchange. And the air quality in new homes can be worse than in old ones because we’re building tighter houses," said housing expert Marjorie Jensen, associate professor of community planning at the University of Rhode Island. "Without careful planning, newer homes can actually mean poorer indoor air quality. Energy efficient homes built in the 1970s and 80s are no longer new, so the lack of modern features or proper maintenance may also be factors."

Jensen said the first indication of a problem is often when residents feel healthy everywhere but at home. Respiratory problems, lingering colds, skin rashes, headaches and dizziness are all symptoms that the air inside the home may be unhealthy.

While there can be any number of culprits, one of the most common and easiest to diagnose, according to Jensen, is mold.

leaves"If your windows are moist, especially in cold weather, if you have a damp cellar, leaking eaves or backed-up gutters, even having too many plants – which create moisture – all these can contribute to potential mold problems," she said. "And many people are very sensitive to mold."

To reduce the potential for mold in the home, Jensen advises to "use your home properly." That means bathroom fans should be turned on whenever the tub or shower are in use, and the fan should be vented to the outside, not to the attic. The same is true for the fan over the stove. "Even boiling spaghetti for dinner can contribute to mold problems." The clothes dryer should also be vented outside.

The flow of air around the exterior of the house is also important. Shrubs should be trimmed to at least two feet away from the edge of the house, and large shade trees should not be planted too close to the home. "Molds like shady, dark, damp conditions, so letting the sun shine in your home will help prevent its growth."

Homes that lack proper ventilation systems can be retrofitted, and the installation of attic vents should be considered if mold continues to be a problem.

Good housekeeping practices are an essential line of defense. For example, areas in the home that are prone to mold should be cleaned regularly and hard surfaces should be disinfected. Clean with a wet sponge or mop because simply brushing or sweeping will create a dust of the mold spores that will resettle on other surfaces. Then wash and dry mops, cleaning clothes and sponges so they don’t become additional sources of moisture and mold.

Other indoor air quality issues include:

  • Gas MaskFormaldehyde – The backing on new carpets and glues in laminated furniture give off formaldehyde, which can cause nose and throat irritation, coughing, skin rashes and other problems. The odor diminishes over time, but in the first few days it can be strong. Jensen suggests asking carpet installers to roll out the carpet in their warehouse the night before the installation to allow it to air out. When possible, install new carpets in the summer when windows can be left open.
  • Carbon monoxide – While not a common problem, this odorless and tasteless gas can be deadly. Improperly vented or damaged furnace pipes and the indoor use of camp stoves, kerosene stoves or charcoal can all cause a build-up of carbon monoxide. Symptoms include headaches, lethargy, nausea and drowsiness. The installation of carbon monoxide detectors is advised, and as of Jan. 1, 2002, the devices are required by Rhode Island law when a home is sold.
  • Household chemicals -- Cleaning solvents, hobby chemicals, bleach and other household chemicals cause a noticeable and often irritating odor. They should all be used according to their instructions and only with proper ventilation. "Be sure not to mix any of these chemicals together, especially anything with chlorine in it," noted Jensen. "Chlorine mixed with certain other chemicals, particularly lye, can become an extremely dangerous poisonous gas."
  • Dust mites – One of the most common household allergies and a common trigger for childhood asthma, dust mites are found in pillows, stuffed animals, soft furniture, carpeting and other soft materials. While impossible to eliminate entirely, effort should be made to clean them from children’s bedrooms. Washable dust covers can be used on pillows, mattresses and box springs. Curtains, bedding, and stuffed animals should be washed regularly. Pillows and other susceptible items that can’t be washed should be put in the dryer to allow the heat to kill the mites. Jensen even advises replacing wall-to-wall carpeting in youngsters’ rooms with washable area rugs.
  • Other concerns – Lead paint dust causes learning problems and more serious disorders in very young children; radon gas can leak into the house from the basement and increase risk for lung cancer; second-hand tobacco smoke induces asthma in children and increases the risk for lung cancer, especially when coupled with exposure to radon gas.

Homeowners who suspect they have indoor air quality problems can hire home inspectors or environmental specialists to help identify and remediate pollution sources. Contractors who specialize in cleaning up flood damage may assist with mold cleanup. Reliable firms can be identified through insurance companies.

The problem isn’t limited to new homes. According to Jensen, poor indoor air quality disproportionately affects low-income families because many live in older, substandard housing with leaking roofs, lead paint and cracked foundations. So she has launched a program affiliated with the URI Cooperative Extension to help low-income families address air quality issues through a variety of free workshops on home-buying and home ownership.

For more information about the workshops or to receive a free 20-page guide to indoor air hazards, call Jensen at 401-874-2983 or email marjorie@uri.edu.

Media contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892

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