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SPRING CLEANING: Turning Over a New Leaf

By Jason Earle Google+
Source: Habitat Quarterly 

Well, it's officially that time of year again. Spring has sprung! This is by far my favorite season, for so many reasons. It's a time of renewal, a time to purge, to shake off the darkness of winter and breathe in the verdant newness of spring. It's a fresh start yet again. A time for change. A chance to turn over a new leaf.

As the temperature falls in winter, the days get shorter, we slow down a bit and things tend to pile up in our homes, many of them on a microscopic level. With the entrance of spring, the mercury rises and the trend reverses. We're all happy to see the days getting longer, giving us seemingly more time to get things done and along with this comes an almost instinctive inclination among many of us to engage in the annual ritual of spring cleaning.

The warmer weather allows us to open the windows and let the outside in again. During the winter months, we enjoy very little fresh air in our homes. In fact, in the name of energy efficiency, we seek to eliminate any and all infiltration, unwittingly allowing toxins and allergens to build up fundamentally unabated. These particles and gasses are the potential makings of allergies, asthma attacks, sinus infections and general malaise. While it might be great for your heating bill to keep things buttoned up tight, there's a potentially much greater price to pay: your health.

It's important to note that many of today's most prevalent illnesses have been linked to poor indoor air quality. Chronic sinusitis, which affects 37 million Americans, is largely due to mold exposure, according to a 1999 Mayo Clinic Study. Similarly, of the 23 million asthmatics in the country, at least 4.6 million cases are mold and dampness-related according to EPA/Berkeley Labs. A recent Brown University study even showed a strong connection between depression and an indoor environment in which mold and dampness were present.

It's not just about mold, though. Modern construction materials and furnishings are loaded with chemicals such as formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Over time, these chemicals evaporate, or "off gas," into the air which you and your family breathe in day and night. That "new home" or "new car" smell is actually comprised of chemicals that we should strictly limit our exposure to, but most of us don't. In fact, the average American spends 90% of her time indoors. What does one do?

First, let me explain briefly how we got here and then we'll look at practical steps you can take to get your home healthy in the shortest time possible. During the fuel crisis in the 70's, we began sealing up our homes in the interest of saving energy. Simultaneously, our petrochemical industry exploded with new chemicals to be used in our household goods, building materials and furnishings. As we began building our airtight homes with these new-fangled, lower-cost buildings materials, we also filled our homes with stuff made with these new and exciting chemicals. Stain-resistant coatings, synthetic carpet, paints, varnishes, adhesives, particleboard, dry-cleaning chemicals, etc.... the list goes on and on. All of these things begin emitting gases into a sealed, energy-efficient home immediately upon entry. If there is a leak or a flood, water gets trapped in the wrong places, allowing mold to grow and the negative byproducts to build up. Combine that with the chemical soup I just described and it's probably enough to make you want to finish reading this article outside! Perhaps that's not a bad idea, actually. Think about the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers who opened the windows after cleaning to air out the house. Now, as a culture we don't open our windows very often. Our kids rarely play outside. We live in hermitically sealed homes and just adjust the thermostat depending upon the weather while we wonder why asthma and cancer are now epidemics.

This article is about spring cleaning, but the principles here are not specific to the season. In fact, they can and should be applied all year ‘round. There's really no reason to allow our homes to become so unhealthy during the winter, or any time for that matter.

The subject of healthy homes is a large one and this piece barely scratches the surface. This article is intended to illuminate a few things which you can do to make your home safer and more enjoyable for you and everyone who lives with you. It has been my experience that healthy homes make for happy inhabitants too. The quality of our indoor environment is so closely connected to our overall sense of well-being that I'm amazed at how often and easily it's overlooked.

I'm writing this article specifically for people who are actively looking for ways to live healthier lives. Most people are not ready for what I have to say on this subject. They love their scented candles and Glade plug-ins. They don't see any reason to eliminate these toxic products from their shopping lists. This article is not for those people. If you are part of the small but growing community of informed consumers who are aware of how brilliantly our lives thrive in a healthy environment, free of pollutants and irritants, then please read on.

The good news is that you don't need to do everything contained here to gain control of your home environment and live a much healthier existence. Even if you only make a few of the changes suggested, you'll likely see a marked improvement in your quality of life, which will hopefully spur you on to take larger steps in the same direction.

