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'Sick' lurks at home

Published:Wednesday | July 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Fumes from cleaning agents, air fresheners, insecticides and paint can make home an unsafe environment. Dust, furniture made of pressed wood, carpets and refrigerant also release pollutants that can make indoor air quality toxic.

A warm, comfy home could be masking a petri dish of germs, harmful chemical contaminants and toxic fumes. Just think of these potential dangers - chemical cleaners, air fresheners, carpets, paint, furniture, refrigerants, type of cookware used, insecticides and dust. They can release pollutants that affect health.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, points to some unlikely sources of indoor air pollution: "combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building material and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed-wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices; and outdoor sources such as radon, pesticides and outdoor air pollution".

Flu-like symptoms

Environmental scientists in various studies say that even a single exposure to toxic material at home can cause flu-like symptoms, allergic reactions, headaches, even depression and gastrointestinal problems. Exposure can also provoke sore throats, sneezing, rashes and breathing problems. Some research say that long-term effects to toxic indoor exposure can include some respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.

Dust accumulates quickly on furniture, rugs and carpets and you might be tempted to overlook it, but think again. Dust is actually tiny fibres that bind to other airborne particles such as dust mites (tiny insects), dirt, pollutants, pet dander, mould and virus. So get rid of dust collectors like rugs and carpets.

There are actions you can take to create a healthier home environment, so don't despair. Start by improving the indoor air quality by using environmentally friendly cleaning products (check product labels); use solid wood furniture over pressed wood material and open the windows and let in fresh air, every now and again. Safe and inexpensive cleaning agents such as white vinegar and baking soda are more than likely sitting in your cupboard, so make use of them.

The kitchen

Let's step into the kitchen. The bathroom gets a bad rap all the time, but the kitchen actually harbours more germs than any other room in the house. Yes, believe it. There's the kitchen floor, cleaning sponges and rags, cutting boards, the drain and sink, faucet handles, door-knobs, refrigerator door handles, stove handles and so on. All potential homes for germs, and they should be disinfected regularly.

As many as 20 million bacteria microbes could be having a party in the sponge used to wash dishes or wipe the counter. Sponges should be disinfected and changed regularly.

Cutting boards should also be properly washed with soap and hot water; and it is actually better to have separate cutting boards for meat and poultry, and another one for fresh fruits and vegetables. Cockroaches and outdoor shoes worn indoor are also sources of germs and disease in the kitchen and the rest of the house.

Then, what kind of cookware do you use? Teflon, you say. That is a synthetic polymer used to coat nonstick, heat-resistant cookware. When heated above 360C, Teflon releases toxic gases that can trigger flu-like symptoms, nausea, headaches and so on. Two of the toxic gases are believed to be carcinogenic. It's healthier to use stainless steel, glass and cast-iron cookware and utensils.

The bathroom

The bathroom is not as dirty as the kitchen, but potential germ sites are the faucet, towels, toilet and bathtub. By now, it should be a habit to wash hands thoroughly after visits to the loo, and it is also recommended that you flush with the lid down to prevent dispersing polluted water vapours all over the place; some vapours might land on your toothbrush, and you know what that could mean.

Bleach is often used as the cleaning agent but be aware that bleach contains chlorine, and its fumes can be harsh on the lungs; several studies conducted since the 1990s link chlorine to breast cancer.

Eulalee Thompson is health editor and a professional counsellor. Email: