A few days after the COVID-19 lockdown started here in California, my husband and I realized the base of the kitchen cabinet under the sink was soggy. When we peeled away the cabinet wall under the sink we discovered a large patch of mold. The kitchen sink had a leak and we had a mold wall inside our kitchen cabinet. We got the leak fixed, removed the mold wall, and I proceeded to clean the house for days with vinegar and water.
Lucky for us, the mold wall was fairly small and easy to remove. To our knowledge, we haven't had any health problems related to the mold. But the mold wall, multiple California fires, and all the talk about airborne Covid-19 particles made me wonder how healthy our own home was. With everyone home for the indefinite future, I wanted to know how to create the healthiest home environment possible.
Signs from your body of an unhealthy home
I started by talking to Dana Sundblad at Hayward Score, a company that gives your home a health score.
"Humans are incredible sensors! How you feel when you are in your home versus how you feel when you aren’t at home gives you some important clues about whether something is impacting your health," she explained. "If you experience health symptoms at home that you don’t resolve (either quickly or at all) when you aren’t at home or that you can’t attribute to something specific (for example a food allergy or a diagnosed medical condition), it could be that something(s) at home could be a trigger."
Dana went on to explain that there are several ways to keep your home healthy. A few easy and inexpensive things to do include keeping up with maintenance, improving ventilation, and upgrading and changing air filters.
Keep up with maintenance
Both the small, routine things and bigger projects are important Dana said. She recommends:
- Fix leaks fast!
- Change furnace filters* regularly.
- Keep water from pooling against your foundation.
- Make sure doors and windows are well-sealed.
- Vacuum regularly with a HEPA vacuum.
- Dust with a microfiber cloth.
- Update roofs, windows, and mechanical systems as needed.
Improve indoor air quality
Most of us spend about 90% of our time indoors, and indoor air quality tends to be significantly unhealthier than outside air quality according to the EPA. So a big part of what makes a home healthy or unhealthy has to do with inside air quality. Here's how to keep indoor air quality healthy.
Prevent second-hand smoke
I almost didn't include this one. We all know second-hand cigarette smoke is bad for us and our children. But I'm including second-hand smoke because although fewer people are smoking cigarettes these days, more people are smoking marijuana. The impact of second-hand marijuana smoke on air quality is still inconclusive according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. However, if you do choose to smoke inside, it becomes extra essential to increase ventilation and replace those air filters often.
Ventilate the air
Air ventilation is just a fancy word for bringing outside air in, cleaning inside air using filters, and pushing inside air out. Keeping fresh air flowing inside is always important. However, it becomes even more important if you've recently had mold or mildew, live with someone who's been exposed to Covid-19 (or even just the flu), or you live close to wildfires or a freeway. In 2020, that's pretty much everyone I know. Here's how you can easily ventilate the air inside your house.
- Use the fan-only function in your HVAC system - If you have a central air system in your house, there very well may be a fan-only function. If so, make sure your filters are clean then run the fan-only function to keep fresh air circulating, according to ASHRAE's Guidance for Residential Buildings.
- Turn the bathroom fan on - There should be a fan in every bathroom that pulls moisture outside. Turn the bathroom fan on before you start the shower, and keep it running 20 minutes after you turn it off.
- Run the range hood fan - Above every cooktop there should be a range hood that sucks all the cooking smoke outside. Turn it on as soon as you start cooking, and keep it on a few minutes after you finish.
Clean and replace air filters often
Keeping all your appliances filters clean is another healthy home essential. Keeping filters clean is especially important during the coldest and warmest months when we tend to keep our windows and doors shut extra tight.
Filters to replace or clean regularly:
- Replace HVAC filters* quarterly - You might have several HVAC filters throughout your house, and you need to change them all regularly. These filters are usually in your ceiling or wall. Once you know the correct filter size, buy a 6 pack and change them every 90 days (or more during poor air quality days.) The higher the Minimum Efficiency Rating (MERV), the more particles your filter will collect. I recommend MERV 13 filters.
- Replace the furnace filter monthly - Your furnace may have its own filter, and it should be changed once per month during the winter months. A furnace filter is also considered an HVAC filter, but I like to clarify that there are two kinds of HVAC filters. The kind connected to the furnace itself (usually located in your garage or attic) and the filters in your ceiling or wall. Make sure to change all these filters at least every quarter (90 days) to keep your home healthy and air quality clean.
- Clean the range hood filter - If you've never cleaned your range hood, you might be in for a greasy surprise. To clean your range hood filters, first run them under hot water and wash them gently with dish soap to remove most of the grease. Then run it through the dishwater to get it extra clean.