Shall we begin? Let's take a tour of your house...
We'll start under your kitchen sink. I once heard someone suggest that you shouldn't clean with anything that you can't eat or drink. Clearly that's ridiculous, but certainly there is no reason to use the chemical cleaners of yesteryear. There was a time when natural cleaners were expensive and hard to get. People also questioned their effectiveness. Years ago I made the switch and it has been a tremendous change for the better. I am totally sold on all things in the Seventh Generation family of products, especially the laundry detergent. Some of the best cleaning agents are already at your disposal and cheap! Diluted white vinegar is great in bathrooms and kitchens. Hot water does a great job all by itself too in many cases. If you're into the antibacterial stuff, do your research. You'll quickly see enough evidence out there to dissuade you from seeking a sterile environment. Clean and sterile are two very different things. Unless you're doing open heart surgery on your dining room table, cleaning the way your great grandma did is far healthier and a whole lot less expensive.

Also, I see no reason for any added fragrances in cleaning products. Clean has no smell. In fact, if something smells like the cleaner you used after you use it, it's not clean! Cleaners should not leave behind a residue or an odor. Clean is the absence of chemicals. Clean is the absence of toxins and allergens. Fragrances mask odors. Fragrances treat the symptom not the cause. When your house is actually clean, you won't need any artificial scents to cover things up.

OK, now to your utility closet...

What kind of vacuum cleaner do you have? Does it have a HEPA filter? Most vacuum cleaners don't and as a result, they spew a huge plume of super-fine particles right out the back. In effect, most vacuum cleaners simply redistribute the dust in your house. Have you ever wondered why you there's a layer of dust all over the place the next couple of days after vacuuming? Now you know why. Get a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner. Which brand? I like Miele and Dyson, but any brand is better than not having one at all. It will save you time cleaning and make a huge difference in your air quality.

I was once in a house where a woman called us because every time her grandkids came to visit, one of them had an asthma attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. She was concerned because they were planning to visit soon and she couldn't stomach the idea of it happening again. We went through her pre-visit routine step-by-step and she described how well she cleaned (with all her chemical cleaners, of course) and how she vacuumed right before everyone arrived.

When we looked at her vacuum cleaner, it was exactly what I was expecting to see; your standard vacuum cleaner. Nothing out of the ordinary, and that's exactly what the problem was. With the best of intentions, she was creating a microscopic dust cloud for her asthmatic grandchild to walk right into. Surprise! Not only did she put that beast on the curb that night and head out first thing in the morning to get a healthier machine, she also put a HEPA-filtered air cleaner on each floor of her home to help reduce other irritants and the other enemies of asthma and sinus sufferers. She called me right after they left. She was in tears. Happy tears. It was the first time they were able to stay the whole week without event. No inhalers. No wheezing. No emergency room visits. They had a great time and are planning to visit more often.

One thing I recently did was jettison my old-fashioned mops and I am so glad I did. I have long felt that there was a better way. What's nastier than an old moldy mop slopping all over your floor? That gross bucket of muck.... Yuck! What if there was a way to methodically clean your tiles and hardwood floors without lugging a bucket around? Well, there is. Enter the wonderful world of steam mops. The one I have is the Haan SI-35 and it's got its shortcomings, but it is far and away superior to the traditional mop and bucket. I think it was $75 or so and it does a great job on my floors. I was stunned. I will never mop a floor again. Once you try a steam mop, neither will you.

Ready to head into the basement and garage? Come on, it can't be that bad...

Like it or not, these areas, which are often out of sight, are important contributors to your home's overall health. We all know that we have boxes of stuff that need to be sorted out or thrown away, but that's not what I want to talk about. That's a whole different discussion. I'm here to talk about how that stuff is stored. For starters, in your basement, everything needs to be up off the floor, especially cardboard boxes. Concrete loves to transfer moisture to dry and absorbent materials such as paper, cardboard and that old rolled up carpet you have sitting down there which you'll never use. This is a breeding ground for mold and other unwelcome guests. Wire shelves are your best friend here. Get some and elevate your stuff to a whole new level! Also, make sure nothing touches the foundation walls either. They're concrete too and will allow moisture to wick into your things, no matter how dry you think your basement is.

While we're in your basement, let's talk about some other items. If you have a finished basement or are considering the endeavor of finishing yours, you should read another article I wrote on the subject in a previous issue of HABITAT. I have very strong opinions on the topic and they are too voluminous to elaborate upon here. What I would like to mention is controlling humidity. Most people understand the value of a dehumidifier to remove dampness but have no real idea whether it helps or not. You cannot effectively modify what you do not quantify. In essence, you need to monitor the humidity in the basement in order to know whether or not you are simply wasting money. To this end, I have a wireless temperature and humidity monitor made by Oregon Scientific (model no. RMR500A - go to oregonscientific.com) which has wireless sensors that I have distributed strategically around my house: I have one outside, another in the basement, and one in my bedroom. I leave the base unit in my kitchen and on a dynamic, real-time basis, I can see the vast differences in the conditions throughout my home without any guesswork. I can see when the humidity is too low in the bedroom in the winter to sleep well and so I add humidity until I reach the target 50%. I can see when it's too high in the basement and in need of dehumidification or too cold outside to walk out and get my newspaper in the morning with only my robe on. It's a very simple and low-cost luxury, but it also helps keep my home healthy, and here's why.

