Renovation & Design

Is your home making you sick?

Spring-clean allergens and toxins from your home

Postmedia/Ann Rowan, director of the Sustainability Program, David Suzuki Foundation, shows how household items like white vinegar and baking soda can be used instead of expensive and ecologically questionable commercial products.

Your home is your safe haven, the place where you should feel most protected. But toxins and allergens threaten to invade your tranquil space, putting your health at risk.

"The typical Canadian home has countless pollutants lurking," says Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic Home: The Greenest, Cleanest and Most Energy-Efficient Information Under One (Canadian) Roof (Vintage Canada).

Toxic chemicals, hard-to-control dust mites and spring allergens such as pollen sweep through your living space, causing itchy eyes and runny noses and literally making you home sick. Here are some ideas to spring clean your home.

VOC-free paint

If adding a fresh coat of paint may be part of your spring regime, keep in mind that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene and ammonia continue to give off gas for weeks or months after painting and can be particularly harmful to asthma or allergy sufferers.

"The air inside our homes is often two to five times more polluted than outdoor air (thanks to) VOCs," says Vasil. Keep your home toxin-free by switching to zero-VOC paint.

Cleaning green

VOCs aren't only found in paints, they're in household cleaners, too. When shopping for an eco-friendly cleaner, look for a trusted third-party certified logo such as EcoLogo.

If you want to save yourself the $200 to $300 a year that Industry Canada says we Canadians fork out on cleaning supplies, Vasil recommends making your own cleaners.

"Vinegar and water makes a great all-purpose cleaning spray," says Vasil. Add lemon juice for de-greasing, baking soda for scrubbing stained surfaces and thyme oil to kill bacteria.

Natural scents

We all want our homes to smell nice, but adding a "spring fresh" scent comes with risks, Vasil says.

"(Air fresheners) contain hundreds of VOCs and can trigger headaches, sneezing and worsen asthma, (while) scented candles give off benzene and formaldehyde and all kinds of pollutants you would expect coming out the tailpipe of a car," says Vasil.

She creates her own fragrance by adding cinnamon and orange peel to a pot of boiling water and allowing it to simmer. "It smells amazing," she says.

Purify with plants

Plants aren't only nice to look at, they're also great air purifiers.

"Plants have been shown to absorb formaldehyde that comes off scented candles, air fresheners and paint," says Vasil. English ivy, bamboo palms and spider plants top the list of plants with air purifying benefits.

Dust frequently

The dust bunnies running around your home are not only irritating to allergy sufferers, they may carry toxic chemicals.

"Flame retardants, DDT and chemicals that have been banned for years are still coming up in dust bunnies," says Vasil. Control dust by wiping down hard surfaces once a week and invest in a high-quality HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner.

Ottawa allergist Dr. Ham Pong says standard vacuums won't do the trick. "(They) often stir up dust mite particles and temporarily increase allergy symptoms," he says. Since dust mites -- microscopic bugs that live in carpets, fabric furniture and mattresses -- feed off dead human skin, the bedroom often contains the highest concentration.

Pong recommends sticking pillows in the dryer every two weeks and washing sheets and pillow covers weekly in hot water (more than 55 C). "Cool water doesn't kill dust mites," says Pong. Zippered dust-proof mattress covers that trap mites inside, allowing the outer cover to be easily wiped down, can also help.

Open or close?

Starting in late April, tree pollen season begins, lasting six to eight weeks. Pollen count is highest in the early morning when plants release their pollen into the atmosphere and in the evening when it settles back down. Pong recommends allergy sufferers avoid opening windows and regulate temperature with heating or air systems, but if you do want to allow some fresh spring air in, it's best to do so midday, when the pollen count is the lowest.

Bring laundry indoors

While letting your laundry air dry might save electricity, Pong says it's also a big pollen trap. "You bring your sheets into the home and you're sleeping on a bed of pollen." Especially for allergy sufferers, if you want to air dry, do it in your basement.

Keep it outside

Shoes and pets can track in pollen and other allergens. Adopt a no-shoes in the house policy and use a towel to rub down pets whose hair may have trapped allergens. Placing a mat on both sides of the door can also help to prevent allergens from tracking into your home.

-- Postmedia News


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