- Clean the dishwasher filter - Yes, your dishwater has a filter (or two) as well. It should be cleaned at least once per month.
- Clean the washing machine filter - This one tends to get neglected. If you've never removed the washing machine filter and cleaned it, you're in for a stinky surprise. When you open the filter, make sure your washing machine is either on a pad designed to capture water or get towels ready to clean up some water.
- Clean the dryer filter - Clean your dryer filter after every single use to reduce the energy need to run your dryer, and also prevent fires.
- Change your air purifier filter* - If you have an air purifier, it's only as effective as it filters. Make sure to change those filters regularly!
- Change your refrigerator filter* - Yes, even your refrigerator has a filter! If you've cleaned out your refrigerator and have a cup of baking soda somewhere in the back but the fridge still smells, you probably need to change the refrigerator filter.
Open your windows
If the air quality outside is reasonably good (no wildfires are raging nearby and you don't live right next to a freeway or coal plant) then the easiest way to keep your air clean is to open your windows often. Better yet, open two windows and create a cross breeze. That's not ideal during the cold winter months and on hot summer days, but during milder days, keep em open as often as you can.
Test for radon
Radon is a radioactive gas found in soils, rocks, and bodies of water. Radon can leak into buildings through cracks in the floor and walls as well as through construction joints and service pipes. Radon gas is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas that's the second cause of lung cancer after smoking according to Lung.org. You can buy a simple radon test* kit on Amazon or hire a professional to run a test.
Use green cleaning products
Most traditional cleaning products contain unhealthy chemicals like artificial fragrances that contain endocrine disruptors. A few good green cleaning brands to choose from include Method, Seventh Generation, and Grove Collaborative*.
Look for paints, sealants, and carpets with low and no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). A few certifications to look for include:
Green Seal - Choose paints and adhesives with the Green Seal rating. Benjamin Moore is a good paint brand that sells Green Seal certified paint colors.
Green Label - Find green-certified rugs and carpets from brands like Interface. Rugs and carpets are often treated with stain-resistant chemicals, so look for Green Label verified rugs and carpets.
Cook with an electric or induction range
The majority of homes in California (and about 40% of homes in the United States) use natural gas for cooking and heating according to the American Housing Survey Report. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, just like petroleum and coal. As you already know, traditional gas-powered cars are major causes of outdoor air pollution, which has long been associated with health problems like asthma and lung disease. Now, the impact of cooking with natural gas stoves and (using other gas appliances) is also being studied. Turns out, cooking with natural gas exposes us to toxic fumes indoors.
"Under a cooking scenario where the stove and oven are used simultaneously for an hour, acute exposures to NO2 from cooking with gas appliances exceed the levels of national and California-based ambient air quality thresholds in more than 90% of modeled emission scenarios," according to a report called Effects of Residential Gas Appliances on Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality and Public Health in California by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences.
Ask about the ventilation system at your child's school
Since I covered the importance of proper ventilation systems at home, I'd like to take a minute to cover how to keep kids healthy at school in the age of Covid-19 and beyond. Masks, cleaning classrooms, and handwashing is important. But how do we keep the air inside the classroom and cafeteria safe? ASHRAE offers some tips, and one of them is to properly ventilate classrooms. Sadly, many school buildings have HVAC systems that need to be repaired or replaced and may not have adequate ventilation systems according to Key to Preventing Covid-19 Indoors: Ventilation by the Wall Street Journal.
To better understand what schools should be doing to keep kids healthy while they're at school, read ASHRAE's Guidance for the Re-Opening of Schools. Then ask your school administrator what kind of air ventilation system and air filter your school is currently using.
Create a healthy home environment for seniors
It's important to create a healthy home environment for everyone in the family, so if you have aging parents or grandparents living with you, there are extra precautions to take. To help understand the special needs that seniors may have, I asked Sarah Nord, an Occupational Therapist and Certified Dementia Care Specialist at Sensory for Dementia, to give me a few tips to help keep everyone safe:
- Ensure adequate lighting to decrease shadows that can make a space visually more challenging to process. Consider automatic or motion-sensor light switches to decrease the risk of falling. Fluorescent lights can be over-stimulating. Instead, choose LED lights* that provide a soft and natural light.
- Take inventory of the sounds and smells in the environment. If the sound or smell is causing distress, identify the source and remove it as needed.
- Remove tripping hazards and obstacles that can be challenging to navigate: loose rugs/mats, clutter, floor lamps, magazine racks, pet toys, etc.
- Watch the temperature of food, drinks, water (including bath/shower water), and the environment as it can become difficult to monitor the difference between hot and cold.
Stay safe and healthy
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