NON-TOXIC HOUSEHOLD ALTERNATIVES
WHO IS MOST AT RISK
CMHC separates people into three categories ranging from those most at risk to those least at risk. Most at risk are individuals who are hypersensitive to a number of agents and who react adversely to extremely low levels of exposure. This condition is commonly described as "environmental allergy", "environmental hypersensitivity" or "environmental illness". According to a report on housing for the environmentally hypersensitive prepared for the Research Division of CMHC, the symptoms reported by those affected ranged from central nervous system problems such as tension, fatigue, headaches, depression and inability to concentrate to problems with other physical systems such as gastrointestinal, respiratory, musculoskeletal, genitourinary, EENT (eyes, ears, nose and throat), skin and cardiovascular. The symptoms were often severe enough to interfere with a person's ability to function normally. Biochemical individuality (heredity or mother's health and nutritional state during pregnancy), total body burden (biological stress including illness, psychological state and all forms of irritants and toxic contaminants) and nutritional state were stated as factors that may predispose one to hypersensitivity.
The onset was reported as being triggered by the following:
- serious injury or severe stress
- serious illness often requiring surgery or prolonged drug therapy
- chronic exposure to low level contamination such as molds or formaldehyde in homes or buildings, industrial emissions at work or in a polluted neighborhood or chemicals in the food or water
- acute exposure to toxic agents during industrial accidents or pesticides applications.
The report also notes that the chemical sensitivities of the hypersensitives were mostly always associated with parallel sensitivities to biological contaminants such as molds and dust as well as to food allergies. Hypersensitive individuals tested positive in conventional allergies as well as clinical ecology tests. It was also reported, however, that a reduced exposure or total avoidance of the environmental irritants or incitants reduced the food allergy sensitivities to some extent and that all the participants reported an improvement in their health following a change of habitat that excluded chemical exposure to even minute levels of contaminants but included clean air, clean water, and clean food
It is interesting to note the similarities between this group and most sufferers of endometriosis. In addition, the profile of the respondents who had made modifications to their homes in order to improve their health indicated that 83% were female, 93% were over the age of 30, 76% became ill in adult life, 93% had been sick for over 6 years and 27% were currently disabled. In light of the research on dioxins and endometriosis, the similarities may be more than just coincidental.
The second group at risk are the people with known health issues such as respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, allergies, chemical sensitivities, chronic illnesses or those who spend a lot of time in the home such as women, children, the elderly or the infirm. For this group, the home needs to be altered so as to lessen the effects of any known irritant and avert risk.
The third group consists of people who have no known reaction to low levels of contaminants and are in relatively good health. The issue for them would be to improve comfort and prevent potential health problems from occurring. Prevention for this last group is indeed very important because just as some health effects may be experienced soon after a single pollutant exposure, other effects may not occur until years later. Some people can become sensitized to biological and chemical pollutants as a result of a high exposure level or a long and repeated exposure level.
It is therefore important to deal with the issue of indoor air pollution even if physical symptoms are not noticeable and particularly important to take corrective action if you have a known health issue or are hypersensitive.
POLLUTANTS, HEALTH EFFECTS, SOURCES AND SOLUTIONS (compiled from EPA and CMHC sources)
Substance: Molds, mildew, dust mites, pollen, animal dander and cat saliva, bacteria and viruses. Health effects: Eye, nose, throat irritation; shortness of breath dizziness, lethargy, fever, digestive problems, asthma, humidifier fever, influenza, infectious diseases, sensitization to substances, allergic reactions, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis.
Sources: High (above 60-70%) humidity levels, leaky house components or pipes causing water accumulation, humidifier, air conditioner or refrigerator trays or drainage pans, condensation on interior surfaces, rotting house structures (e.g., windows, floors and framing); damp or moist house furnishings (e.g., carpets, furniture, wall coverings, mattresses, paper, clothing); potted plants (soil can support fungal growth); cold, uninsulated or unventilated places (e.g., cold cellars, crawl spaces, basements); drains; dirty filters; indoor storage of firewood; damp and dirty surfaces; house dust (e.g., furnishings, mattresses, carpets, ducts, exposed surfaces); pollen (e.g.,indoor plants, nearby outdoor plants), pets.
Solutions: Reduce humidity level in house with dehumidifier or air conditioners; ventilate to prevent moisture buildup in kitchens, bathrooms, basements and attics; minimize the use of humidifiers and clean them regularly, keep drain pans clean; repair household leaks and remove rotting, damp or water damaged materials; clean regularly and vacuum, preferably with a central vacuum system vented outdoors; avoid dust accumulating furnishings (e.g., upholstered furniture, drapes, carpets); use allergen proof mattress encasements; use electrostatic or high efficiency filters in air handling units, and clean or replace them frequently; cover soil on potted plants and do not overwater them; confine pets to one area of the house or eliminate them entirely.
Substance: Combustion gases and respirable particles (carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide)
Health effects: Carbon monoxide-in low concentrations: fatigue in healthy people and chest pains in people with heart disease; at higher concentrations: impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea, flue like symptoms;at very high concentrations: fatal. Nitrogen dioxide-eye, nose and throat irritation, potential impaired lung function and increased respiratory infections in young children, Respirable particles same as nitrogen dioxide with the addition of bronchitis and lung cancer.
