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RISMEDIA, October 27, 2010—A new home may have freshly painted shutters, a picket fence around it, and rainbow-colored flower patches leading to the candy-red door. But if the air quality isn’t good inside, those exterior niceties become insignificant—and—quite simply, you could get sick. “Sick building syndrome” (a term typically reserved for office buildings, but often interchangeably used with the term “sick house syndrome” when referring to private homes) is a combination of physical ailments—symptoms often include headaches, loss of concentration, general malaise and breathing problems. The cause: poor indoor air quality.

The less-than-clean air that contributes to sick house syndrome comes courtesy of a huge list of pollutants, which can be separated into three main groups: particles (lime and silica dust, lead paint chips, pet dander, carbon from burning fuels and candles, and mold and dust mites); fibers (asbestos, fiberglass, animal hair and carpet/textile fibers); and gases (such as paint and other caustic product solvents, and carbon monoxide).

These substances build up fast. They can either be inherent in the home, or tracked in on shoes and clothes (or via the family dog)—and they can adversely affect a person’s or family’s health. But don’t panic. Instead, take measures to reduce your exposure to the chemicals that cause sick house syndrome. Remember, this isn’t an exact science. Very few homes have absolutely no pollutants. The key is to reduce the number of pollutants as much as possible.

The following 11 steps will help you nurse your home back to health:

1. Use vacuums with HEPA filters. Your seafoam-green Electrolux from 1968 might be a swoopy retro design statement, but it’s not healthy to use anymore.

2. Use high-efficiency furnaces and hot-water heaters. Your local heating company can give you information on the newest, most efficient models.

3. Seal all gaps around your windows and doors. Some pollutants are tracked in on foot, but others float in through minuscule cracks.

4. Have your basement waterproofed to prevent mold from proliferating.

5. If you’ve been sleeping on your pillows for more than six months, there are probably enough dust mites on them to do the final dance number from a big Broadway musical. Change your pillows at least twice a year. And wash all bedding at least once a week—in hot water—to reduce the instance of allergens.

6. Avoid flannel pajamas as they contain synthetic fabrics that can house volatile compounds. While we’re on the subject of clothing—give all washable clothes you buy one wash, with Borax, before wearing.

7. When you’re buying your kids a toy, look for any labeling that indicates that Latex, neoprene or vinyl (PVC) is in it. If any of these substances are used, leave the item in the store. It’s not good for you—or your child.

8. When you’re done painting a room in your home, don’t store the paint for later use. Instead, write down the color name and number—most major paint companies have readily available touch-up containers in small sizes. (Similarly, don’t keep solvents, pesticides and fertilizers hanging around either).

9. Use doormats. Not only do they make people feel welcome—they whisk the germs off their feet before they have the chance to enter your home.

10. Whenever you can replace a porous surface with a smooth one, do so. A sleek leather rug collects fewer allergens than a loopy shag rug. Or, if you’re going low-budget—consider skipping the rug altogether.

11. Taking shorter showers is good for the environment, but it still exposes you to chlorine. Use a carbon filter on your showerhead to help reduce your exposure to chlorine and other harmful chemicals.

Charles Furlough is vice president, Pillar To Post Home Inspections.

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