Healthy Homes: 3 Hidden Home Dangers

Published on Mar 27, 2020
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Home is our refuge. It’s where we eat, sleep, raise our families, and recharge from busy days. We spend some 65 percent of our lives inside the home. Given the importance of our dwellings, it’s critical to be aware of many potential hazards in the home that can be harmful to your health.  

More than 39 million U.S. households contain at least one health hazard, according to the U.S. Census. Some of these household hazards can be seen, such as lead from chipping paint and old pipes, mold, dust and pests. Other dangers in the home are invisible to the eye, such as carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases released from many common household products.

We should especially protect children from home health hazards. With their rapidly developing brains and bodies, kids are at great risk for harm from toxins and other dangerous substances. Also, for their size, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air compared to adults. This means they’re potentially exposed to higher doses of harmful substances.

People of all ages are impacted by home hazards, especially when it comes to the air we breathe. While we’re often concerned about outdoor pollution, many people don’t consider the risks from poor air quality in their home. Indoor air pollutants such as dust, mold, and pests can trigger allergies, asthma and other reactions. And those with weakened immune systems or allergies and asthma are most vulnerable. VOCs from household products can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and have more serious health effects over the long term.

Here’s the good news: there are many things that you can do to protect your family from these hidden health dangers. Read on to learn more.

1. Mold

Mold is a type of fungus that can be found anywhere, indoors and outdoors. It can look white, black, brown or yellow, and smell musty. Mold thrives in warm, damp places where there is little air movement, and grows by producing spores — small airborne particles that travel through the air and can be easily inhaled. For all people, as well as those sensitive or allergic to mold, respiratory issues can occur.

Where it’s commonly found

  • Bathrooms
  • In wet or damp basements
  • In attics under leaky roofs
  • Under wallpaper or carpets
  • On windowsills or under sinks where moisture collects

Health effects

  • Eye and skin irritation
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Asthma symptoms

What you can do

  • The key to mold control is moisture control: promptly fix sources of moisture problems, such as leaky roofs, windows and pipes.
  • Keep humidity levels as low as you can (between 30% and 50%) by using an air conditioner or dehumidifier.
  • To get rid of mold, use soap and water, mold-cleaning product, or a bleach solution to scrub mold off hard surfaces. Be sure to wear protective eyewear and non-porous gloves. Soft porous surfaces like carpets or pillows may have to be thrown away.
  • If the mold occupies a large area, greater than the size of your shower door, you may want to contact a professional to get it removed.

2. VOCs

A variety of household products can emit gases that can pollute the air in your home.

Where they’re found

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Paint cans and thinners
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Air fresheners
  • Building materials and furniture

Health effects

The health impact of VOCs depends upon the type of chemical that you’re breathing in, and how much and how long you’re exposed to it.

Short-term exposure over a few days, can lead to:

  • Worsening of asthma symptoms
  • Eye and throat irritation
  • Headaches, nausea and dizziness

Long-term exposure over a few years, can increase the risk for:

  • Cancer
  • Lung and kidney damage
  • Nervous system damage

What you can do

While it’s not necessary to toss out common household products that contain VOCs such as nail polish remover and bleach, it’s important to follow the product’s instructions when using it. The following tips can also help limit your exposure to VOCs.

  • When using household products that emit VOCs, such as cleaning supplies, make sure there is proper air flow in your home. Open a window and use a fan to increase the amount of fresh air.
  • Store paint cans in a garage or shed, in an area that is not connected to your family’s living spaces.
  • Dispose of any stored chemicals in your garage that you don’t use. Check with your city or county for proper household hazard removal.
  • Look for low-VOC options for paint, carpet or furniture.
  • Quit smoking and don’t smoke in your home.

3. Dust mites

Dust mites are tiny, insect-like pests that commonly live in household dust, feeding off of dead human skin cells. They thrive in warm, humid environments. The waste and body fragments from dust mites are a common allergen, a substance that can trigger allergic reactions or asthma in some people.

Where they’re found

  • Bedding
  • Mattresses
  • Furniture
  • Carpeting
  • Curtains
  • Humid households

Health effects

  • Itchiness
  • Inflamed skin
  • Sneezing and runny nose
  • Red and watery eyes

What you can do

  • Wash bedlinens weekly in hot water.
  • Keep your home below 50 percent humidity by using a dehumidifier or air conditioner.
  • Use allergen blocking mattress and pillow covers.
  • Use a HEPA filter vacuum, a type of vacuum that captures a large number of small particles, on all carpeted areas and on furniture, including the bed, and upholstery.

General good housekeeping and keeping indoor moisture under control can help to reduce some of these health hazards in your home. And while it’s impossible to reduce every risk in your home, staying aware of some of these common dangers can help protect you and your family. Be sure to check with a health care provider if you think you or a family member may have breathing issues, allergies or health problems related to your home.

References

  • 1. American Lung Association. Indoor Air Pollutants and Health. Dust Mites. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 2. American Lung Association. Volatile Organic Compounds. Accessed January 27, 2020.
  • 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mold. Basic Facts about Mold and Dampness. Accessed January 27, 2020.
  • 4. Consumer Reports Magazine. Indoor Air Quality. Hazards You Need to Know. June 2012. Accessed January 27, 2020.
  • 5. Environmental Protection Agency. Biological Pollutants Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Accessed January 27, 2020.
  • 6. Environmental Protection Agency. Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 7. Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. Home Health Hazards. Mold and Moisture. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 8. Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. Home Health Hazards. Pests. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 9. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Homes for Health. 36 Expert Tips to Make Your Home a Healthier Home. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 10. Mayo Clinic. Dust mite allergy. Symptoms and causes. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 11. Medical News Today. Mold in the Home. How big a health problem is it? Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 12. Minnesota Department of Health. Volatile Organic Compounds In Your Home. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 13. National Center for Healthy Housing. Resident and Homeowner Resources. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 14. U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Help Yourself to a Healthy Home. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  • 15. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Tox Town. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Accessed January 21, 2020.
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