Wellness begins with your home

Agencies help people overcome, mitigate ‘sick house’ health problems

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

Published:

 

For More Information

Clark County Weatherization and Building Safety: www.clark.wa.gov/community-development/building-weatherization-assistance

Planet Clark, a public-private outreach and education partnership: www.planetclark.com

Washington Department of Health: www.doh.wa.gov/healthyhomes

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indoor air quality: www.epa.gov/iaq

National Center for Healthy Housing: www.centerforhealthyhousing.org

A person’s health can be affected by numerous things — diet, physical activity, family history, lifestyle choices. But one factor people don’t often consider is their home.

“There is a link between how healthy a house is and the health of the people who live in it,” said Mike Selig, program manager for Clark County’s weatherization and building safety program, which provides energy efficiency and indoor air quality improvements for low-income families.

A past client of the Clark County program provides the perfect example, Selig said.

The woman is the mother of an asthmatic child. She noticed that when their home’s furnace kicked on in the morning, her son would wake up in a coughing fit minutes later.

An inspection of their home found that leaky heating ducts were blowing fiberglass particles into the living space, aggravating the boy’s asthma. Once the duct system was replaced and properly sealed, the boy’s asthma symptoms reduced significantly, Selig said.

Such problems aren’t unique to this one family, he said.

“We have a number of sick houses in the Northwest, sick apartment complexes,” Selig said.

A “sick house” contains high levels of indoor air pollutants, most often caused by improperly functioning systems, Selig said. Some of the most common causes of sick homes in the Northwest are ventilation systems not working properly, water entering wall cavities and causing mold growth, and unsealed spaces allowing air from crawl spaces to enter the home, Selig said.

Ventilation ducts can cause many problems inside a home. Furnaces without a well-sealed system of return ducts and heating ducts, for example, can exacerbate or cause symptoms, Selig said.

The county program worked with one elderly couple, which included a man using oxygen, living in a home with a furnace that was dispersing dust and fiberglass pieces from the crawl space into the home, Selig said. Those particles can be problematic for anyone but especially for someone with respiratory issues, he said.

Clark County is also a high-radon potential county, meaning elevated levels of the naturally occurring gas have been recorded in the area. Faulty ventilation systems, or poorly constructed systems, can disperse radon into the house, Selig said.

The air pressure inside the home is usually lower than the pressure in the soil, turning the home into a vacuum, drawing radon in through cracks and other openings. The same can occur with chemicals stored in garages or contaminants, such as mold, in crawl spaces, with fumes and particles being sucked into the living space, Selig said.

Fixing faulty ventilation systems and sealing leaks in the home will not only make the home quieter and more comfortable but can provide health benefits for residents, Selig said.

“You can live in a house a long time and not realize how sub-optimal things can be,” he said.

Experts offer tips for keeping home healthy

Here are some tips to keep your home healthy:

Check your furnace.

Be sure to change your furnace filter every three months and make sure the filter fits properly, said Mike Selig, program manager for Clark County’s weatherization and building safety program.

“MERV 8 (filter) is a great sweet spot to improve the air quality of your house,” he said.

It’s also important to examine the duct work of the furnace, checking for visible gaps or cracks. Gaps and cracks should be sealed — just don’t use duct tape, Selig said.

“Duct tape is the worst thing to put on ducts,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to fail.”

If you don’t feel comfortable inspecting or sealing the ducts yourself, hire a home evaluation company that can inspect the home and give you a tiered list of needed improvements, Selig said.

Take steps to prevent mold.

Many people don’t properly ventilate their bathrooms after using the shower, which can invite mold growth, Selig said. Allow the  bathroom fan to run for 10 to 15 minutes after a shower to ensure all of the moisture is removed, he said.

On the outside of the home, residents should check for susceptible points where water can leak into the wall cavities. Before the rainy weather arrives, walk around the outside of the home and make sure the siding meets the edges of the doors and windows, Selig said.

In addition, clean gutters and make sure downspouts are directing water away from crawl spaces. Mold can form in the crawl space if water is present.

Seal cracks beneath sinks and bathtubs.

Head into your home’s crawl space to check the areas beneath sinks and bathtubs. Pull away the insulation surrounding sink and bathtub plumbing to check for holes cut during installation.

Holes that are much bigger than the plumbing allow cold air — and whatever particles are in the crawl space air — into the house, Selig said.

“Insulation is great, but it’s a filter when you have air flow,” Selig said.

Use spray foam to fill the gaps around plumbing. For larger gaps, shove block foam in the holes and seal the cracks with the spray foam, he said.

Check door seals.

Make sure doors are properly sealed. Gaps around doors can not only allow cool air from outside to seep indoors, but they can also allow fumes from chemicals in your garage, such as paint or gasoline, to get into your home.

Buy carbon monoxide detectors.

Be sure to have carbon monoxide detectors in your home, especially if you have open-combustion appliances, such as fireplaces or certain water heaters and clothes dryers, Selig said.

“Carbon monoxide detectors are essential to people these days, even if they just have a fireplace,” he said.

Use a doormat.

Carpet can cause problems for residents because it can trap particles, such as heavy metals and pesticides, that are brought into the home from outside, Selig said.

To minimize the impact, use a walk-off mat of at least 6 feet at all doorways. An Astroturf-style mat will scrape particles off of shoes before they can be tracked into the home, he said.

Check your roof.

Visually inspect your roof each year to ensure shingles are in good condition and vents are unobstructed. If you don’t feel comfortable climbing up there yourself, use binoculars to check for problems, Selig said.

Prevent pests.

Make sure screens over crawl spaces are intact to keep pests out and don’t feed your pets outside, which can attract pests to your house, Selig said.

“Pests can bring all sorts of gross stuff,” he said.