Maintaining a safe home has never been more important than now, as many of us are spending so much time there to prevent further spread of coronavirus. You may be noticing things around your home or yard that need attention and finally have time to tackle them. Let’s focus on things you can do and habits you can form to make your home healthier.
Your family’s health is linked to the health status of your home. “Home” gives us security, peace of mind and adds to our sense of well-being. It’s where we are 65%-75% of the time we spend indoors. Our homes need to be the healthiest place in our lives.
Did you know that indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air? Air pollution – a combination of allergens, toxins and other pollutants – contributes to eye, nose and throat irritation and headaches, according to Delos, an international, research-based company that develops wellness solutions. Indoor air pollution can also contribute to heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer and many breathing problems. In 2016, air pollution was responsible for 21% of all stroke deaths, 23% of all lung cancer deaths and 24% of ischemic heart disease. For example, cooking produces carbon monoxide and other pollutants that can linger in your home unless you have effective ventilation. Mold and dampness can increase bronchitis, asthma, respiratory infections and coughing/wheezing by 30%-70%.
Here’s what you can do to improve the air quality in your home.
- Use ventilation that exhausts to the outdoors every time you cook. This is especially important if you cook with natural or propane gas.
- Change the filters in your furnace/air conditioner (AC) at least every three months. The length of time that filters are effective depends on the number of people in the home, how often your unit operates, number of pets and quality of the air filters you buy. Write the date you installed the filter on its rim so you can see it easily when you open the vent door. Start by changing filters every three months, adjusting up or down depending on how full the filter is when you change it. I start noticing that my house is dustier when filters are due for a change.
- Use a HEPA filter in your vacuum cleaner. Damp mopping and dusting also help remove pollution particles.
- Listen to the weather person about outdoor air quality. When it’s poor, keep windows and doors closed and close the fresh-air intake of your AC unit.
Access to clean water – to drink, cook with, bathe in and to clean our homes – is essential for good health. Water is very vulnerable to pollution, and water treatment facilities and water pipes are other potential sources of contaminants.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our drinking water infrastructure a “D” grade in 2017, due to deteriorating infrastructure. The EPA estimates that more than $743 billion is needed for water infrastructure improvements. In fact, each year since 1982, up to 28% of Americans have been affected by water that is contaminated and does not meet water quality standards. According to the experts at Delos, as of 2015, 18,000 community water systems – serving almost 77 million Americans – were found to be violating Safe Drinking Water Act rules. More than 1,100 water systems, serving 3.9 million Americans, exceed safe levels for lead, an extremely harmful toxin.
A filtration system is the most important thing you can do to ensure you have safe water.
- Point-of-entry (POE) systems treat all the water coming into your house (even outdoor faucets). They are more expensive to purchase, install and operate but provide peace of mind that all your water is safe.
- Point-of-use (POU) systems treat the water that comes out of a specific faucet. POU systems are more affordable and are usually installed under the sink. Their filters must be changed periodically.
- Water filter pitchers with replaceable filters are a less effective but also a less expensive alternative.
- Refrigerator manufacturers are including a filtered water feature inside the frig (or in the door) and those are particularly handy. They have easily changeable filters. Something to consider next time you need a new frig.
Our home’s temperature is important because our bodies need to “thermoregulate.” That means the body works to maintain a constant internal temperature, within a specific range. If it’s too cold, it can increase blood pressure and make asthma or other breathing problems worse, even triggering an asthma attack. Indoor temperatures that are too hot, such as during an extended summer heat wave, are the leading cause of all weather-related deaths. Elderly people, young children and those with chronic conditions are most vulnerable to high indoor temperatures.
Our indoor “thermal comfort” is determined by air temperature, outdoor temperature, humidity and air velocity (air movement such as from a fan or open window). To keep your home’s temperature comfortable:
- Don’t set your indoor air temperature below 65 degrees if you live where there is a cold season. That’s the lowest safe minimum indoor temperature. It may need to be warmer if there are older adults, children or those with chronic conditions such as heart disease living in the home.
- Adjusting temperatures at bedtime can help you get a better night’s sleep. Our body’s natural day/night cycle (circadian rhythm) needs cooler temps to help us fall asleep. Best nighttime range is 60 to 67 degrees.
- Adjust your bedding if you regularly wake up in the night and feel too hot or too cold. Natural fibers (cotton, linen or silk) are much better for regulating your body’s sleep temperature than synthetics.
- It is time to consider a new, more efficient heat and air system if it’s older than 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The system’s efficiency and major components start to fail and need expensive replacements after about 10 years. If AC repairs are more than half the cost of a new unit, it’s cheaper to get a new system. Energy-efficient systems “pay for themselves” with savings on utility and repair bills.
- Be sure your vents are sealed and insulated. Leaking uninsulated vent systems are the leading cause of “wasted” heated or cooled air.
- Check with your energy company to find out if there are any free whole-house weatherization programs available. Consider getting an estimate from a professional that includes attic and under-floor insulation, window and door weatherstripping and a vapor barrier under your house. Storm doors and double- or triple-pane window installation are efficient ways to reduce utility bills and increase comfort and safety.
Our homes are the second-most common location for fatal injuries. Fires, falls or property crimes can cause injuries or death. Injuries are the leading cause of death for everyone under age 45.
Stay safe with these tips:
- Install fire/smoke alarms outside sleeping areas, in the garage and on every floor of your home. Test them every month and replace units that are older than 10 years. Smoke alarms are not designed to be effective after about 10 years. This is true even if they beep successfully when you test them. Always write the installation date on the unit.
- Never leave things on the floor, on or near stairs. Tripping and falling hazards are most common in the bedroom. Keep electrical cords out of traffic areas. Have sufficient lighting to see your path. Install and always use handrails on steps, even if it’s just one or two steps. Use non-slip liners under rugs to prevent them from slipping; better yet, remove the rugs.
- Wear supportive shoes during all waking hours. Wearing just socks, or flip- flops, slippers, Crocs or other inexpensive footwear can cause major tripping hazards.
Humans are programmed to function on a cycle that follows the sun’s light. Called our circadian rhythm, it controls many of our body’s functions – metabolism, behavior, mood, alertness and waking/sleeping. Very simply, the type, quality and amount of exposure we get to light (outdoor and indoor light) strongly influence our physical and mental health, ability to function, mental performance, productivity and sleep quality. We need bright light in the morning and during the day, and darkness when we sleep. Long-term disruptions to circadian rhythm have been closely linked to diabetes, depression, breast cancer, obesity, poor sleep quality and metabolic disorders. A five-year study of women who regularly slept with the TV or lights on had an 11-pound weight increase and a 10% increase in their BMI.
- Get bright outdoor light as soon as you can after you wake up. A 15- minute walk outside early in the morning is ideal. Try taking your morning coffee outside in full light for 15 minutes on the patio. If your schedule doesn’t include just sitting in the sunlight, multitaskers can plan their day, return emails or brush a child’s hair. It’s okay to forego the sunblock for 15-20 minutes during early morning.
- Make it a habit to turn off all computers, TVs, cell phones, tablets and any other source of light about an hour before bedtime. If your sleeping room is not fully dark, consider light-blocking shades.
- Limit outside noise from vehicle traffic, loud music, sirens and other disturbances. If possible, improve the sound insulation in walls, windows and ceilings. Noise is associated with more stress, poor sleep and high blood pressure.
- Get a night light that has a motion sensor if you need a light at night for safety.
Healthier home furnishings
Our health is affected by home furnishings and the materials with which the house was built. Building materials contain many chemicals, some of which can be toxic. Fresh paint and carpet fumes are two of the biggest polluters. Also, lead paint and asbestos insulation have well-documented links with chronic illness, disability and some kinds of cancer. The damage they can cause include skin rashes, breathing difficulties, nerve damage, cancer and altered hormone function. Chemicals in cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, waxes and polishes have been linked to eye, nose, throat and lung irritation and increased risk of breathing problems such as asthma.
What you can do:
- Consider nontoxic cleaning products and use only the smallest amount needed to do the job. Think portion control.
- Look for nontoxic options when you’re doing house remodeling or shopping for new furniture or appliances. Remember, these materials will be in your home for a long time. Check product certification standards to identify healthy materials.
- Be sure you ventilate with plenty of fresh air for several weeks to reduce the concentrations of gasses and other contaminants after the remodeling is over.
The more energy efficient our homes are, the less air pollution they generate. Energy efficiency upgrades can improve resident health by supporting a comfortable temperature and reducing indoor pollution.
- Weatherize or weather-strip your windows, doors, attic and crawl spaces.
- Purchase energy-efficient models when it’s time to consider new appliances or lighting.
- Have the solar options on your home evaluated. The third generation of home solar is now generally available nationwide for those lucky homeowners with sufficient sun exposure. Estimates are generally free, and a good solar provider will educate potential consumers about every aspect of this renewable and economical energy source.
Bringing in the outdoors
Nature can be healing for humans. A growing body of evidence shows that connecting with nature helps our physical, social and psychological well-being by boosting mental awareness, recovery from stress and overall sense of well-being. Visual access to nature – plants, animals, open spaces – helps post-surgical patients heal quicker, use less pain medication and have fewer rehospitalizations. Those results also help lower health care costs.
Home solutions you might consider include:
- Incorporate parts of nature indoors such as potted plants, water feature, open windows so you can hear bird song or views of nature from windows. Even photos of and recorded sounds of nature can help calm us.
- Build unobstructed views of nature into the design of your home.
- Find exercise opportunities that are close to green spaces and that let you connect to nature for 15-20 minutes every day.
At home in the neighborhood
Think of your neighborhood as an extension of your home. In terms of health and well-being, that’s exactly what it is. If you’re thinking of relocating or, instead, forming a neighborhood association to improve your neighborhood, think about these features:
- Walkability means residents have safe areas to walk (sidewalks, parks, community gardens) to shops, schools, restaurants and other services. Walking reduces the risk of obesity and improves both mental and physical health.
- Healthy and affordable food options located within the neighborhood.
- Being close to parks, community gardens, green spaces and other gathering/socialization places. This can be as simple as a basketball court under a freeway overpass or school playgrounds accessible after school hours. Living near parks is linked to better mental well-being. With increasingly extreme weather, all-paved surfaces with a lack of tree cover increase chances of heat risk and flooding in areas without green spaces.
For more information:
- Housing and Urban Development https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/healthy_homes/hhi
- National Center for Healthy Housing https://nchh.org/information-and-evidence/learn-about-healthy-housing/healthy-homes-principles/
- For problems with lead: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/healthy_homes
Photo by AzmanL, E+ Collection