I generally hate scare tactics. I once changed dentists after they spent an hour attempting to scare me into buying a mouth guard to avoid my face collapsing on itself. Talk about a terrifying ordeal. I’m not really sure if that is even possible, but it scarred me none the less. Sometimes, though, we do need to hear the scary truth about things (my dental experience excluded). I think it is crucial for our culture to understand why the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of our homes is so important so that we can start making informed decisions when upgrading or looking to buy new ones. And to do that, I need to talk about all the scary things that are currently going on in our buildings.
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Let me start by defining what I mean by a healthy home. There are building codes that protect occupants from a building collapsing on them. These are called life safety codes. They control the structural elements to make sure it is assembled correctly, and the fire safety elements to make sure the building is as fire resistant as possible and to make it is as easy as possible for people to exit the building if there is a fire. When I talk about a healthy home, I am going beyond the basic life safety standards. A healthy home is a home that does not aggravate allergies, cause trouble breathing, headaches, fatigue, or stomach pain, expose us to carcinogens, or cause slips and falls. Though the building codes in the US attempt to address some of these concerns, houses in our country run rampant with unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.
The most basic function of a house is to shelter us from adverse weather. After shelter, I believe that the job of a house is to keep us safe and healthy. That sounds like a pretty reasonable request for a house, right? We expect other products we purchase to keep us safe, so why wouldn’t we expect the same from a house? No one would buy a car that was known to break down and cause accidents. So why would we want to live in a home that can put us in danger and threaten our health and longevity? I don’t think any of us really want to. It’s that we aren’t aware of the problems.
What a lot of home builders are concerned with is building a house that looks good and is able to be sold. It is all about the presentation. There is little to no consideration for the health and safety of the future home owners beyond the basic building code requirements. Because of this, most homes in our country do not encourage good health, they actually hinder it. Let’s look at how our houses are taking a toll on our health.
Indoor Air Quality
What we breathe matters. Since we spend the majority of our days inside, the quality of air in our buildings is paramount to our health. It is common for homes to be filled with pollutants that can lead to asthma and other upper respiratory illnesses, headaches, and fatigue. This is happening because of dirty air ducts, mold growth, dust accumulation, lack of ventilation and natural air, and off-gassing furnishings and building materials. The thing that makes these sources so dangerous is that we usually can’t see them. And if we can’t see something, it is very easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Homes that have central heating and air conditioning provided through air ducts are potentially being exposed to dust and mold particles all the time. Air is constantly being blown around the house through the ducts and it is quite possible for the ducts to contain mold and dust. That is why it is critical to change air filters regularly and to clean out the air ducts after any construction.
Mold is a big health concern, and a major source of mold comes from water finding its way into the walls and ceilings of our homes. This is also easily hidden from the home owner since most people don’t pull back their drywall to see what is growing behind the scenes. Mold can get into walls and ceilings from the outside due to inefficient building practices and from inside due to cooking and showering. If the house wasn’t designed properly to allow the water to dry out, mold will grow.
Another big contributor of poor air quality is the off-gassing of furniture and materials like paint and flooring. Yet again, a hidden source. We’ve all probably noticed the ‘new product smell’. This is the smell of the chemicals off-gassing into our homes. Once the product has been installed for a little while, the smell has diminished, but the off-gassing hasn’t completely stopped. Vinyl flooring, VOC paints, and formaldehyde filled furniture (i.e., most furniture) are big sources. And to be clear, these pollutants aren’t happening in just a few select homes. These three sources are extremely common in homes across the US due to poor construction practices, inadequate upkeep on mechanical systems, and lack of information about what is in our building products and furnishings.
Whether the water in our home is coming from a public source or a private well, it is possible for the water to be contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals, and bacteria. Most people don’t test their water on a regular basis, especially if they are connected to a public water source. Testing our water will reveal any contaminates and allow us to fix the issue. Health issues are serious if we don’t take care of contaminated water.
Both natural light and artificial light can either bring us happiness or bring us pain. We know the frustration of being blinded by early morning sunlight as we’re trying to enjoy our first cup of coffee or tea. Having a poor quality of light can do more than just frustrate us. That glaring light can cause headaches and distraction, reducing our productivity. If our bedrooms are filled with artificial light while we’re trying to sleep at night (thanks, street lamp), we are going to get a bad night’s sleep. Getting a bad night’s sleep over and over again has long term negative effects on our health. And we’re cranky all the time. No one wants to be around us.
On the other end, our mood can also be affected if we aren’t exposed to enough light throughout the day. I used to live in an apartment that was not-so-lovingly referred to as ‘the dungeon’. It was dark all the time. And it was a complete drain on my happiness.
Noise that we don’t care to listen to can drive us crazy. Just like lighting, it can lead to headaches and distraction. It can also raise our stress levels, and we don’t need seemingly controllable things to be stressing us out. The source of negative noise in our homes can come from outside the home via traffic or unruly neighbors. If the house isn’t properly insulated and protected from the noise, it will find its way in and wear us down. Indoor sources can come from the heating and cooling system, appliances, dripping faucets, or pugs that obsessively lick the air. If anyone is wondering what that sounds like, feel free to borrow my dog any time to find out.
Floor plan, Finishes, and Fixtures
The actual layout of a home can lead to injuries. Spaces that were not well designed for furniture layout can have us tripping over chair legs or running into desk corners. Having railings at balconies and staircases that are too low could lead to someone falling over them.
The finishes of the house also matter to our safety. A floor material that gets slippery when wet is probably a bad idea anywhere in a home but especially in a bathroom or kitchen. Tripping hazards occur when there is a change in floor material and one type of floor is higher than the other. Even drawer pulls in our kitchens could be dangerous. I’ve been working in kitchens where the drawer pull catches the pocket of my pants as I turn around which sends whatever is in my hands flying across the room. Let it be known that I am a bit of klutz in the kitchen, so this particular experience might only happen to me.
Lighting levels is a big source of injuries. If we don’t have safety lighting and can’t see where we are going, there’s a good chance we’ll run into or trip over something. This could be from inadequate light levels or from switches being placed in the wrong location. And if we recall the fateful stair fall of Todd in the Christmas Vacation movie from Clark’s blinding Christmas lights, we know that bright, glaring light can also lead to injuries.
Our homes are a shelter and should be our safe havens. They should be protecting us from injury and illness. When our homes are doing the exact opposite, we need to address the problem. We need to question what our homes are made of. We need to be aware of poor construction practices that cause mold and thermal discomfort. We need to test our air quality and water quality. And we need to know how to design a home that doesn’t lead to injuries. But how? Bring on the experts. If we don’t have the experience to properly assess the health of a home, then we can hire someone that does. There are architects, engineers, interior designers, and contractors that are trained to look out for unsafe conditions and that know how to address the problem. My mission is to empower homeowners with the knowledge they need to make safe choices for their homes whether they’re renovating, building or buying a new home, and shopping for new furniture. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy home.