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Healthy Homes

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Keep your home safe for the whole family

We see our homes as safe havens, protected spaces. But even the nicest of houses can contain health hazards.

Fortunately, there are ways to spot the hazards and minimize or eliminate them. Poor indoor air quality, lead paint, fall hazards, mold: conditions in your home—some obvious, some hidden—can affect your family’s health.

Consider these facts from the National Center for Healthy Housing:
• Air quality inside your home can be worse than outdoors. The second leading cause of lung cancer—radon—is found in many homes. Carbon monoxide poisoning results in more than 200 accidental deaths a year and, at much lower levels, causes flu-like symptoms, which often go undiagnosed.
• Twenty to 30 percent of the triggers for asthma attacks are found in the home.
• Excluding the automobile, the home is the most frequent site for accidents—falls, burns, and poisonings—for children up to 19 years old. It’s also where older adults fall.
• In homes built before 1978, deteriorated lead-based paint and the dust it creates are the primary cause of lead poisoning, which affects 535,000 U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other sources include lead in drinking water and occupational take-home exposure from parents who work in lead industries.

“A healthy home provides a safe and healthy environment for everyone who lives in that home,” says Ashley Osborne, an Extension associate for environmental and natural resource issues with the University of Kentucky. “Think about each family member—adults, children, and seniors.”

To keep your family healthier, the National Center for Healthy Housing has seven principles for healthy homes and recommendations to achieve them.

Before you make improvements, however, you need to assess your home, says David E. Jacobs, Ph.D., chief scientist with the National Center for Healthy Housing, which has developed a handy assessment checklist (see more at

You can hire a home inspector, or you can call an environmental services company like Evergreen AES in Shelbyville, who will test your home for mold and air quality issues. Senior Project Manager/Consultant Stewart Van Hooser says, “We give you a full report of our findings and recommendations and can monitor your contractor’s progress and re-test afterward.”

“Each house is different,” Jacobs says. “The first step is to determine what the problems are for that particular house.”

Help close to home
Cooperative Extension Service agents in every county can help. They have several programs to address many of the common issues affecting homes and human health.

Osborne says the key principles of a healthy home are helpful for every family member and are mostly a matter of maintenance.
“Keep your home dry,” she advises. “Any type of moisture can lead to mold or pests. Also, keep it clean. Clearing the clutter reduces the potential for people falling. Making needed repairs as soon as possible decreases the likelihood of minor issues becoming more major problems. Everything interrelates.”

Children need special considerations, Osborne says, beyond the familiar steps such as covering outlets, putting locks on cabinets that contain hazardous materials, and keeping electrical cords and clutter from causing injuries and falls. One overlooked issue is “look-alikes.”

Over-the-counter and prescription drugs often have the shape and bright colors of candy, Osborne says. These include gummy vitamins, antacids, and many detergent pods. There are so many look-alike products that the Extension Service has developed a list.

Seniors also need special attention, particularly when it comes to falls. “In a given year, one in three older adults can expect to fall,” says Amy Hosier, Ph.D., an associate Extension professor with the University of Kentucky Department of Family Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service. “Falls are the leading cause of injury and injury-related death among older adults. Falls are also the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma among older adults.”

About half of falls happen in the home. “Older adults may be at higher risk at home because of poor lighting, tripping hazards such as loose carpeting, or the misuse of chairs or stools in the kitchen to reach things on high shelves,” Hosier says.

She suggests checking for safety by walking through each room and around the outside of the house. Many of the preventive measures are easy to implement. For example, Hosier recommends that seniors keep a cellphone or cordless phone on their person in case they fall or to keep from getting up too quickly and rushing to get to the phone.

Breathe easy
Another big factor in keeping your home healthy is improving indoor air quality. “Contaminants can be concentrated in indoor air,” says Roberta Burnes, environmental education specialist with the Kentucky Division for Air Quality. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indoor levels of some air pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor air.

Even smart home improvements can have undesirable health consequences on air quality.

“Over time, homes have become more energy efficient—a good thing,” says Jacobs, the scientist with the National Center for Healthy Housing. “But if energy efficiency is not coupled with proper ventilation, it can lead to worse air quality indoors than outdoors. Homes still need some fresh air coming in.”

A lot of improving indoor air quality is common sense, Burnes says.

“Change furnace filters regularly,” she says. “Keep up with general dusting and sweeping; a lot of people are sensitive to dust mites. Carpeting and plush toys are havens for dust mites. Keep these to a minimum unless you can keep them regularly cleaned.”

Mold is a natural fungus that exists in many forms, indoors and outdoors, Burnes notes. “Inside the home, mold is only a problem if you have a moisture problem. Air conditioners and dehumidifiers can help with that,” she says. The EPA recommends keeping the indoor humidity level below 50 percent.

Whether it is air quality or any other aspect of a healthy home, all the experts agree on one point: start now and systematically address each of the issues. Then your home can help keep you healthy.

