When you think of the ideal home, it conjures images of comfort—a safe haven you can come back to at the end of each day. And yet, statistically, the home can be a dangerous place. A study by the National Center for Healthy Housing found that 35 million American homes contained at least one health or safety hazard. That’s two out of every five homes with factors contributing to illness, injury, and even death.
Common Health Issues Caused by Your Home
Respiratory problems, watery eyes and nose, trouble thinking clearly, and poor sleep are among some of the chronic ailments caused by unhealthy homes. Asthma is among the most common, a condition which 12 percent of adults and 7 percent of children in Vermont suffer from. Of those, 81 percent live with at least two asthmatic triggers at home.
More serious health issues can arise as well, like injuries from a fall—something one in three Vermonters over age 45 have experienced and the leading cause of injury-related deaths in Vermont. Other health issues include serious side effects caused by known and unknown hazardous building and finish materials, such as elevated blood lead levels or respiratory problems from inhaling toxic chemicals.
Symptoms of an Unhealthy Home
The home health problems contributing to these illnesses and injuries range from the seemingly innocuous to the obviously serious. All too often, we come to accept the condition of our houses as normal, not realizing its impact on our health. This is especially true of common issues such as drafty corners, uncomfortable indoor living temperatures, or a damp basement prone to mold or mildew, all of which seem almost inevitable over the course of Vermont’s four seasons.
The presence of contaminants such as asbestos, lead paint, active knob-and-tube wiring, and radon, while serious, are easy to overlook—out of sight, out of mind, as they say. In many cases, these materials may have been present in our homes before we began living there, leaving us unaware of possible issues. But the reality is that one in seven Vermont homes have an unsafe level of radon, a radioactive but odorless gas that increases your risk of lung cancer.
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Challenges Creating a Healthy Home
These may be all-too-common problems, but it doesn’t mean they’re easy to fix.
For instance, you can’t change the age of your home. In Vermont, that average age is 66 years old. 60 percent of Vermont homes were built before 1978—and more than a quarter before 1940—which makes them likely to contain lead-based paint and asbestos materials. Put it together, and Vermont’s older housing stock is notoriously harder and more expensive to maintain.
Regardless of when your home was built, the financial burden of repairs and renovations that improve home health can be a challenge to bear. In addition, mice and other rodents can become chronic issues in Vermont, where there are few certified integrated pest management companies. Without the proper installation of pest-proof air sealing, pests persistently seem to find another way into our homes, especially in winter.
8 Ways to Create a Healthy Home
While these common symptoms of an unhealthy home can be a challenge to treat, there are simple and affordable ways we can make our homes—and the air we breathe in our homes—healthier.
So what makes a healthy home, and how do we keep it that way?
Here are the eight criteria you can strive to meet, and a variety of tools you can use to check each one off.
A healthy home is…
High levels of moisture can cause difficulty breathing and lead to other issues such as mold, mites, and mice. You can reduce moisture in your home and prevent the issues it causes by fixing leaks in your roof or plumbing, keeping your gutters clear so they drain properly, using a dehumidifier, covering your dirt basement floor with plastic, and having bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to direct water vapor outside.
Cleanliness may seem a self-evident part of home health, yet it can be easy to overlook some aspects of home hygiene. Scrub the tub to get rid of mold and mildew, dust regularly with a damp cloth, and give your rugs a deep steam clean. Better yet, remove old carpets entirely.
You can also take a preemptive approach with your home decor. Choose furniture that isn’t upholstered and will trap fewer irritants, or that has slip covers you can easily wash. Avoid venetian blinds and pleated shades that collect dust and opt for washable, roll-up window shades instead.
There are several ways to keep your house safe, especially when it comes to children and the elderly. To protect children in your home, cover unused outlets to reduce the risk of electric shocks, secure gates at the top of stairs to prevent falls, keep chemicals, medications and firearms locked away, and set your water heater to 120 degrees to avoid burns. For the elderly, install grab bars in the bathroom, have ample lighting, and affix any carpeting securely to the floor, particularly on steps. If you have any throw rugs, use a non-slip mat to keep them in place or, safer still, remove them altogether. Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
We spend a majority of our time indoors—as much as 90 percent, according to studies cited by the Environmental Protection Agency—where air quality is typically worse. At least one in six homes has poor indoor air. Proper ventilation and air flow can combat this.
A range hood or kitchen exhaust fan that whisks cooking fumes outside is a must. If you have the option, choose an electric range over a gas stove for less air pollution. Always run the bath fan during and after bathing to remove moisture. Now that the weather is warming up, you have the option of opening up windows to let in healthier outdoor air. When it’s cold outside, whole-house ventilation systems and air purifiers can help literally clear the air.
If your home is dry and clean from the first two items on this list, you have a head start. Eliminate water and food sources that attract pests in the first place, which includes covering your trash can and pet food. Unfortunately, a warm house can be attraction enough in the dead of winter. Seal any holes or cracks in your home’s exterior to reduce rodent entryways. If need be, turn to traps or baits—non-toxic, as you’ll see in the next category—to rid your home of pesky pests.
The first step to a contaminant-free home is limiting what you have in your home. Contact a contracting professional to identify and remove any existing hazardous materials, particularly in an older home. You can also request a free radon test kit or pay for a water test kit from the Vermont Department of Health.
To avoid lead poisoning, have your house tested and repair any areas where paint is chipping or peeling. When removing old paint, be sure to use “wet-cleaning techniques”—a fancy term for using a wet cloth or paper towel to prevent harmful lead dust particles from spreading. If you’re vacuuming, put in a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter that removes 99.9 percent of particulates from the air.
Both wet-cleaning and HEPA filters are effective with regular cleaning as well and are important tools not just for lead-risk, but all homes. All house dust has the potential to be dangerous, especially if you have furnishings with fire retardants, and using a damp cloth and HEPA vacuum on a regular basis reduces your home health risk.
You can also keep contaminants out of your home by choosing eco-friendly cleaning products—vinegar, for example, is a great natural cleaner. When possible, avoid brands that say “caution,” “danger,” or “poison” on the label. If you do have or use such products, avoid pouring them down any drain or into the ground.
A well-maintained home is also a safe home. By making minor repairs to small issues early on, you avoid major repairs and avert serious safety hazards. This could include fixing railings, loose steps, or uneven floorboards. Modifications that increase accessibility, such as a ramp or a stair lift, also help residents of all ages feel at home. By creating a safe, comfortable environment, you not only reduce the risk for physical injury but improve everyone’s mental health.
Suffering through drafty winters or humid summers is both unpleasant and unhealthy. Making your house more energy efficient is one of the most effective ways to maintain a comfortable temperature inside your home. Weatherization increases comfort and efficiency, while keeping out drafts, pollutants, and moisture. Air sealing, insulating, and ventilating your home are three of the most common ways to protect your home from the elements, inside and out.
You can also help regulate the temperature of your home through routine maintenance. If you have an air conditioner, clean or replace the filter regularly. If you own a woodstove, sweep your chimney before your first fire each year. For other home heating and cooling systems, contact a professional for a routine annual check-up to make sure everything is in working order.
While some of these home renovations and energy efficiency initiatives can sound expensive, they don’t have to be. You can make it a do-it-yourself project to cut costs. If you’re able to invest in an energy efficient home upfront, it can save you money long-term; Vermonters spend as much as 20 percent of their income on energy bills, which can drop significantly depending on your current energy audit. There are also rebates and other forms of financial assistance available to make your healthy home a reality.
The reality is, we spend a significant portion of our time at home. That’s why it’s important that we take our home’s health as seriously as we do our own. Because a healthy home helps us stay healthy, too.
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