Sources: Unvented kerosene or gas stoves and heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, leaking or backdrafting chimneys and furnaces, automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke.
Solutions:Vent furnaces,gas stoves and space heaters to outdoors; replace gas devices with electric devices; select properly sized woodstoves with tightly fitting doors that are certified to meet EPA emission standards; have trained professionals inspect,clean and tune up central heating system annually, do not idle car in the garage, do not smoke in the home or if smoking cannot be avoided increase ventilation where smoking takes place and use exhaust fans.
Substance: Pesticides, insecticides, termicides, fungicides, rodentcides and disinfectants Health effects: Irritation to eyes, nose and throat; damage to central nervous system and kidneys; increased risk of cancer.
Sources: Pesticide use, pesticide residue in homes from previous pesticide use, products on lawns and gardens that drift or are tracked inside, mothballs, stored pesticide containers, household surfaces that collect and then release pesticides.
Solutions: Use alternative pest control methods; do not store pesticide containers inside the home; store clothes with moth repellent in separate ventilated areas; use pesticides only when absolutely necessary and with care.
Substance: Organic gases (Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) and formaldehyde Health effects: Eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidney, central nervous system; cancer or suspected cancer; skin rashes; severe allergic reactions; fatigue; wheezing and coughing.
Sources: Paint, paint strippers, varnishes, furniture oils, caulkings, glues, adhesives, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleaners and disinfectants, moth repellents, air fresheners, stored fuel and automotive products, dry cleaned clothing, hobby supplies, drywall compound, soft plastics, pressed wood products, urea formaldehyde foam insulation, permanent press fabrics on clothes, furnishings, furniture and draperies, carpets and underpads, wallcoverings or floor coverings made of vinyl, plastic or other synthetics, upholstered furniture containing synthetic foam, personal care products (perfumes, cosmetics and toiletries).
Solutions: Substitute with unscented, nontoxic products; avoid cleaning agents containing chlorine and other organic solvents; store supplies outside or in closet equipped with exhaust fan; use low toxicity, low odor paints, varnishes, oils, caulkings and other building materials; air out dry cleaned clothes; do not use room deodorizers, mothballs or fabric softeners; replace pressed wood products with low toxicity products or seal pressed wood products with appropriate sealers; increase ventilation to 1 air change every 3 hours so as to evacuate chemicals that do outgass and maintain moderate temperature and humidity so as to discourage the release of formaldehyde; use low toxicity, natural non-dyed, non-fireproofed, non-mothproofed, non-allergenic furnishings and materials. (All-Natural does not necessarily mean non-allergenic). Controversy exists over the use of plants as significant absorbers of formaldehyde and other gases (natural air cleaners), do not rely on them exclusively.
Health effects: Affects practically all body systems; can cause convulsions, coma and death at high levels; at low levels, it can have health effects on the central nervous system, kidneys and blood cells. It can also impair mental and physical development.
Sources: Lead based paint, contaminated soil or dust, lead based water pipes, lead based dinnerware
Solutions: Do not disturb lead based paint in good condition; do not sand or burn lead painted surfaces; seek expert help in removing lead paint; do not bring lead dust into the home; have house water pipes tested for lead contamination; test dinnerware for lead contamination.
Health effects: Long term risk of chest or abdominal cancers and lung diseases. Smokers have increased risk.
Sources: Deteriorating, damaged or disturbed insulation, fireproofing, acoustical materials and floor tiles from older homes.
Solutions: leave undamaged asbestos material alone. If material damaged, consult expert asbestos removal contractors.
Health effects: Lung cancer. Smokers at higher risk.
Sources: Earth and rock beneath the home may produce gas that seeps in through openings in the foundations, well water in radon area, radon laden building materials Solutions: Have home tested for radon exposure.
TAKING APPROPRIATE ACTION
Once a thorough evaluation of your home has been made and the sources have been properly identified, a plan of action needs to be developed. It is important to properly identify the sources so that money is not spent needlessly fixing something that is not the major problem. The basic strategies of any action plan are:
1. Eliminate the sources whenever possible
2. Separate the source from the rest of the house if you can't eliminate it. This is done by sealing in the source or air sealing the house to prevent the entry of outdoor contaminants or by creating one safe, clean oasis within the house.
3. Ventilate to evacuate pollutants and bring in fresh clean air (filters may be needed depending on the quality of outside air). Ventilation does not replace the elimination of the offending sources but it is necessary to provide clean air at an affordable cost. This applies to both newer tightly sealed houses and to older homes.
The action plan can be phased in over a period of time (start with the least costly and most effective solutions first) or done all at once depending on the needs of the individuals and the resources available. It may involve minor renovations or modifications, major alterations or even relocation to another home or the construction of a new custom home.
In conclusion, there are many factors in our environment that are difficult to control, but the elimination of pollutants in our home is not one of them. This is something we have control over and can choose to do something about, assuming we have the knowledge to make informed choices. CMHC reminds us that regardless of our health needs, clean indoor air can provide the basis for a nurturing environment. It can improve the quality of our health and our sense of well being. It is therefore deserving of our attention and our resources
By Lyse M. Tremblay, Architect
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