Home Remodeling and Allergies
Turning your house into your dream home can be a nightmare if you have allergies. Learn the hidden dangers that lie within your walls.
Are you thinking about remodeling your home, or building a new one? If so, there are several things you need to know about the impact this may have on your allergies. The dust, debris and fumes from remodeling or construction can wreak havoc on your eyes, nose and skin. Knowing about some specific hazards, however, can help you minimize the impact on your allergies.
If you are putting in new floors, consider using hardwood, vinyl, linoleum tile, or slate instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. The carpet is an ideal home for dust mites. These tiny insects are one of the worst enemies of people with allergies. Too small to be seen with the naked eye, they live inside carpeting, cushions and bedding. There they excrete waste products that cause allergic symptoms. Bare floors with small, washable area rugs are much easier to keep free of dust mites than carpeting. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answer fact sheet, “Living With Dust Mites.”)
Before you install new flooring, talk to your contractor or salesperson about the type of finish that can be used if your symptoms are triggered by fumes. Hardwood floors are an ideal type of floor for persons with allergies and asthma. Still, finishing products can cause a temporary reaction to the chemicals used in the process. To lessen these effects, choose varnishes and waxes with low volatile organic compound offgassing potential (ask your paint dealer to recommend safer products) and leave the house while floors are being finished. Ventilate the house for several days. Wait until the odor is gone before returning to the house, do not just ventilate and stay in the house. If possible, have the house professionally cleaned afterward to remove sanding and dusting residue.
Furnaces and Air Filters
Although there is currently no data to support the effectiveness of air filters and their ability to rid your home of allergens, they may help. If you decide to install air filters in your furnace, a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is the most effective type of air cleaner. These filters reduce the amount of dust and other particles in the air. You can also purchase a central air filtration unit, which is expensive, or you may wish to get a portable HEPA filter unit that will filter the air in a portion of the house.
Besides the furnace, other home heating methods also can pollute indoor air. Avoid using unvented kerosene, wood or coal burning stoves, or gas space heaters. An electronic ignition on a gas stove will help eliminate fumes from being released.
Also, some companies claim that having your air ducts cleaned can improve your home’s air quality. However, it is still not clear whether this service has any real impact on indoor air quality. Companies who provide this service may use one of several methods. One method uses a powerful vacuum to sweep out debris from the vents. A small metal ball moves around inside the vents, pushing debris toward the vacuum. Other methods use chemical sealants, but these can cause serious health problems when they break down in the air ducts.
Whether you are building or remodeling, be careful of plywood wall paneling, particle board, fiberboard and insulation. Certain chemicals, such as urea and phenyls, emitted from these materials can irritate the skin and airways. If possible, use safer, alternative products. If you are sanding, sawing or tearing out any of these materials, wear a mask and goggles. Open the windows and use a fan–blowing toward the outside, not into the house–to push out dust and fumes.
Chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be emitted from certain types of materials used in homes. Materials that can release VOCs include:
Plaster and drywall
Manufactured wood products (particle board, plywood, composite board, etc.)
Paint, resin and varnish
Organic or rubber solvents
Putty, sealants and caulks
Vinyl floor coverings
Synthetic carpeting, padding and adhesives
Some cleaning compounds
Some of the common types of VOCs are:
Benzene and related compounds
These chemicals can irritate the eyes, skin and airways.
Trichloroethane is often used as a propellant for special wall applications. Polychlorinated biphenyls are thought to cause cancer. They are found in electrical components, waste oil supplies and a variety of plastic and paper products.
Asbestos and lead were often used in building and painting older homes, before their health hazards were known. Asbestos was used before 1970 to insulate pipes and as a component of ceiling and floor tiles.
If you suspect that asbestos is present in your home, stay away from the area where you believe it is. Have a professional remove it. Do not attempt this extremely dangerous task yourself.
If you think that your home may have lead paint and lead dust, it should be removed, especially if you have children. As with asbestos, it is best to stay away from lead paint and have a professional remove it. Prolonged exposure to lead, even through the skin or inhaled, can lead to brain damage.
Cutting Down on Dust and Fumes
When remodeling, you can take several precautions to protect both your family and your home. Hang plastic sheeting over doorways leading to the area being worked on. Leave this sheeting up until the cleanup is complete. When you do remove it, don’t carry it through the house. Rather, make a chute in an open window through which you can push out the debris. This way, fine particles will not reenter the room as they float through the air.
In addition, cover yourself with protective clothing, including a mask and goggles. Put these on as soon as you enter the work area and take them off before you leave the room being remodeled.
After the project is finished, leave windows in the area open at least a crack. Air out the area for at least three weeks afterward. Set up fans in windows and exhaust indoor air to the outside. In northern climates this is best accomplished during the warmer months, rather than in winter. If possible, stay out of the house until the fumes have diminished or disappear completely.
Building and remodeling can be done safely if you know about the hazards and how to avoid them. If possible, plan the work step by step ahead of time with an experienced contractor who is knowledgeable about construction and its potential health problems. And when you’re done, take the time to celebrate and enjoy the results, knowing that you and your family’s health has been safeguarded.