Dear James: All my children have allergies. We are planning to build a new house and I need to avoid the “sick house syndrome” from poor indoor air quality. What things should I consider for it? — Lisa T.
Dear Lisa: Sick house syndrome refers to much more than just allergies and can be a serious problem in today’s newer airtight homes. The indoor air can actually be more polluted than outdoor air and some of these indoor chemicals can cause or exacerbate existing allergies.
Several key design and construction factors to consider are the building materials used, the airtightness and fresh air ventilation. The last two may seem to contradict each other, but they actually complement each other. The ideal situation is an airtight house, to keep allergens outdoors, coupled with a filtered fresh air ventilation system.
Some materials, such as ones which are made with adhesives using formaldehyde, may off-gas formaldehyde into your home for up to several years after your house is built. This depends on many factors such as the indoor humidity and temperature, how well the material was made, etc. If something has that “new” smell, it is more likely it is giving off some chemical gases.
To minimize the problems from chemicals being emitted from new building materials, use as many natural products as possible. For example, select cabinets made of real wood without particleboard (contains adhesives). You may even want to select unfinished cabinets and finish them yourself with environmentally-friendly finishes.
Solid surface kitchen countertops are also a good idea to install because they are natural and are not laminated with adhesives. These include slate, granite, marble, etc. These surfaces are very durable and attractive, but they are somewhat more expensive than standard countertop materials.
Install a heating system which uses outdoor combustion air with a sealed combustion chamber. This minimizes the possibility of getting fumes into the house. It also reduces the chance of creating a slight negative pressure inside your home which can draw in pollutants and allergens from outdoors.
Another clean option for heating and cooling is installing a heat pump. With natural gas prices increasing and fuel oil prices always unstable, an electric heat pump may be a economical choice in the long run. A geothermal heat pump is definitely the best choice if you can afford the higher initial installation costs.
Select paint with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOC). Most major paint suppliers offer them. Short-term exposure to VOC’s may cause symptoms such as irritated eyes and nose, headaches and nausea.
Install hardwood flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. It is much easier to keep hardwood floors clean and it minimizes dust as compared to carpeting. Dust mites, a common allergen, live in the carpeting as does mold in damp conditions. Also, the carpeting itself can give off VOC’s.
Check with your local health department about whether radon gas is a problem in your area. If it is, you should take radon abatement steps during the design and construction of your home. These can include sealing all cracks and gaps in the basement or slab, providing fresh air or pressurization.
Some excellent sources for more detailed information on creating a healthy house are: American Lung Association, (800) 788-5864, www.healthhouse.org; and the Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov – “A Guide to Indoor Air Quality” booklet.
Send your questions to Here’s How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com.