Is your house making you sick? Don't be surprised if the answer is yes. Toxins, pesticides, gases, mites, and molds are everywhere, and the more you're exposed to them, the greater your risk for developing the health problems they can cause.
When it comes to being "home sick," says Robert McLellan, MD, director of Exeter Hospital's Environmental and Occupational Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H., you can look at it from two angles. Which of your health problems are related to your environment? Or what hazards are lurking in your environment and what can they do to you?
The first angle, typically referred to as "sick building syndrome," usually results in a group of symptoms such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, stuffiness, "spaciness," and rash, says McLellan. "These symptoms come and go fairly quickly -- you may notice them within an hour or two of entering a building but also notice that they will be gone within an hour or two of leaving a building." There is no objective test that measures these symptoms, McLellan says, so it's more a matter of paying attention to the symptoms and trying to pinpoint when you have them and where you are when they strike.
"Building-associated illness" covers the second angle. In this case, the effects of environmental hazards may not be immediately apparent. Exposure to radon, for example, can lead to lung cancer, but it may be years before that happens. With building-associated illness, abnormalities -- such as sinusitis, allergies, asthma -- can be diagnosed through objective tests.
Every household is different, says Elizabeth Sword, executive director of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), in Princeton, N.J., but we should all look to the same general sources when trying to determine what hazards we're facing. Air, food, water, and consumer products are what Sword calls the "organizing principles" of confronting environmental risks.
Falling under those headings are "10 environmental hazards you can live without," says McLellan:
Another, more contemporary, risk of lead poisoning comes from scented candles. According to the Environmental Illness Society of Canada, some candle makers are still using lead cores in their wicks, which can result in lead particles being emitted into the air of a home. This is particularly dangerous for infants, small children, and pregnant women.
Children, older adults, and individuals with a chronic illness are particularly susceptible to environmental hazards, says McLellan. If you're a parent, adds Elizabeth Sword, think about your environment from the vantage point of a child. "The more they're exposed when their organ systems are not fully developed, the more risk they have." At the CHEC's web site (www.checnet.org), a "virtual house" tour, a quiz, and "house rules" -- shop smart, ventilate, clean with care, renovate right, keep it out, and clean water -- offer further guidelines for keeping your home as healthy as possible.
Though we may be at higher risk for environmental-related conditions and illnesses than ever before, the good news, says McLellan, is that from a preventive standpoint, much can be done. "If we build, design, and operate our homes in a healthy manner, we can keep a lot of these problems from getting out of hand."
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