When I moved into my current home in Southern
California nearly 20 years ago, I went searching for nontoxic paint,
carpeting, and other furnishings. My efforts were met mostly with odd
looks and raised eyebrows (ah, the olden days!). So I was overjoyed
when I finally found Mary Cordaro, just starting out on her path as a
consultant on healthy, green home building and remodeling. She spoke my
language! She immediately became my non-toxic home guide, and over the
years I have referred her numerous friends and patients: people with
allergies or, simply, those interested in green, clean living. Mold,
volatile chemicals, indoor and outdoor pollution -- you name it, she
has a resource. President of Mary Cordaro, Inc., she works as a healthy
home consultant and certified Bau-biologist, lecturing around the
country as well.
My latest concern, likely in response to some incessant commercials
on the subject, is the existence of disgusting, invisible dust mites
that camp out in our mattresses, living off our skin flakes (yuck!) and
generally up to no good. I asked Mary what she does for this scourge,
and she gave me some great solutions, along with some advice covering
the gamut of home toxins, which I'm including here as well. We'll start
with the creepy crawlies.
Death to Dust Mites According to the Mayo Clinic,
the average bed is home to 100,000 to 10 million dust mites (and you
thought a snoring mate was a problem!). Along with their favorite food,
our skin particles, mites thrive on warmth, moisture and darkness. So,
before making the bed, pull back the covers and air your bedding,
reducing moisture. When it's sunny, air your bedding outdoors. Wash
sheets in hot water weekly if you are dust mite-sensitive. You'll itch
if you are. Unless they are filled with organic or chemical-free wool,
which is naturally mite-resistant, encase mattresses, pillows and
comforters with nontoxic dust mite barrier covers tightly woven to at
least 4.91 microns. Seek barrier covers that are free of PVC and
antimicrobial, stain- or wrinkle-resistant treatments. No more dust
Now for the other invisible threats within our castles.
Allergies on the Rise. They've doubled since the
1970s, according to a 2005 study by the National Institutes of Health.
Some of that increase may be because most of us spend up to 90 percent
of our time indoors, meaning we are almost constantly exposed to
airborne allergens in our offices, homes and cars.
The most common home allergens are particulates and chemicals.
Particulates include seasonal pollen, mold, dust, dust mites and animal
dander. Indoor chemicals associated with allergies include
formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (chemicals that outgas from
products such as plywood and fiberboard), conventional paint and
finishes, and permanent fabric treatments. By improving air flow and
reducing sources of particulates, chemicals and moisture, we can reduce
our homes' levels of typical airborne allergens. Here are some
Allergenic Particles. Many of the chemicals in our
homes are tracked in from our shoes and on pets' feet. One of the
easiest ways to reduce our homes' particulate and chemical loads is to
remove shoes upon entering the house. They do it in Japan and Hawaii,
and I've instituted it in my own home as well. And make bedrooms off
limits to pets.
To control allergens that do get in, vacuum frequently, including
upholstered furniture, with a HEPA vacuum independently certified to
capture at least 99 percent of particulates (e.g., Miele, Nilfisk).
This is especially important if you have wall-to-wall carpet or pets.
If you don't have a HEPA vacuum, open windows while vacuuming and for 30
minutes afterward, as non-HEPA vacuums can stir up allergens. You
might also invest in a HEPA air cleaner that filters particulates such
as dust, pollen, dander and mold. The best HEPA cleaners contain carbon
for chemical filtering as well.
Moisture Patrol. Moisture helps create an ideal
environment for mold and other allergens. One of the most common sources
of indoor moisture is condensation from bathing and cooking. Run
exhaust fans when cooking and for 30 minutes after bathing, even if your
bathroom has a window. Make sure exhaust fans vent to the outdoors.
While fans are running, it's wise to crack a nearby window to provide a
source of makeup air (see "This House Doesn't Suck" below). Outdoor
moisture may also lead to indoor mold. Make sure your home's drainage
directs water away from foundation walls.
In basements, avoid materials that mold thrives on, such as drywall
and carpet. Instead, choose hard materials such as concrete, ceramic,
tile and stone. Keep moist basement air out of living spaces by
installing an airtight seal around the basement door and caulking holes
where plumbing and electrical wires pass from the basement to the
ground floor. Also install weatherproofing around attic doors.
Carpet cleaning and humidifying increase indoor moisture. If carpet
doesn't dry quickly after cleaning, you may end up with low levels of
mold you can't see or smell. Use chemical-free cleaning methods that
require the least water and only clean carpets when humidity is low and
you can open windows. If you hire professionals, ask them to extract as
much moisture as possible. If you use a humidifier, use filtered water
and clean the reservoir with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide before
refilling to prevent mold and bacteria.
Increase Air Flow. Unless you have seasonal pollen
allergies or live in a highly-polluted area, open windows whenever
weather allows. Fresh air and sunlight are great remedies for high
levels of particulates, mites, moisture and chemicals. For fast relief,
open windows and turn on all exhaust fans. Whole-house fans ventilate
your entire home. If you install one, make certain its exhaust is
mechanically vented to the outdoors, not into the attic.
This House Doesn't Suck. When you turn on your
furnace, air conditioner or exhaust fans, your home may become
negatively pressurized, an effect that causes indoor air to suck in
pollutants from basements, wall cavities, attics and crawl spaces. To
prevent this, keep all interior doors open and crack one window on each
floor when furnace or fans are running. Change furnace filters when you see grime buildup or once every six months.