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Despite our ‘great outdoors’ reputation, Australians spend 90 percent of our time indoors. But while ‘sick building syndrome’ is commonly recognised as a widespread problem in the workplace, what about at home? Raphael Siket, President of the Australasian Society of Building Biologists and director of Ecolibria, says many people are unaware that persistent health issues may, in fact, be caused by their homes.
The most common signs that your home is making you sick are respiratory problems such as the never-ending cold, asthma, bronchitis, irritated airways or skin. You may have trouble sleeping or experience headaches, earaches, fatigue or depression. In severe cases, an unhealthy home can lead to autoimmune problems, including cancer. “All of these things are strongly connected with the built environment,” says Nicole Biljsma, naturopath, building biologist and author of Healthy Home Healthy Family.
To determine whether your health issues are caused by your home, ask yourself: Have you noticed any changes to your health since you moved to this house (or renovated or changed rooms, or after cleaning)? Has your sleep been affected? Do you feel better when you’re out of the house?
In severe cases, a building biologist might be called in to take air samples, analyse occupants’ blood or test for electrical interference, but in most cases, a little awareness and a lot of fresh air can go a long way to creating a healthy home.
The air that we breathe
The biggest single factor affecting your health at home is air quality. The need to build energy-efficient houses has many of us living in air-conditioned, hermetically sealed boxes without so much as a puff of fresh air. Mould and fungi thrive in damp corners, sending spores into the air to irritate nasal passages at best or affect your nervous system at worst. Allergenic dust mites and pet dander lurk in carpets and bedding. Combustion products, which include smoke, ash and gases that travel to the deepest parts of your lungs, invite themselves in via our heaters, gas cooking appliances, cigarette smoke or exhaust from cars in attached garages.
Especially worrying are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), chemicals that ‘offgas’ into the atmosphere at room temperature. VOCs are found in a huge range of household items and while a few, such as formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, have been studied extensively, most have not. VOCs are present in inks and dyes, flame-retardants, paint, pressed wood and plastics, plus air fresheners, cleaning products and even personal-care products such as moisturiser. The level of VOCs in your home can vary from room to room and increases with temperature.
Wired for life
Humans have always lived with electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from the earth, however today we are exposed to EMFs via mobile-phone towers and the handsets themselves, powerlines and substations, plus cordless phones, wireless routers, appliances such as baby monitors, dishwashers and microwaves, and the wiring in our walls. “We live in a sea of radiation and we simply don’t know what effect that is having on our health,” says Biljsma.
Signs that these emissions are affecting your health range from skin rashes to sleeplessness, headaches and dizziness. High-voltage powerlines have been linked to childhood leukaemia and the WHO’s cancer research arm, the IARC, recently declared that EMF exposure from high frequencies is linked to cancer. The IARC also classifies 50hZ electrical fields, which is all our wiring, as a possible carcinogen.
How to create a healthy home
Start by taking off your shoes at the front door. This stops you tracking in dirt, dust, pesticides and allergens from outside. The next most important thing is to let your house breathe. Open doors and windows and add air vents to allow built-up chemicals and combustion particles to dissipate and to control damp. Attack any mouldy areas using vinegar, alcohol or detergent (avoid bleach and chlorine). Choose a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to catch fine particles rather than spew them back into the air.
Ensure you have good ventilation in the kitchen, laundry and bathroom, vent flues and extractor fans to outdoors and service cooking appliances to prevent leaks. Mobile, un-flued heaters are generally a bad idea. If you have an attached garage, make sure the door seals properly and never run the car for more than a few seconds. While you’re in the garage, get rid of all those half-tins of paint. Also check around the home for areas of damp within walls where mold spores can grow – investigate and fix the source of the problem if any are found.
To reduce the VOCs in your home, switch from chemical cleaning products to natural options, or use microfibre cloths with warm water; as Biljsma says, “A healthy home should smell like fresh air.” Choose natural, organic fibres for home furnishings and consider second-hand furniture, as VOCs dissipate over time. Look for building materials that are pre-dried and use water-based surface coatings. When choosing low-VOC paint, ensure the pigments are low-VOC too.
When it comes to electromagnetic frequency exposure, opt for hard-wired over wireless, and make sure you are sleeping and relaxing at least 1.5 metres away from sources that draw a lot of electricity, such as the fridge, meter box, cordless phone base or solar-panel inverter. Try to make the house as “electrically quiet” as possible at night by turning everything off at the wall, especially the wireless router, and leave your mobile and laptop in the living room. “There is no place for electricity in the bedroom,” says Siket. ”This room is for resting and repairing.”