THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Homeowners seeking refuge from high winter heating bills might be opening the door to unwanted guests.
Experts say that dangerous pollutants can build up and linger in homes that have been sealed too tightly against the elements, especially during the cold-weather months.
Indoor air can contain two to five times the level of toxins found in outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Common contaminants found inside homes include dust mites, pet dander, tobacco smoke, mold spores and household chemicals.
“Indoor air quality ranks among the top five environmental risks that Americans face,” said Tom Kelly, director of the EPA’s indoor environments division. “And once pollutants get inside, they tend to concentrate.”
Columbus allergist and immunologist Dr. Roger A. Friedman sees examples of it every day.
“We know we’re seeing more allergy and asthma problems, and one of the reasons is the fact that homes have been sealed very tightly,” said Friedman, a clinical professor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Although everyone is affected to some degree by indoor air pollution, children 6 and younger are most at risk because of their lung size, state of development and amount of time they spend at home, he said.
Growing numbers are falling victim to asthma, characterized by intermittent coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. It’s the leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for more than 14 million missed days a year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
For the Ahlers family of Lancaster, the statistics really hit home.
Matt and Mendy Ahlers go to great lengths to keep their indoor air healthy, but three of their four children have severe asthma.
Mendy Ahlers is a stay-at-home mom and self-described “clean freak,” though she doesn’t claim to be perfect (the family has four dogs).
To control dust mites, she encases the family’s mattresses and box springs in washable covers and launders curtains once a month. Matt, a firefighter, can’t bring home smoky or sooty uniforms.
They have a room air purifier downstairs and have removed the upstairs carpeting. And Mendy makes sure her children — ages 6 to 10 — get outside for at least 20 minutes daily for fresh air.
Still, every two weeks, she delivers the kids to Friedman for allergy shots and other treatments.
“I think if I could open my windows every day and freeze, they would be a little healthier,” she said. “But no matter how much I clean or no matter what I do, we’re always going to have some problems in the home.”
The EPA’s Kelly urged homeowners to strike a balance between the potentially conflicting interests of sealing out the cold and maintaining good indoor air quality.
“People have got to live,” he said, “so we urge common sense.”
He cited three keys to safe indoor air.
• Source control. Don’t bring anything in that will cause a health hazard, including cigarette smoke, pets with dander, cleansers with ammonia, paints with volatile organic compounds or dry-cleaned clothes still under plastic.
“If you can smell it, it’s probably not good for you,” he said.
• Ventilation. Vent exhaust fans, dryers and stoves outdoors. Keeping a window or two cracked and making sure outside doors are opened and closed several times a day can make a big difference.
• Air cleaners. While single-room air cleaners are “generally not very helpful,” Kelly said centrally housed filters and cleaners that work with a furnace can remove dust, pollen, mold spores and other pollutants.
The average American home contains 63 hazardous products, including cleaners, paint, drain openers, bug spray and room deodorizers, said Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing for Green Seal Inc. (www.green seal.org), a Washington-based nonprofit that certifies eco-friendly products and services.
“So much has to do with what you bring into the home,” she said. “What are you painting with? What are you cleaning with?”
Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell.
She said manufacturers aren’t required to list all chemicals or ingredients on a product’s label. But if a product contains a substance determined to be toxic by state or federal regulators, it must carry a warning label.
While Green Seal doesn’t identify potentially harmful products by brand name, Chipperfield said consumers should avoid household cleansers with chlorine, ammonia or benzene; air fresheners with dichlorobenzene; and paints with formaldehyde, phenol mercury, kerosene and toluene.
Generally speaking, Green Seal-recommended paints are low-odor and low-VOC, she said. Most manufacturers have such products in addition to their regular paints.
The goal, experts say, is to keep the air fresh and circulating and the house free of germs and allergens without using harmful chemicals.
“Do you really need to spray your house with some kind of perfume, or is it OK to have it smell like nothing?” Chipperfield asked.
She chooses nothing, but sometimes leaves out a bowl of lemons for natural fragrance or sprinkles allspice and cinnamon in a pan with water and heats it on the stove.
“What you can really control on a day-to-day basis are the things you purchase and use in your house.”
Assessing indoor air can be difficult because consumers have few places to turn for free or unbiased advice. Home inspections can be expensive, and private contractors often have a financial interest in selling air-cleaning products or remediation services for radon, mold or asbestos.
“There is no simple, inexpensive way to determine your indoor air quality, and there is no single machine to set up,” Kelly said.
“So you need to look for symptoms. If you’re feeling fine when you’re outside, and then inside your house your nose is all stuffed up, that’s a sign of potential trouble,” he said.
Free advice is available from the Ohio Department of Health’s Bureau of Environmental Health, 614-466-1390, which fields calls about indoor air.