By Martha Shaw
With winter approaching, the joy of keeping all the windows open to let fresh air in our homes is behind us. We begin sealing up our houses, latching storm windows and applying weather stripping to prevent heat loss before cold weather sets in.
When we think about weatherizing our homes, we should also consider how best to refresh the air inside. Indoor air quality (IAQ) is basic to human health, particularly for the very young and elderly who are more susceptible to the effects of dirty air and who typically spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. Even in crowded, industrial cities, outside air is usually much cleaner than the air inside, and the Island is no exception.
“Though houses are more energy efficient and built tighter than ever before, the natural exchange of air with the outdoors through leaky windows is less,” says Jim Hart of Hart Company Plumbing and Heating, Inc. in Vineyard Haven.
As a result, emissions from detergents, pesticides, furnishings, gas appliances, oil burners, paints, toxic construction materials, and radon can get trapped indoors. Also, unwanted flora and fauna like fungi, algae, pollen grains, viruses, bacteria, and dust mites can flourish inside our homes. Combined, the concentration of these pollutants can be up to a hundred times higher than outside air, particularly when indoor air is re-circulated for an extended period of time.
“Heat ducts and clothes dryers can become moist breeding grounds for mites and mold and it’s very important to clean or replace the filters,” says Mr. Hart. “We open up heat registers and find dead insects, mouse droppings, animal hair, dander and other things that you don’t want getting into the air you breathe.”
Fireplaces, wood and coal stoves, and kerosene heaters can also be a major source of indoor air pollution. Mr. Hart suggests tuning up gas stoves and furnaces every few years to reduce dirty fuel emissions, to get air ducts cleaned, and to vacuum out electric heaters before they are turned on.
According to John Abrams of South Mountain Company in West Tisbury, who specializes in energy efficient building, some homeowners install mechanical ventilation, the best of which is an energy-efficient heat recovery ventilator (HRV). An HRV filters and preheats fresh outside air in exchange for stale indoor air.
Proper ventilation is key
Radon is a natural gas, yet dangerous when high levels of it are trapped inside. It is found in most homes at very low levels. Originating naturally in earth and rocks, and even groundwater, it seeps in from beneath the house through cracks in concrete and flooring and through floor drains. Radon becomes a problem when it gets trapped without proper ventilation. It is estimated that prolonged exposure to radon is the number two cause of lung cancer. Fortunately, testing for radon, as well as getting rid of it, is relatively simple. One good source for finding out more about radon and for ordering test kits is www.accustarlabs.com.
Ventilate well when using paints, paint stripper, glue, caulking, welding tools, and sanding equipment, or wait for a nice day and do these projects outside or with the windows open. Cleaning dete and bug sprays, mildew fighters, and dust busters may be advertised to get your house cleaner than clean, but don’t be fooled. Many of thes products are unregulated and untested in terms of their health risks. You can find natural alternatives specializing in nontoxic products and homemade remedies. If you hire professionals to clean your home, let them know that you prefer natural products, and provide them with your own supplies if they aren’t offered. You’ll spare your septic system and the Island’s soil and groundwater of toxic chemicals.
Prevent mold growth
Mold growth is usually obvious to spot in your house, but there are invisible spores that are equally toxic. Because they are invisible and airborne, they pose a higher risk to people who are susceptible to respiratory disease. These spores contain allergens whether they are dead, alive, or dormant, and they need to be physically removed, preferably by a vacuum. Mold mitigation professionals will isolate the area, set the spores into suspension, and suck them up through powerful air scrubbers known as air “polishers.” In some cases, sheetrock and other affected surfaces must be replaced.
To help prevent mold growth, keep household humidity below 50 percent. Make sure rain and melting snow are directed away from your house and your rain spouts are operating effectively. During the winter, vents in the basement, bathrooms and above the kitchen stove should be run frequently to avoid moisture from building up on walls, floors, ceilings, wall cavities, and tile grout. If you see condensation on pipes in your home, you have moisture, a breeding ground for mold. The easiest way to detect mold and mildew is a musty smell, which is of microscopic life side your home. Ac- Donald Cronig of Beacon Home Inspections in Vineyard Haven, up to 20 percent of the air pollution in a home comes from the basement through stairwells, laundry chutes, and other openings. He recommends a good dehumidifier and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air filter) in the basement to extract mites, spores, chemicals, and other pollutants, and personally uses IQAir Health-Pro Plus in his own home. Unfortunately, Beacon Home Inspections is no longer in the business of indoor air quality and the Vineyard does not appear to have a full-time IAQ professional working on the Island. One off-Island resource is Nauset Environmental Services, and another is the Indoor Air Quality Association at www.iaqa.org. Also reference the book, “The Mold Survival Guide for Your Home and Your Health,” by Jeff and Connie May.
The good news is that winter doesn’t last forever and there are plenty of warm days here and there to air out the house. The best way to prevent toxic build-up in your home is to choose products and building materials wisely and take precautionary steps before indoor pollutants become highly concentrated and out of control. That way, your whole family can breathe easier. Martha Shaw of Oak Bluffs specializes in environmental issues and is the founder of Earth Advertising, an agency that promotes the use of earth-friendly products.
To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit www.vineyardenergyproject.org. This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.