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How to have healthier air in your home

Open windows, be careful with cleaners and check housewares.

July 27, 2009|Karen Ravn

Good ventilation is probably the single most important step you can take toward making your home healthier, experts say. For the most part, the air you breathe while you're at home isn't nearly as clean as the air you breathe while you're outside (even if the outdoor air is fairly smoggy).

Even if you don't notice any ill effects right now, it's a good idea to try to clean up the air in your home, says Robert Phalen, founder of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at UC Irvine. Chronic exposure to allergens may lead to sensitivities over time.

We asked a number of doctors, researchers and building consultants to tell us about possible home air hazards and how some of them can be eliminated -- maximizing effectiveness and minimizing expense.

What we're breathing

Carbon monoxide: You can't see it, smell it or taste it, but that doesn't mean it's not there. At lower exposures, it can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, and is easily mistaken for the flu. At higher exposures, it can kill you within minutes. To be safe, make sure all your gas appliances (furnace, stove, water heater, etc.) and fireplace are working properly. If you have a space heater, make sure it's vented to the outdoors. As an extra precaution, install a carbon monoxide detector. And never keep the motor running in a car or truck inside your attached garage, even if the garage door is open.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 31, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Cleaner air: An article in Monday's Health section about how to clean the air inside your home identified Dr. Paul Blanc as a professor of medicine at UC Berkeley. Blanc is a professor at UC San Francisco.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, August 03, 2009 Home Edition Health Part E Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Cleaner air: An article in last Monday's Health section about how to clean the air inside your home incorrectly identified Dr. Paul Blanc as a professor of medicine at UC Berkeley. He's a professor at UC San Francisco.

Radon: Like carbon monoxide, radon is colorless, odorless, tasteless and deadly. Unlike carbon monoxide, it takes a while to do you in. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, the EPA estimates, and the second-leading cause, behind smoking, of all lung cancer cases in the country. Formed naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium, the gas often seeps into basements through cracks in walls and floors -- and from there it makes its way upstairs. "In general, it's not much of a problem in California," says Dr. Jonathan Samet, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Institute for Global Health at USC. "But nationally it's recommended to have houses checked, and that's a reasonable thing to do." In fact, you can get a kit and test your house yourself. If you find radon in dangerous levels, hire a professional who can determine the best treatment.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): A group of chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde, which can evaporate at room temperature, these compounds can be found in a long list of products we use in our homes, including electronic devices, solvents, air fresheners, cleansers and disinfectants, cosmetics and moth balls, as well as building materials and furnishings, including paints, upholstery, carpets, vinyl floors and composite wood products. VOCs have a wide range of known health effects, from none to grave, depending on the chemical. In particular, the EPA recommends minimizing any exposure to benzene, methylene chloride and perchloroethylene emissions. (For more on VOCs, plus phthalates, see an online story about chemical exposure.

For all VOCs, outgassing (in which the chemical evaporates and enters the air as a gas) occurs at room temperature -- but the warmer, the faster. Also, the newer the product containing the VOC, the more outgassing occurs. In fact, one way to minimize outgassing in wood furniture is to buy it used, suggests Mary Cordaro, a building consultant in Valley Village who inspects and tests homes for contaminants and provides remediation services.

Chlorine: Many common household cleaners are loaded with toxic chemicals that can irritate your eyes and throat, etc., and can even be fatal if swallowed. For this reason -- and to be ecologically friendly too -- "the home environment should be kept clean with minimal use of harsh cleaning products," says Dr. Ware Kuschner, an associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He does research on the health effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Some cleaners can be even more dangerous if mixed. For example, Dr. Paul Blanc, professor of medicine at UC Berkeley and author of "How Everyday Products Make People Sick," says poison control centers get thousands of calls due to "bleach misadventures" -- the combination of bleach with hydrochloric acid (commonly found in toilet cleaners) -- a dangerous misalliance that produces chlorine gas. If this happens to you, you'll know by the dreadful smell and by the way your eyes sting and your skin burns if you get any on you. It's a dramatic illustration of why our experts emphasize the need to follow instructions.

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