July 21, 2008

Program Assesses Hazards of Indoor-Air Quality in Homes

By McLean, Mike

The world is a dangerous place, and while your home might seem like a refuge, you can be exposed to several times the amount of air pollution there that you encounter outside.

The Spokane office of the American Lung Association wants to make sure that the air inside your home is as clean as it can be, and in partnership with the Community Lead Education and Reduction Corps (CLEARCorps) of Washington, is offering free home indoor-air assessments here through a program called Master Home Environmentalist.

"People think of their homes as healthy and safe, but bad indoor air quality can make people sick in their own homes," says Valerie Johnson, the trained CLEARCorps volunteer here who conducts home indoor-air quality tests.

"There are a lot of actions people can take to improve indoor air quality," Johnson says. Businesses can request a checklist from the program and use it to ferret out trouble in their own indoor areas.

Johnson was assigned the Master Home Environmentalist position in Spokane in April, although other volunteers have managed the program here since 2006 and have conducted an average of four or five assessments a month.

Carolyn Bryan, a homeowner in the Corbin Park neighborhood, says Johnson surveyed her house and gave her a host of suggestions.

"It was thorough, but nonthreatening," Bryan says. She gave us some good tips and ways to save our health."

One such suggestion was to open windows periodically and let fresh air in. Another was to check for asbestos in the 1910 home.

"She also noted that a carpet in one roam was glued down, and said carpet glue can aggravate some respiratory problems, but she didn't recommend that we pull it out," Bryan says.

Johnson says people should be aware of whether lead or asbestos is present in their homes.

"Any house built before 1978 is almost guaranteed to have lead and asbestos," Johnson says, adding that those substances were banned from use in building materials that year.

Exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer, and other diseases, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause damage to the human brain and nervous system, especially in children, the agency says.

The most common source of lead exposure is dust from lead-based paint, which can be inhaled or ingested if the paint begins to chip or peel or is otherwise disturbed.

"If it's left alone and not chipping or peeling, it's not going to affect air quality," Johnson says.

Common sources of asbestos include some forms of insulation, popcorn-style textured ceilings, acoustical tiles, and backing for vinyl flooring, she says. Asbestos becomes a health hazard if it's disturbed and particles become airborne, lohnson says. In the case of the textured ceilings, it can be sealed in place with new coat of paint. Old vinyl flooring can be covered with new flooring to ensure that underlying asbestos isn't disturbed.

"If you're going to remove something containing asbestos, have it done professionally," she advises.

Also, pollutants tend to concentrate in carpeting, Johnson says.

"If the majority of the home is carpeted, it is likely there will be more pollution in the home, than in a home with hard-surfaced flours," she says.

Johnson recommends that people vacuum their carpets at least weekly with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Carpets should be cleaned with a steam cleaner twice a year, she adds.

People can reduce the amount of tracked-in pollutants, such as pesticides, pollen, and mold by placing commercial-grade doormats outside the entrances to their homes and by taking off their shoes at the door.

Anyone in Spokane County is eligible to request a home assessment free of charge by contacting the American Lung Association's Spokane office. Johnson visits homes upon request, identifies potential hazards to air quality, focuses on low-cost solutions, and helps homeowners develop plans to create healthier environments.

In most cases, improving indoor-air quality is a matter of changing habits rather than making expensive home improvements, Johnson says.

Among the leading contributors to indoor air pollution here are dust and mold. Mold is commonly found on windowsills where moisture from condensation tends to collect.

Some types of mold can be toxic, and others can trigger allergic reactions, Johnson says.

"We recommend cleaning mold regardless of toxicity," she says.

Indoor dust can contain allergens, especially dust mites and their droppings. Maintaining indoor humidity below 60 percent helps control dust mites and mold, the American Lung Association says.

It also recommends regular dusting of surfaces with damp cloths, rather than with dry cloths or feather dusters, which tend to stir up dust particles, making them airborne.

The American Lung Association distributes information about the program through doctors' offices and public service announcements, Johnson says.

Dr. Michael McCarthy, a Spokane pediatric pulmonologi st, allergist, and immunologist, says contact information for the Home Master Environmentalist pro-gram is available at his offices.

"I know a lot of people are taking it," McCarthy says.

While McCarthy hasn't heard results attributed directly to the assessments, he says some of his patients have reported their health improved after they switched cleaning products or kept pets out of bedrooms or households.

"I've even people make changes in their lifestyles, and they're sometimes surprised when they make huge differences," he says.

Johnson says that pets, through their dander, saliva, and urine, also contribute to indoor air pollution.

"We recommend that people keep pets out of beds and especially out of kids' bedrooms," she says.

Burning wood also potentially degrades indoor air quality. "Wood has many known carcinogens," Johnson says.

For those who use woodstoves, she recommends using manufactured logs, which she contends burn cleaner than regular wood.

She also recommends that people with woodstoves or gas- and oil- powered furnaces and appliances install carboon-monoxide detectors in their homes.

Exposure to carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas produced through incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels, inhibits a person's ability to absorb oxygen in the bloodstream, which can be fatal.

For homes that have gas or oil furnaces that are more than five years old, she recommends annual inspections to make sure the heating systems are working correctly and not producing excessive amounts of carbon monoxide.

Johnson recommends that people who smoke tobacco do so outside and that they take off their jacket and hat, if they've been wearing them while they smoke, when they come inside.

Second-hand smoke, which the EPA classifies as a known cause of cancer and a contributor to other respiratory diseases, lingers on clothes and can affect indoor air quality, Johnson says.

She recommends that all homes that don't have radon abatement systems be tested for radon, because the Spokane area has higher levels of the radioactive gas than the national average. The Surgeon General says that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

Radon is produced through the naturally occurring decomposition of uranium in the soil. The gas can seep into homes through basement floors and plumbing, Johnson says. Without adequate ventilation, radon can concentrate in indoor settings. Radon test kits can be bought at most hardware stores, Johnson says.

The concentration of radon in a home can be reduced through increased ventilation, she says.

Some cleaning products also can contribute to indoor-air pollution, Johnson says,

"Many cleaning products are toxic," she says.

Johnson recommends avoiding the use of bleach.

Most people who see mold, for example, try to use chlorine based bleach or cleaner to kill and clean it, she says. Fumes from chlorine bleach, however, can irritate a person's nose, throat, and lungs, and aggravate chronic respiratory problems, she says.

Johnson recommends using a solution of water and dishwashing detergent to clean mold.

Some other "green" cleaning products include vinegar, baking soda, and borax, she says.

The Master Home Environmentalist program distributes a brochure that contains recipes for nontoxic cleaning products ranging from disinfectants to furniture polish.

The Spokane office of the American Lung Association also can send a checklist to anyone who prefers to do the assessment themselves, and to people who live outside of Spokane County.

The American Lung Association of Washington also is coordinating Master Home Environmentalist assessments in King and Yakima counties.

CLEARCorps is a volunteer service organization. Volunteers in the Master Home Environmentalist Program receive a living stipend and an education award.

Copyright Northwest Business Press Inc. Jun 12, 2008

(c) 2008 Journal of Business; Spokane. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.