Stand up to falling: tips for seniors to prevent falls in the home
• Wear sturdy, supportive shoes with thin, nonslip soles and low heels. Athletic shoes, jogging shoes, and slippers can be dangerous. If you do wear slippers, they should fit well and have soles that provide traction. Avoid walking in stocking feet or barefoot.
• Keep a cellphone or cordless phone on your person, walker, or a low table near the floor in case you fall and cannot get up.
• Think about wearing an alarm that will allow you to call for help in case you fall and cannot get up.
• Take time to regain balance when you sit or stand up after lying down or sitting. Wiggle your toes and clench your hands to help reduce dizziness caused by sudden changes in position.
• If you feel dizzy at times, use a balance aide, such as a cane, walking stick, or walker.
• Pay attention to outdoor surfaces (ice, snow, wet, dry leaves, moss) that may make outdoor activities dangerous.
• Let the telephone ring. Do not race to answer a call. Use a portable or cellphone, rely on “missed call” information, *69, or your voice mail.
• Be alert when transitioning from room to room or from inside to outside in your house or in a public building. Older eyes need time to adjust to sharp transitions of light to dark or dark to light spaces.
• Be alert entering/exiting areas that have curbs.
• In any building, be alert when entering/exiting areas that have elevators and escalators.
• Make sure the home has proper lighting.
• Remove clutter from walkways.
• Securely tack carpet and use double-sided tape to keep rugs from slipping.
• Move things to lower shelves to prevent the need for a step stool.
• Install handrails on all staircases and grab bars in bathrooms.
• While mobility aides help prevent falls, not knowing how to properly use them can actually contribute to a fall.
Source: Amy F. Hosier, associate Extension professor, UK Department of Family Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service

Some hazardous products look similar to items that are safe and consumable. Sometimes the packaging is almost identical in each case. Following is a list of hazardous products and their safe look-alikes. While this list is not all-inclusive, it should help you think about products in your home that have dangerous look-alikes.

Package look-alikes
Powdered cleanser: Parmesan cheese
Dog biscuits: Animal crackers
Cat food: Tuna

Product look-alikes
Red cold tablets: Cinnamon candy
Liquid pine cleaner: Apple juice
Glass cleaner: Blue fruit drink
Motor oil: Honey
Antifreeze: Lime or lemon-lime drink
Alcohol: Water
Rat/mouse poison: Sunflower seeds, candy, cereal
Antacid tablets: Candy
Powdered pesticides: Flour
Children’s vitamins: Candy, gumballs
Detergent pods: Candy
Chocolate laxatives: Chocolate candy bars
Source: UK Cooperative Extension Service

A few don’ts
• Don’t weatherize your home without considering ventilation.
• Don’t power sand paint or burn off paint without checking to see if it is lead-based.
• Don’t try to treat mold yourself if there is more than 10 square feet of it.
• Don’t just use a pesticide. Try integrated pest management (IPM) instead. IPM is based on denying pests a place to live and eliminating their food sources.
Source: The National Center for Healthy Housing

Seven Principles of Healthy Homes
If you comply with these seven principles, your home will support your health, not harm it.

Damp houses provide a nurturing environment for mites, roaches, rodents, and molds, all of which are associated with asthma and other health problems.

Clean homes help reduce pest infestations and exposure to contaminants.

Recent studies show a causal relationship between exposure to mice and cockroaches and asthma episodes in children; inappropriate treatment for pest infestations can exacerbate health problems, since pesticide residues in homes pose risks for neurological damage and cancer.

The majority of injuries among children occur in the home. Falls are the most frequent cause of residential injuries to children, followed by injuries from objects in the home, burns, and poisonings.

Chemical exposures include lead, radon, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, and environmental tobacco smoke. Exposures to asbestos particles, radon gas, carbon monoxide, and secondhand tobacco smoke are far higher indoors than outside.

Studies show that increasing the fresh air supply in a home improves respiratory health.

Poorly maintained homes are at risk for moisture and pest problems. Deteriorated lead-based paint in older housing is the primary cause of lead poisoning, which affects some 535,000 U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Source: The National Center for Healthy Housing

The next two steps

You’ve accomplished the essentials. Your home is dry, clean, clutter-free, and well-maintained. Here are two more ways to make your home even healthier.

Provide for a planned exhaust system
Install a heat recovery ventilator. Also known as mechanical ventilation heat recovery, a heat recovery ventilator captures the energy in exhaust air to dehumidify it and capture the energy used to heat or cool it. As the fresh air comes in, it is tempered. The air is healthier and there is also about a 40 percent decrease in energy usage. The alternative is a properly sized dehumidification and fresh air supply system. Kitchens and bathrooms should also have exhaust ventilation.

Manage ventilation properly
If radon gas is detected, install a radon mitigation system. Instead of radon coming into the home, it will go out through a pipe in the roof.
Source: The National Center for Healthy Housing

For a checklist to help you create and maintain a healthy home go to: Head off health issues in the home

Debra Gibson Isaacs from May 2016 Issue 

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