Are you concerned about the effects on your health that may be related to biological pollutants in your home? Before you discuss your concerns with your doctor, you should know the answers to the following questions. This information can help the doctor determine whether your health problems may be related to biological pollution.
- Does anyone in the family have frequent headaches, fevers, itchy and watery eyes, a stuffy nose, dry throat, or a cough? Does anyone complain of feeling tired or dizzy all the time? Is anyone wheezing or having difficulties breathing on a regular basis?
- Did these symptoms appear after you moved into a new or different home?
- Do the symptoms disappear when you go to school or the office or go away on a trip, and return when you come back?
- Have you recently remodeled your home or done any energy-conservation work, such as installing insulation, storm windows, or weather stripping? Did your symptoms occur during or after these activities?
- Does your home feel humid? Can you see moisture on the windows or on other surfaces, such as walls and ceilings?
- What is the usual temperature in your home? Is it very hot or cold?
- Have you recently had water damage?
- Is your basement wet or damp?
- Is there any obvious mold or mildew?
- Does any part of your home have a musty or moldy odor?
- Is the air stale?
- Do you have pets?
- Do your house plants show signs of mold?
- Do you have air conditioners or humidifiers that have not been properly cleaned?
- Does your home have cockroaches or rodents?
Infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, such as the flu, measles, chicken pox, and tuberculosis, may be spread indoors. Most infectious diseases pass from person to person through physical contact. Crowded conditions with poor air circulation can promote this spread. Some bacteria and viruses thrive in buildings and circulate through indoor ventilation systems. For example, the bacterium causing Legionnaire’s Disease, a serious and sometimes lethal infection, and Pontiac Fever, a flu-like illness, have circulated in some large buildings.
Toxic reactions are the least studied or understood health problem caused by some biological air pollutants in the home. Toxins can damage a variety of organs and tissues in the body, including the liver, the central nervous system, the digestive tract, and the immune system.
Checking Your Home
There is no simple or cheap way to sample the air in your home to determine the level of all biological pollutants. Experts suggest that sampling for biological pollutants is not a useful problem-solving tool. Even if you had your home tested, it is almost impossible to know which biological pollutant(s) cause various symptoms or health problems. The amount of most biological substances required to cause disease is unknown and varies from one person to the next. Does this make the problem sound hopeless? On the contrary, you can take several simple, practical actions to help remove sources of biological pollutants, to help get rid of pollutants, and to prevent their return.
Self-Inspection: A Walk Through Your Home
Begin by touring your household. Follow your nose, and use your eyes. Two major factors help create conditions for biological pollutants to grow: nutrients and constant moisture with poor air circulation.
- Dust and construction materials, such as wood, wallboard and insulation, contain nutrients that allow biological pollutants to grow. Firewood also is a source of moisture, fungi and bugs.
- Appliances, such as humidifiers, kerosene and gas heaters, washers and clothes dryers, dishwashers and gas stoves, add moisture to the air.
A musty odor, moisture on hard surfaces, and even water stains, may be caused by:
- air-conditioning units;
- basements, attics and crawlspaces;
- heating and air-conditioning ducts;
- humidifiers and dehumidifiers; and
- refrigerator drip pans.
What You Can Do About Biological Pollutants
Before you give away the family pet or move, there are less drastic steps you can take to reduce potential problems. Properly cleaning and maintaining your home can help reduce the problem and may avoid interrupting your normal routine. People who have health problems, such as asthma, or who are allergic, may need to do this and more. Discuss this with your doctor.
Water in your home can come from many sources. Water can enter your home by leaking or by seeping through basement floors. Showers and even cooking can add moisture to the air in your home. The amount of moisture that the air in your home can hold depends on the temperature of the air. As the temperature goes down, the air is able to hold less moisture. This is why, in cold weather, moisture condenses on cold surfaces (for example, drops of water form on the inside of a window). This moisture can encourage biological pollutants to grow.
There are many ways to control moisture in your home:
- Fix leaks and seepage. If water is entering the house from the outside, your options range from simple landscaping to extensive excavation and waterproofing. (The ground should slope away from the house.) Water in the basement can result from the lack of gutters or a water flow toward the house. Water leaks in pipes and around tubs and sinks can provide a place for biological pollutants to grow.
- Put a plastic cover over dirt crawlspaces to prevent moisture from coming in from the ground. Be sure crawlspaces are well-ventilated.
- Use exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens to remove moisture to the outside (not into the attic). Vent your clothes dryer to the outside.
- Turn off certain appliances (such as humidifiers and kerosene heaters) if you notice moisture on windows and other surfaces.
- Use dehumidifiers and air conditioners, especially in hot, humid climates, to reduce moisture in the air, but be sure that the appliances themselves don’t become sources of biological pollutants.
