Ten Ways to Make Your Home Healthier in Winter

 Once upon a frosty winter night, there were crackling logs in the fireplace, grandpa puffing on his pipe, the kids assembling a model airplane, a mouse scurrying for a tasty crumb with a cat in pursuit, mother looking glamorous for an evening out fingers polished and hair sprayed into a perfect coif, while father, wearing his best cologne and freshly cleaned suit, warms up the car in the garage. This pleasant scene actually reveals several contributors to poor indoor air quality.

Inside of the average home, there are biological pollutants such as mould, pet dander, bacteria and dust mites and chemical pollutants consisting of the gases and particles from these common sources: wood fires, tobacco smoke, cleaning products, building materials, dry cleaned clothing, air fresheners, personal care products and adhesives in flooring and furniture.

Did you know that hot, chlorinated drinking water releases chloroform or that overheated cooking oils emit acrolein and formaldehyde? Our everyday activities can have surprisingly dangerous cumulative effects.

In fact, in 2010, the U.S. government released a Berkleymeta-analysis of 77 surveys of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in American homes. The results revealed that the top 10 riskiest indoor air VOCs were acrolein, formaldehyde, benzene, hexachlorobutadiene, acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, benzyl chloride, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, acrylonitrile and vinyl chloride. These compounds exceeded health standards in most homes that were studied.

Although our habits may not change greatly from season to season, in the winter our homes are sealed up to keep out the cold. In the process, we seal in air that can be contaminated. Consider these simple tips to improve home health:

 1. Fumes: Don't idle your car (or run a generator or fuel-powered tool) in an attached garage. Also, close the door between your home and garage as soon as you enter.

 2. Pets: Wipe off your pet’s coat and paws before they come inside. In particular, dirt trapped in the paws contains a host of unwelcome particles. Cat litter should be cleaned outdoors to avoid sending a cloud of contaminants into the household environment. 

 3. Cleaners: When buying cleaning products, be aware that the terms “green” and “natural” are completely unregulated. Purchase products that carry one of these three certifications:

  • EcoLogo: this was a program created by the Canadian government and now owned by the Illinois-based company UL.
  • Green Seal
  • Safer Choice (previously called Designed for the Environment): with many American products sold in Canadian stores, you may notice this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certification. 

For a safe, home-made cleaning solution, combine baking soda, unscented dish soap and lemon juice or vinegar. Use a soft cloth and a gentle touch to avoid scratching bathtubs and countertops. Microfibre clothes are a relatively new product to clean glass and mirrors; simply wet the cloth with a bit of water and wipe. 

 4. Humidity: Ensure adequate ventilation in bathrooms, where excess amounts of water vapour are produced. Too much humidity can lead to mould growth. The rest of the home is usually quite dry, unless you live in a rainy part ofCanada. Very low humidity dries the mucus membranes of the nose and throat, which can contribute to more colds and flu. Dry air can also crack wood flooring and furniture. Consider installing a humidifier but follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to avoid mould and bacteria growth.

 5. Air purifiers: There is some controversy over ionizing air purifiers producing ozone. A safer choice may be an air purifier that uses a HEPA filter. The HEPA specification requires removal of at least 99.97% of 0.3 micrometers airborne pollutants.

 6. Chemicals: Perfume, shampoo, deodorant, hair products, dish soap, candles, laundry detergent and air freshener often contain chemically-produced scent (as opposed to natural plant extracts). Choose unscented products wherever possible.

 7. Vacuum: Regular vacuuming helps to remove dust, allergens and a range of tiny particles that build up on floors and furniture. When buying a new vacuum, choose one that is labelled as releasing no more than 100 micrograms of dust particles per cubic meter of air.

 8. Smoking: Do not allow smoking in your home.

9. Furniture: Ideally, choose furniture made with solid wood instead of particle board or MDF.

10. Paint, Varnish and Thinners: Milk paint normally produces zero VOC emissions making it an especially good choice for children’s bedrooms. Not all retailers carry milk paint, but many options are available online. If you prefer more traditional products, use acrylic paint instead of oil paint; there are fewer fumes from the acrylic and brushes clean up with soap and water rather than paint thinner. Pigments themselves also produce VOCs; lighter colours contain less pigment. Do not store paints, solvents or varnishes inside your home as they emit VOCs and are highly flammable.

With a few small changes, you can improve your home health this winter!

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