Too much humidity and things start to get funky. Dust mites and mold need water to live just like you and I do. Contrary to what most people think, mold spores and dust mites are already in your home and are simply waiting for you to get lazy and let some dampness develop. Dust mites are essentially lying in wait in your bedding, carpet and window dressings but they need it to be around 70F and above 60%RH (relative humidity) to really thrive. Mold isn't quite as picky but also likes it when the RH starts to get above 50%. As humans, we are comfortable with humidity between 40-60%, but it's easy to overdo it, making it comfortable for these nasty little guys too. Mold and dust mites are two of the most common asthma triggers and they are inevitable if you let dampness occur, making it totally preventable. Get a humidity monitor (known as a hygrometer) and start paying attention to these things. Otherwise it's like a diabetic who doesn't know what her blood sugar is. It's really that important to the health of your home and of those you love who reply upon you to take care of these things.

People always ask me about duct cleaning. Is it really helpful? Who can you trust? Well, I think of it like any other surface in your home. If you didn't vacuum the floor for 3 years, what would it look like? We are effectively breathing out of our ducts. Point blank: Get them cleaned and do it at least twice a year. There are a lot of shysters out there, so you'll want a NADCA certified firm with NADCA certified technicians, check the BBB and ask for references. Put in on your calendar to be done every six months starting this spring.

While we're still in the basement, let's talk about something that you don't think about until it doesn't work when you need it most: sump pumps. This is the season where you have to really make sure that puppy is in good working order, or that you even have one in the first place! April showers bring flooded basements. Test your pump if you have one. Get one if you don't. Also, you will want to have a battery backup unit installed if you don't have one already. The storms that knock out your power are usually the ones where you really want your sump pump to work. The battery needs to be checked annually too, so when you go through these motions again next spring, you can add that to the list.

Everybody has a different place where they stash the half-empty paint cans. First of all, these cans of stain, varnishes and other previously opened containers are better off outside in the shed or otherwise removed from the home. If your garage is attached to the house, then you shouldn't have them there either. They are a source of unhealthy vapors called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which can cause all sorts of health problems. Second of all, most paint manufactures these days make low-VOC or no-VOC paints so if you are going to be throwing on a new coat of paint to freshen things up this spring, do it in the healthiest way possible. Ask about low-VOC options at the paint store. You can learn more on the subject at www.GreenGuard.org. Get rid of those old toxic cans of stuff you won't even use. Chances are they're all dried up anyway. Makes you wonder where those chemicals went, doesn't it? Silly question.

As we come back into the main living space, we are again reminded of how your house smells. Are you using scented candles or plug-in air fresheners? Do you use spray fresheners or Febreeze? If so, please stop. PLEASE! These are horrible products which should be banned. In addition to the nasty side-effects, many of which are still not known, plug-ins are also a major fire risk. If you must add an aroma, use essential oils. They have tea light diffusers and rings you can put on light bulbs to help vaporize the oils. They are available all over the place these days. Essential oils have known health benefits too. These chemical air fresheners are anything but healthy. Get them out of your house.

Moving outside...

It feels great to be outside again this time of year. When you start looking at all of the things that need to be done outside, it can get overwhelming. Might I suggest a priority item to run toward? Trim the trees and bushes away from the house. No vegetation should ever touch the outside of your house, nor should trees provide too much shade cover. This will help keep critters and water from getting into places they shouldn't. It will also reduce moss and algae growth on the exterior of the house.

Powerwashing the house can leave it looking better, but it can also blast water into walls and make a moldy mess. It should be done by someone aware of this risk.

A couple of final words here that have to be said...

You're going to be stirring up a lot of dust as you embark on your spring cleaning efforts. Use a dust mask, ideally N95 rated, especially if you're asthmatic, allergic or have sinus problems. Also, if anyone else in your house has these conditions, they should leave while you're working or wear one too.

According to the EPA, you should call a professional if you find more than a few square feet of mold growth. We agree. Don't spray bleach on it or tear it out yourself. Bleach can actually make a mold problem worse. Mold is a symptom of excess moisture and bleach is 94% water and 6% sodium hypochlorite. When you spray bleach on a moldy surface, the chlorine evaporates leaving behind water, adding water to a moisture problem. Rather counterproductive. And tearing it out can make a small problem much worse by spreading it all over the place. It would be much wiser to call in a specialist like, 1-800-GOT-MOLD?, that handles these things every day, but then again I'm slightly biased.

Finally, go open your windows!

It's spring!

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SPRING CLEANING: Turning Over a New Leaf
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