- Raise the temperature of cold surfaces where moisture condenses. Use insulation and storm windows. (A storm window installed on the inside works better than one installed on the outside) Open doors between rooms (especially doors to closets which may be colder than the rooms) to increase circulation. Circulation carries heat to the cold surfaces Increase air circulation by using fans and by moving furniture from wall corners to promote air and heat circulation. Be sure that your house has a source of fresh air and can expel excessive moisture from the home.
- Pay special attention to carpet on concrete floors. Carpet can absorb moisture and serve as a place for biological pollutants to grow. Use area rugs, which can be taken up and washed often. In certain climates, if carpet is to be installed over a concrete floor, it maybe necessary to use a vapor barrier (plastic sheeting) over the concrete and cover that with sub-flooring (insulation covered with plywood) to prevent a moisture problem.
- Moisture problems and their solutions differ from one climate to another. The Northeast is cold and wet, the Southwest is hot and dry, the South is hot and wet, and the Western Mountain states are cold and dry. All of these regions can have moisture problems. For example, evaporative coolers used in the Southwest can encourage the growth of biological pollutants. In other hot regions, the use of air conditioners which cool the air too quickly may not be left running long enough to remove excess moisture from the air. The types of construction and weather for the different climates can lead to different problems and solutions.
Where Biological Pollutants May Be Found in the Home
- dirty air conditioners;
- dirty humidifiers and/or dehumidifiers;
- bathroom without vents or windows;
- kitchen without vents or windows;
- dirty refrigerator drip pans;
- laundry room with an unvented dryer;
- an unventilated attic;
- carpet on damp basement floor;
- closet on outside wall;
- dirty heating/air-conditioning system;
- pets; and
- water damage (around windows, the roof, the basement).
Maintain and Clean All Appliances that Come in Contact with Water
- Have major appliances, such as furnaces, heat pumps and central air conditioners, inspected regularly by a professional InterNACHI inspector. Change filters on heating and cooling systems according to manufacturer’s directions. (In general, change filters monthly during use.) When first turning on the heating or air conditioner at the start of the season, consider leaving your home until it airs out.
- Have window and wall air-conditioning units cleaned and serviced regularly by a professional, especially before the cooling season. Air conditioners can help reduce the entry of allergy-causing pollen. But they may also become a source of biological pollutants if not properly maintained. Clean the coils and rinse the drain pans, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, so water cannot collect in pools.
- Have furnace-attached humidifiers cleaned and serviced regularly by a professional, especially before the heating season.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using any type of humidifier. Experts differ on the benefits of using humidifiers. If you do use a portable humidifier (approximately 1- to 2-gallon tanks), be sure to empty its tank every day and refill it with distilled or demineralized water, or even fresh tap water, if the other types of water are unavailable. For larger portable humidifiers, change the water as recommended by the manufacturer. Unplug the appliance before cleaning. Every third day, clean all surfaces coming in contact with water with a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide, using a brush to loosen deposits. Some manufacturers recommend using diluted household bleach for cleaning and maintenance, generally in a solution of one-half cup bleach to 1 gallon of water. With any household chemical, rinse well to remove all traces of chemical before refilling the humidifier.
- Empty dehumidifiers daily and clean often. If possible, have the appliance drip directly into a drain. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and maintenance. Always disconnect the appliance before cleaning.
- Clean refrigerator drip pans regularly, according to manufacturer’s instructions. If refrigerator and freezer doors don’t seal properly, moisture may build up and mold can grow. Remove any mold on door gaskets, and replace faulty gaskets.
- Clean moist surfaces, such as showers and kitchen counters.
- Remove mold from walls, ceilings, floors and paneling. Do not simply cover mold with paint, stain, varnish, or a moisture-proof sealer, as the mold may resurface.
- Replace moldy shower curtains, or remove them and scrub them well with a household cleaner, and rinse them before rehanging them.
Controlling dust is very important for people who are allergic to animal dander and mites. You cannot see mites, but you can either remove their favorite breeding grounds or keep these areas dry and clean. Dust mites can thrive in sofas, stuffed chairs, carpets and bedding. Open shelves, fabric wallpaper, knickknacks, and venetian blinds are also sources of dust mites. Dust mites live deep in the carpet and are not removed by vacuuming. Many doctors suggest that their mite-allergic patients use washable area rugs rather than wall-to-wall carpet.
- Always wash bedding in hot water (at least 130° F) to kill dust mites. Cold water won’t do the job. Launder bedding at least every seven to 10 days.
- Use synthetic or foam rubber mattress pads and pillows, and plastic mattress covers, if you are allergic. Do not use fuzzy wool blankets, feather or wool-stuffed comforters, and feather pillows.
- Clean rooms and closets well. Dust and vacuum often to remove surface dust. Vacuuming and other cleaning may not remove all animal dander, dust mite material, and other biological pollutants. Some particles are so small, they can pass through vacuum bags and remain in the air. If you are allergic to dust, wear a mask when vacuuming and dusting. People who are highly allergy-prone should not perform these tasks. They may even need to leave the house when someone else is cleaning.
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