The steps you've taken to conserve energy in your home, from sealing off leaks to adding insulation, may be putting your health at serious risk, says a report from the Institute of Medicine.
"America is in the midst of a large experiment," John D. Spengler of Harvard School of Public Health, said in a statement. He says that weatherization and other cost-saving measures, along with new building materials and products, have been introduced into American homes with little consideration for their effects on human health. The result, the report warns, is increased levels of indoor contaminants and humidity.
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"The building industry and EPA have been telling us for more than 30 years to weatherize our homes to save energy," says Dr. Bill Wolverton, a retired NASA senior research scientist who helped develop NASA's BioHome. "But practically everything in homes today is made of synthetic materials that out-gas hundreds of dangerous chemicals," he told Newsmax Health.
"When you seal your home to make it energy-efficient, you trap all of the chemicals that cause health problems inside your home," said Wolverton, who has received numerous patents for his pioneering research in environmental pollution and is co-author of Plants: Why You Can't Live Without Them. "Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens."
In addition, tightly sealed homes are also perfect environments for moisture — perhaps from the cooling system — to form mold and mildew that cause problems for those with asthma or allergies. High humidity also encourages dust mites.
According to Wolverton, three of the most common chemicals, the health problems they cause, and some of the places they're found in today's homes are:
• Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen, formaldehyde causes headaches, coughing, nausea, dizziness, and irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. It's found in carpeting, particleboard, caulking compounds, ceiling tiles, paints, draperies, floor coverings, gas stoves, paper towels, stains, varnishes, upholstery, adhesives, and tobacco smoke.
• Benzene: Long-term exposure can cause cancer. Benzene harms the immune system and can cause headaches, confusion, drowsiness, tremors, and rapid heart beat. It's found in paints, particleboard, ceiling tiles, adhesives, caulking compounds, chlorinated tap water, floor coverings, electrophotographic printers, tobacco smoke, and stains and varnishes.
• Xylene: Inhaling xylene vapor depresses the central nervous system and causes headaches, nausea, impaired short-term memory, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Severe exposure has caused kidney and liver damage. It's found in wall coverings, caulking compounds, solvents, ceiling tiles, floor coverings, and adhesives.
In these days of rising energy costs, the solution isn't more ventilation, says Wolverton: "When you purge the air inside the building and bring in air from the outside, you aren't solving the problem. You're simply trading inside pollutants for outdoor pollutants and you lose energy efficiency."
The solution is to purify your indoor environment by taking five simple steps:
1. Add houseplants. Indoor plants — common houseplants — can help purify air by using their natural ability to absorb toxins through their leaves and roots and turn them into nutrients. In addition to cleaning the air, plants also reduce high humidity to healthy levels.
The capacity of plants to purify air was proved by NASA's BioHome, which was an experiment to discover how to make air safe in closed environments, such as space ships, that were filled with dangerous chemicals. The BioHome, according to Wolverton, was made entirely of synthetic materials and was tightly sealed, giving everyone who entered burning eyes and breathing difficulties — two common symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome. Once plants were added, air quality improved and symptoms disappeared. An analysis of the air indicated that the dangerous compounds were gone.
2. Use eco-friendly cleaning products. Don't buy products that carry warnings — just consider them unsafe to use. You can actually make your own safe cleaning products, says Wolverton, such as by substituting vinegar for bleach in cleaning around the house.
3. Buy products that emit low amounts of chemicals. Some products, such as low-emission carpets, paint, and building materials, have special labels that identify them as among those that give off the least chemicals. Low-emission carpets, for example, are labeled Green Label and Green Label Plus.
4. Try salt lamps. Salt lamps are made from a chunk of salt that has been hollowed out to make room for a small light bulb or candle. Heating the salt produces negative ions which helps purify the air of dust, smoke, bacteria, and other pollutants.
5. Use indoor filters. Activated carbon and high-energy particle arrester (HEPA) filters trap dust and other particles, but they must be replaced regularly or the filter becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. The best place for a HEPA filter is in your bedroom.
"The best way to have a tightly sealed energy-saving building that is healthy is through a combination of indoor plants and filters," says Wolverton. "You can make simple changes that will control the environment in your home and keep it healthy."
Ten of the best houseplants to purify air include:
• Bamboo palm (chamaedorea seifritzii)
• Chinese evergreen (aglaonema modestum)
• English ivy (hedera helix)
• Gerbera daisy (gerbera jamesonii)
• Corn plant/mass cane (dracaena massangeana)
• Mother-in-law's tongue/snake plant (sansevieria laurentii)
• Pot mum (chrysanthemum morifolium)
• Peace lily (spathiphyllum)
• Boston fern (nephrolepis exaltata "Bostoniensis")
• Philodendron (philodendron sp.)
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