We spend so much time in our homes. They are our little islands of comfort and joy – where the day begins with a hot cup of coffee, and ends with a family dinner and a Netflix movie.
Okay, maybe that last part is a fantasy. But Netflix or not, we try to do everything in our power to make our homes as safe and healthy as possible.
But there are hidden sources of indoor pollution that can slip by even the most conscientious, diligent homeowners. Here are three ways you might be polluting your own home – and how to eliminate them from your life.
1. The Ghost of Smokers Past: Third-Hand Smoke
The Issue: Indoor air quality diminishes quite rapidly if someone is smoking inside the house; this is obvious. But it’s not just second-hand smoke that you need to worry about: it’s third-hand smoke. Never heard of it? Most people haven’t, as it’s a relatively new concept in air science circles. But scientists are quickly realizing just how impactful – and harmful – third-hand smoke can be.
Third-hand smoke is a phenomenon where tobacco smoke settles into your carpets, walls, and furniture and causes adverse reactions long after the smoking stops – we’re talking weeks and months afterward.
Here’s how it works: when someone smokes indoors, the residue lingers inside your home. After a while, the residue combines with other common indoor pollutants and forms a cancer-causing compound called nitrosamine, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Risk: Scientists are just now discovering the negative health effects of third-hand smoke. It can put everyone in your household, particularly children – who play and crawl in close quarters with carpets, furniture and other smoke-absorbing fabric – at risk for tobacco-related health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Exactly how dangerous is third-hand smoke? Unfortunately, it’s such a new concept that researchers are still trying to measure the extent of its health effects. But why chance it?
The Solution: The best solution is entirely preventative: don’t smoke inside your home, and don’t allow others to smoke inside, either. If it’s too late for that, you still have options.
Smoke is notoriously hard to remove from a home. But don’t rip up your carpet just yet. First, attack every surface (walls, ceilings, everything) with a clean cloth, detergent and very warm water. Switch out the cloth a few times to make sure you aren’t just spreading nicotine resin around.
Now, the tough stuff: those curtains you adore? They’ll probably need to be replaced, along with blinds and any other window coverings. And if you want to truly eradicate third-hand smoke from your home, you’re going to have to lay two or three fresh coats of paint on your walls and ceilings.
As a last resort, there are cleaning services that specialize in smoke removal. But it comes at a price that will make you feel light in the head – and the wallet.
Above all, it’s important to remember a simple rule: cover up is not clean up. A few sprays of Febreze might make the smoky smell go away, but the underlying issues and health threats still exist.
2. Is Your Air Conditioner Poisoning You?
The Issue: When it’s hot outside, what do you usually do? You crank the air, because it turns your home from a smoldering sweat den into a cool, comfortable abode. But be mindful of the biggest negative side effect of running your air conditioner: no, not the electric bill.
Mold, and the health hazards it brings.
The Risk: Air ducts are probably the single most common place for mold to live inside your home, according to Air Quality Specialist Jeffrey May, principal scientist and founder of May Indoor Air Investigations.
Here’s why: Air conditioners and ducts offer a perfect one-two punch of indoor health hazards because most ducts collect just enough condensation and organic matter to create an environment that mold loves. Then, flowing air acts as a perfect vessel for mold spores to disperse throughout your household.
Even when air conditioning units are no longer in use, or stored for the winter, the mold can be a problem, according to May.
The Solution: May recommends opening up the unit itself and cleaning it out thoroughly. If you do see any mold, a solution of half water, half bleach should do the trick.
But don’t stop there. You should also check the air ducts and thoroughly clean out the dust and anything else that’s built up inside there; for this, you can use the same 50/50 bleach and water solution as before. Mold feeds on organic matter, so it’s imperative that your ducts are dust-free and clean to prevent future mold growth.
While you’re at it, clean the whole house – because mold can grow in other places, as well. Unfortunately, rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work is the only option here. Even the best air purifier can’t combat large levels of harmful mold.
“Cleaning your whole home is vitally important,” says May, who recently authored the book My House is Killing Me. “We spend so much time making our homes look beautiful, but we often take too many shortcuts on making our homes mold-free. Taking the time to clean baseboards, under the furniture, and inside cupboards will go a long way in getting rid of dust and mold.”
3. The Closed-Window Conundrum
The Issue: People love to close their windows and seal them tight. Usually, it’s a practical matter: in the winter, we close our windows to keep the heat it. In the dog days of summer, we close them to keep the heat out.
Sealing up our home can help us feel safe; but it’s a false sense of security. Proper ventilation isn’t just recommended – it’s absolutely necessary to make your home as healthy as possible, according to the National Center for Healthy Housing.
The Risk: Our homes are full of contaminants. The particle boards in your furniture emit small amounts of formaldehyde; so does the insulation in your walls. Did you cook a meal today? Your gas stove is a great source of carbon monoxide. And the PAM you sprayed on the cooking tray…well, you get the idea.
The point is, we surround ourselves with chemicals and particulates every day – and that’s fine, because we are typically exposed to them in such small doses that our bodies know how to handle them.
But when our homes aren’t properly ventilated, these harmful particulates build up; and that’s when the health problems begin.
The Solution: Open the windows! Even 10-15 minutes of outdoor air circulating inside can improve air quality, and make your home much healthier. Additionally, exterior exhaust fans should be installed in your bathrooms and kitchen.
Make sure your appliances – water heater, furnace, stove – are properly vented.
Ventilation is obviously much more challenging in the winter months. But even in sub-freezing temperatures, experts still recommend you open your doors and windows for just a few minutes – with a strong draft, a few minutes is all you need to replace stale air.
Featured photo credit: mschellhase via flickr.com