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Some Ways to Reduce Indoor Pollutants

March 16, 2000

Worried about the air you are breathing in your own home? Ways to create a healthy environment to help reduce allergies range from making major investment to minor behavioral modifications. And you may be amazed to find how many nontoxic or "green" products are now available.

Although truly "natural" products (chemical free and derived from plant sources) are difficult to find, many low-toxic or nontoxic choices are now available.

Debra Lynn Dadd, a green-products pioneer, has been writing books about nontoxic houses since 1982. "I researched everything and was able to fit every product I found into the book, because there weren't that many," she said. "Now there are so many I couldn't catalog them all in my latest book, 'Home Safe Home,' let alone evaluate them. There's just a lot you can do yourself."

Here is a sampling of tips from Dadd and other experts:

Cleaner Air:

Since so much time is spent sleeping, you may want an air-cleaning unit (there are several types available) in your bedroom. Use a filter model and make sure it is a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) unit, which is 99.9% efficient on particles (dust, pollen, plant and mold spores) that are .3 microns in size. Change filters on schedule.

In other parts of the house, there are numerous ways to reduce pollution at its source.

* Prohibit smoking indoors. Secondhand smoke is harmful to everyone.

* When using such personal-care products as hair spray or nail polish, open a window. If you're stripping paint off an old table, do it outside or where there's ventilation.

* Use substitutions for toxic products such as pesticides whenever possible.

* Fix plumbing leaks to avoid mold and mildew, which release bacteria into the air.

* Reduce the number of dust mites, the tiny, microscopic animals that are found in house dust. Put bedding in allergen-impermeable covers; wash bedding weekly in hot water of at least 140 degrees; replace carpets with hard-surface flooring, and clean up surface dust as often as possible.

* Invest in organic bedding in cottons and wools that are not treated with chemicals.

* Look at your vacuum cleaner. Does it do anything more than move the dust around? Ideally, it should have a sealed bag and at the least should be cleaned regularly.

* Reduce indoor mold. Clean bathrooms, kitchens and basements regularly to eliminate indoor molds that result from high humidity. Make sure these areas have good air circulation. Keep humidity levels low; dehumidifiers may help.

* Use exhaust fans when cooking, bathing or showering.

* House plants are air cleaners, removing pollutants and gases in the process of photosynthesis. High on the list are aloe vera, English ivy, ficus, golden pothos and spider plant.

* Increase air circulation and light. Use a dehumidifier in dark, damp rooms or areas.

* Avoid storing books, magazines and papers in the bedroom because they offer refuge for dust mites.

* Take off shoes before entering the house, or at least have a mat at the front door.

* Rent a gauss meter and check your house for electromagnetic fields. To reduce electromagnetic fields or EMFs, use battery-powered appliances and electronics wherever possible. Unplug appliances and electronics when not in use.

Duct Cleaning:

The condition of your home's heating and air-conditioning ducts is a critical factor in its overall air quality. Find a well-qualified company to check them out, advises Richard Scarborough, environmental inspector for Integrated Environmental Solutions. "One of the biggest hypes around is the offer of 'duct cleaning,' when the real problem is duct leakage and poor filtration," he said. "Simply cleaning the ducts will do no good and may do damage, by disturbing pollutants in the crawl space where they are located."

Trent Reed agrees. He is comfort consultant at Continental Refrigeration, Heating and Air Conditioning in Los Angeles, which means he sees a lot of ductwork.

"One of the things we preach is an airtight distribution system," he said.

An antiquated duct system, he said, is likely to be leaking. This is both energy inefficient and also means the leaky seam is drawing in debris, which is being blown through the house.

"The living organisms in your house feed on that debris, and you get infestations through the ducting and especially the filter," he said. If the system can be repaired, all the high-pressure connections should be mastic sealed (a sealant applied with a paintbrush), not sealed with duct tape, he advised.

When replacing the filter, read the fine print. Most people use the 1-inch, drop-in filter, which, he said, is almost useless. Buy the more efficient, fine-particle-filtering HEPA type. "It's more expensive but worth the investment."

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