Energy-Efficient Homes Need Healthy Indoor Air

Weatherizing your home? Pay extra attention to the chemicals in your air.

January 20, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Matthew Wald of The New York Times has written about weatherizing homes as one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to slash home energy use, in turn reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and creating green-collar jobs. (Read the Times story here.) And we at Rodale.com totally agree. But by adding a little insulation here, caulking a crack there, and weather-stripping drafty doors, you’re not only dropping your heating and cooling costs by 20 to 30 percent annually, you’re also locking in all the chemicals you spray, slather, and squirt all over your house, possibly creating indoor air pollution. That comes as a surprise to many—a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that women don’t readily connect household products with personal chemical exposure and their potential negative health effects.

THE DETAILS: Researchers from Silent Spring Institute, Brown University, and University of California at Berkeley interviewed 25 women who had participated in the Silent Spring Institute Household Exposure Study, which tested for 89 environmental pollutants in air, dust, and urine samples. According to the study, an average of 20 hormone-disrupting chemicals were found in each home, including pesticides and compounds commonly found in plastics, cleaners, furniture, cosmetics, and other products. The majority of the participants were surprised that chemicals were turning up in their homes—and inside their own bodies. Most had previously believed that kind of contamination occurred only in military or industrial settings, or as a result of environmental disasters.

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“People more readily equate pollution with large-scale contaminations and environmental disasters, yet the products and activities that form the backdrop to our everyday lives—electronics, cleaners, beauty products, food packaging—are a significant source of daily personal chemical exposure that accumulates over time,” says sociologist and lead author Rebecca Gasior Altman.

WHAT IT MEANS: Home weatherization is likely to be a hot topic for some time to come: President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to weatherize 1 million low-income homes a year for the next decade, upgrading home furnaces, sealing leaky ducts, fixing windows and adding insulation. Since about 65% of the 3,000 gallons of air we breathe in a day comes from inside our homes, it’s important to choose products that don’t increase our odds of developing asthma, allergies, fatigue, or more serious problems like cancer or birth defects.

Whether you’re weatherizing your house or not, here are some steps to keep contaminants out of your living space:

• Wipe out VOCs. Found in paint, all-purpose cleaners, wood preservatives, carpet glue, and dry-cleaned clothing, these chemicals are gaseous at room temperature. Possible health effects range from eye, nose, and throat irritation to headaches, nausea, and cancer. Scope out cleaning products that have simple ingredients (such as those by Seventh Generation and Ecover), or make your own. Avoid products made from pressed wood, such as particleboard—it contains the VOC formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen. Find low-VOC paints and flooring with the Ecologo seal, and seek out dry cleaners who use safer methods.

• Phase out phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals used to disperse scents and make plastic flexible. Found in detergents, cosmetics, shampoos, air fresheners, vinyl flooring, and vinyl shower curtains, they're linked with reproductive and developmental problems and, studies indicate, an increased risk for asthma and allergies. Switch to phthalate-free detergents, pick unscented personal-care products when possible, use baked lemons as natural fragrance, and hang hemp or cotton shower curtains.

• Don’t stir up flame-retardant residue. PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), flame retardants that are added to plastics, foams, and fabrics, are found in some TVs, computers, and furniture. Exposure has been found to cause brain and reproductive problems in developing animals. When cleaning these items, use a damp rag to avoid stirring up dust that may contain PBDEs. Cover or replace exposed foam pads in cushions.

• Go on pesticide patrol. Don’t use pesticides inside or outside your home. Accidental exposure can harm a child's nervous system (or even your own, if the dose is large enough) and disrupt hormones. To keep in-home pests away, be meticulously clean, store food in airtight containers, and get rid of food scraps promptly. Spray soapy water in areas where ants enter.

• Safety-check your stove. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and tiny floaters called particulate matter can seep out from improperly maintained stoves, fireplaces, and chimneys. Low-level exposure to carbon monoxide leads to headaches and nausea; high levels are deadly. Nitrogen dioxide can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; particulate matter can damage lung tissue. Use a fan while cooking with a gas stove, and make sure the tip of the flame is blue (if it’s yellow, call your gas service provider and ask them to adjust it). Make sure your home has a working carbon monoxide detector.

• Rule out radon. You can’t smell radon, but depending where you live, this uranium breakdown by-product could be seeping into your house from the ground beneath it. Radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Visit the EPA site for more info and to download a coupon for a radon test.