Is Your Home Making You Sick?
By ANDREA DAVIS
Keeping your family safe at home means knowing how to identify potential health hazards. When you understand how to spot a hazard and how to respond when you're faced with one, you can prevent illness, home evacuation and other issues in the future.
1. Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide can build up in areas where combustion takes place, such as at gas water heaters, furnaces, boilers, wood stoves, fireplaces and garages. Carbon monoxide is produced when a fossil fuel is burned, and it becomes a hazard when fuel burns without proper ventilation. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas, and inhalation of high concentrations can lead to unconsciousness, sudden illness and even death.
Some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
* Blurry vision
Carbon monoxide may occur when your heating system isn't burning correctly, says Brandon Sinkbeil of DS Consulting, Inc., a Denver-based environmental consulting company. "If you have complete combustion, you shouldn't get very much carbon monoxide, if any. If you do have high levels of carbon monoxide, you don't want to just put in a fan to mitigate it. You need to find the source of combustion that's producing the carbon monoxide and fix the problem."
According to Sinkbeil, the best way to check for carbon monoxide is to install alarms with a battery in case of loss of power. "Carbon monoxide is odorless and will attach itself to your red blood cells more easily than oxygen and asphyxiate you without you ever knowing."
Mold tends to grow as a result of excess moisture in a home, so if there is too much humidity and condensation, there's a good chance mold will eventually develop. Sinkbeil notes that mold needs organic material on which to grow and feed. "It won't grow on just metal, glass or plastic unless there's sawdust or something that's carbon-based as well," he says. "So you'll see it growing on drywall paper, wood studs, roof decking, wood subfloors and things like that."
Mold growth can often be seen with the naked eye and is often fuzzy and powdery. Sinkbeil has seen mold in all colors -- including white, orange, black, green and pink -- and it can often be mistaken for dirt or dust, he says. Sinkbeil recommends that homeowners have anything they suspect to be mold growth tested by submitting samples to a laboratory to be completely certain. Mold is naturally occurring, but high concentrations of airborne mold spores should be avoided indoors.
Symptoms of mold exposure can include:
* Itchy and watery eyes
* Wheezing and coughing
To remove mold, wipe down the affected areas with a cloth soaked in a hydrogen-peroxide-based solution. You can also help prevent mold by running a dehumidifier in places like your basement. If carpet, insulation or large areas have been affected by mold, you may need to hire a professional mold remediation company.
Here are some steps you can take to help prevent mold from forming:
* Identify excessively humid areas in your home and install dehumidifiers.
* Increase the ventilation in your home.
* Move groundwater away from your home foundation with gutters and downspouts.
* Increase the airflow in your home to decrease indoor moisture levels.
* Fix any points of water intrusion, including pipes, sinks, drains, roof leaks, etc.
Pesticides sometimes find their way into the home and can cause significant health hazards. Repellents, weedkillers and pet shampoos can pollute the air inside your home, and indoor chemicals like those found in mothballs can negatively affect your respiratory system. Long-term exposure to pesticides has been linked to birth defects, cancer and nerve damage.
Some of the short-term symptoms of pesticide exposure include:
* Blurry vision
Sinkbeil stores his pesticides, insecticides and herbicides in a safe place in the garage. "A lot of them are probably flammable and under pressure, so in my garage, I have a metal cabinet that I keep all of them in and lock it to keep the kids out," he says.
For expired pesticides, Sinkbeil notes that most are made up of complex compounds that will break down over time. If you're using expired products, you may be "just spraying something that's not even working anymore," he said. If you have expired pesticides in your home, be sure to dispose of them properly because they could inadvertently pose a threat to others, especially if they are under pressure. But always check the manufacturer's specifications and recommendations for usage and storage.
Radon gas can sometimes enter a building through the foundation floors and walls underneath your home.
According to Sinkbeil, any house can build up levels of radon gas; whether it does is a matter of the soil and geology as well as how the house is built. "Most new houses are now airtight, which creates traps for radon gas to build up in," he says. "Cracks allow for radon to come up faster. New houses hopefully have foundations without a lot of cracks, but older houses have cracks, which allow air and gas to enter a home. Also, the less ventilation you have, the more gas that can build up."
According to the EPA, radon is the primary cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and the second highest cause of lung cancer in overall patients. It causes about 21,000 deaths every year in the world, with 2,900 of those deaths occurring in people who have never lit up a cigarette.
Symptoms of radon poisoning include:
* Hoarse voice
* Difficulty breathing
* Recurrent lung infections
If you want to use a radon kit to test your home on your own, Sinkbeil warns there is a risk of human error. "It's a canister that you put in your basement 20 inches off the floor and 20 inches from the wall, not opening windows or doors or running the HVAC system," he explains. "They have to sit there for a minimum of 48 to 72 hours (up to as many as five days). Those canisters can become contaminated by other sources of radiation (countertops, UV rays from the sun, etc.), which can skew the results."
However, most professional radon inspectors use machines that are calibrated and certified either by the manufacturer or independent laboratories periodically, which keeps them accurate.
If you want to find a certified professional to test your home for radon, search online for radon testing professionals in your area and for pros who have been highly rated by other homeowners.
Asbestos is a mineral found naturally in the environment that was often used in building materials found in roofing, flooring, ceiling, walls, pipes and HVAC systems.
But in the 1970s the EPA outlawed the use of asbestos in building materials because of the high health hazard. Asbestos fibers are so small that they are not visible to the naked eye, and the fibers can be inhaled and lodged in the lungs. Our bodies cannot break down the fibers, so asbestos can result in asbestosis (or scarring of the lung tissue), lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
* Problems breathing
* Dry cough
* No appetite
* Clubbed fingers and toes
* Chest pain
Sinkbeil recommends that homeowners call a professional to check for asbestos, especially if their home was constructed before 1980. There can be asbestos in drywall made even after the 1970s, so it must be sent to a lab for analysis. "If your home is newer than 1980, 99 percent of the time it's going to be negative. However, countries like Canada, Mexico and Africa haven't outlawed it yet, so you can still buy building materials containing asbestos, and they ship it across the border all the time."
Readers -- Have you had issues with any of the home hazards mentioned above? Has your home been inspected by a professional? Do you have carbon monoxide alarms in your home or have you ever used a radon test kit? Leave us a comment below and let us know.
Brandon Sinkbeil is the vice president of business development at DS Consulting, Inc. in Lakewood, Colorado, which specializes in testing for asbestos and lead for real estate transactions, flood and fire restoration and remodels for contractors.
Andrea Davis is the editor for HomeAdvisor, a leading website and mobile app providing homeowners with free tools and resources for their home projects. It also connects homeowners to a network of more than 80,000 pre-screened, customer-reviewed service professionals and makes the process simple from start to finish with Mhelpdesk. Homeowners can make smart project decisions at home or on the go using tools such as Cost Guide and Pro Reviews, along with mobile apps including HomeAdvisor Mobile and DesignMine.