Room to Breathe

Health, Home, Household DIY Tips
on June 30, 2014
Clean Air At Home

As the mastermind behind HGTV’s Dream Homes and this year’s Smart Home, house planner Jack Thomasson has been wowing the popular cable channel’s home- obsessed audiences for 17 years.

But beneath all the bells and whistles on display in the Nashville, Tenn.-area Smart Home—smart phone-controlled thermostats and beds that adjust to your body’s particularities (see them all on the HGTV Smart Home Giveaway Special Aug. 15)—are features with a more serious purpose. Thomasson and his team make it a priority to plan and construct homes that promote good indoor air quality and protect inhabitants from respiratory problems associated with poor indoor environments.

“Our homes, if properly designed, can be havens that offer relief from many of the toxins, pollutants and environmental issues that can exacerbate a respiratory condition,” he says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat. A multitude of factors, including building materials, household cleaning products and mold from damp basements and leaky roofs, can cause headaches, dizziness and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. “The air is just as bad indoors as it is outdoors, and there’s not a lot of regulations regarding indoor air,” says Angela Tin, vice president of environmental health at the American Lung Association (ALA) of the Upper Midwest.

EPA research indicates that indoor levels of pollutants may be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor. Plus, we spend an estimated 90 percent of our time inside—so protecting the air we breathe in our homes is crucial.

Tin runs ALA’s Health House program, which encourages homebuilders to adhere to high indoor air quality standards. Typical components include foundation waterproofing and moisture control to combat mold; air sealing and advanced insulation techniques; high efficiency air filtration and whole house ventilation. Structural modifications like building a detached garage (to reduce exposure to car emissions) and foregoing fireplaces (a major producer of gasses and tiny particles that can trigger asthma attacks) are often part of a healthy home blueprint.

“A home should have controlled ventilation,” notes Thomasson, who includes many ALA-prescribed features in his HGTV homes. “Even no-cost solutions like providing a place to take off your shoes when you enter your home to limit the toxins you track into your house” can help reduce your exposure to indoor air pollutants.

Many features that make up a Health House also promote energy efficiency and environmentally friendly (or “green”) practices, but the intent is different, says Abby Brokaw, director of environmental programs at the ALA in Illinois. “Green rating systems are focused on the impact of the home on the environment; we are more focused on the impact of the home on the person who’s living there,” she says. Many of the materials and building methods that promote better indoor air are pricier than their conventional counterparts— the Health House estimates a 3 to 5 percent difference—but energy savings can offset higher costs over time. And there are other advantages, adds Thomasson. “The payoff will be the peace of mind of living in a healthier home, and in the resale value of your home where you’ll have a competitive edge over the home next door,” he says.

Simple steps anyone can take to breathe easier at home:Use a digital hygrometer (available at hardware stores) to ensure your home’s humidity doesn’t exceed 55 percent or drop below 35 percent.

  • Thoroughly clean humidifiers daily to reduce microorganism growth.
  • Vent kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans as well as clothes dryers outside.
  • Keep all pets with fur out of bed- rooms, and bathe pets weekly to control dander.
  • Use an exhaust fan or open a window when showering.
  • Replace disposable air filters regularly, more often if you have asthma, allergies or COPD.
  • Use household chemical products according to manufacturers’ instructions, avoid mixing products unless specified on labels and always use adequate ventilation.
  • Wash bedding and blankets once a week in hot water (at least 130-140 degrees F) to control dust mites.