Dust, mold and chemicals ranks as just a few indoor air hazards

January 10, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Many home inspection services can help homeowners find indoor air hazards, such as dust and mold. Thinkstock

Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, according to Aileen Gagney, environmental and lung health program manager for the American Lung Association in Washington.

And indoor air can be up to five times as polluted as outdoor air, she said. That can be a very serious problem for the very young and the very old, as well as those with asthma and other lung problems.

And not incidentally, Gagney said asthma rates have shot up what she called an “amazing” 70 percent in 10 years.

Gagney obviously is well versed on the topic of indoor air pollution. She easily rattles off dozen of tips for cleaning your indoor air and can speak personally about the possible effects of indoor air pollution.

An architect by training, Gagney has worked at various construction and home-related jobs, including as a general contractor. Almost 30 years ago, Gagney was applying polyurethane in a bathroom. After the job, she slept for 16 hours. From then on, she developed a hypersensitivity to many chemicals. Exposure to common items such as fresh paint can cause her migraine headaches. The effects are almost immediate, she said.

In short, she said she takes indoor air pollution and its possible effects very seriously and wants others to do so as well. Gagney even speaks out against plug-in air fresheners that she said mostly consist of chemicals.

“You don’t really think there is vanilla in there, do you?” she asked.

Get rid of mold

Probably the biggest problem with air quality locally is mold, Gagney said, adding she receives 30 to 40 calls a week about that topic.

Nancy Bernard is the indoor air quality manager at the state Department of Health. She spends most of her working time answering phone calls about indoor air quality and, like Gagney, said mold is a big problem in the Northwest.

Many callers want to know if the state can do something about mold issues or want inspectors to come and take samples of the mold in a home, Bernard said. But neither the state nor local counties have mold inspection programs, she added. Further, Bernard argues there is no reason to sample mold as the type of mold present is almost never relevant.

“It makes no difference what kind it is, the thing to do is get rid of it,” Bernard said.

So how does one do that? Both Bernard and Gagney said that if you have mold, you have excess moisture. Remove the moisture and the mold will go with it.

By the way, Gagney said never to use bleach on mold. It doesn’t kill the mold; it just bleaches it. As with most cleaning chores, old-fashioned soap and water works best, Bernard said.

How do you get the moisture out of your air? Both Bernard and Gagney talked about properly using exhaust fans in your kitchen and bathroom. For example, Gagney said to leave your bathroom fan on for 60 minutes after bathing or showering. You can also use a squeegee on your walls if needed. Another step is to try and make sure kitchen and bathroom fans vent to the outside, not to an attic as is sometimes the case.

With windows and doors closed against the cold, winter is a tough time to keep air circulating through your home — a key to clean indoor air, according to Chad Fulton, of Glendale Heating and Air Conditioning, whose company services the Issaquah area.

“It’s very important to get dust out of your air,” Fulton said.

Toward that end, he recommends changing the filter on your furnace at least four times a year. (Gagney recommended doing so every three months.) You also want to use the right filter. Some are aimed at trapping dust but might be worthless for dealing with pet dander. And no filter is 100 percent efficient at trapping anything, Fulton said, so another step is to have heating ducts cleaned every five to seven years.

To keep air circulating, if possible, leave the fan on your furnace running, Fulton suggested. Putting in a small duct to let in fresh air might not be a bad idea and shouldn’t add to heating bills. Ideally, air in your home should be exchanged once every hour, according to Fulton.

Limit all chemicals

Gagney and Bernard had plenty of other suggestions for keeping indoor air clean. Their first rule is don’t smoke inside. If you must smoke, go outside, especially if you have small children, Gagney said. And either change clothes or wear something you will leave outside when finished smoking. Gagney even suggested leaving your shoes outside regardless of whether you smoke or not.

Shoes can carry in all sorts of chemicals that can end up in your carpeting, she said. Small children are especially susceptible to being exposed to those chemicals.

Other tips include getting a carbon monoxide detector, Bernard said. She said if you use a humidifier, clean it regularly. Stay away from indoor pesticides, especially bug bombs. Get a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and change it regularly.

Gagney comes out strongly against that box of chemical cleaners you might have under your sink. She said the only cleaning products you really need are baking soda and vinegar.

“People talk about better living through chemistry. I say better living through green cleaning,” Gagney said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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One Response to “Dust, mold and chemicals ranks as just a few indoor air hazards”

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