Most people spend more than 50 percent of their time indoors -- children, some 90 percent -- so it is important to pay attention to the quality of the air in your home. And that means more than installing a few carbon monoxide detectors or testing for radon.
Mold can cause severe health problems, for example. Ditto for lead, a tainted water supply or hazardous household products. And since government at the state and federal levels can only legislate so much, it is up to homeowners to take whatever action is necessary to protect their families.
Indoor air pollutants come not only from what people have in their homes but also what they do there. It is well established, for example, that smoking can cause breathing problems. But so can furry pets and home projects that involve sanding, welding, painting or solvent chemicals like varnish and paint strippers.
Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to find out the causes of poor indoor air quality and what to do about them.
-- Mold, sometimes known as mildew, grows where there are wet or damp surfaces. You can spot it easily when it grows out in the open, but often it is hidden behind walls or under the carpet. Either way, the telltale signs are the same: musty smells, watery eyes, runny noses, sneezing, itching, wheezing, headaches and fatigue.
To protect against mold, be sure your gutters are clean and not leaking, and that downspouts direct rainwater away from the house. Your yard should slope away from the building.
Repair leaking roofs, walls, doors and windows right away. Water is insidious, and can cause problems if left to stand. If your carpet remains wet for more than a couple of days, for example, it is best to toss it. It's also wise not to leave water standing in refrigerator drip pans.
Additionally, make sure the humidity in your home is not too high. If the moisture content in the air is more than 50 percent, turn off your humidifier and move your jungle of houseplants outside. Always make sure to run your bathroom fan when bathing or showering, and run your kitchen exhaust fan when cooking.
-- Unlike mold, you can't see, smell or feel carbon monoxide (CO), a deadly gas that can make you sick or even kill you. Signs of low-level CO poisoning include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sleepiness, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. Many people confuse it with the flu.
To protect your house and family, install carbon monoxide alarms near each sleeping area and on each floor. But to make sure they never go off, never use the kitchen stove or oven to heat your house, and call a repair service if the flame on your range's gas burners is orange or yellow.
Also, don't use charcoal grills or run car engines inside your house, garage or basement -- even for a short time. They produce so much CO that even opening the windows and doors will not give you enough fresh air. In the same vein, never warm a vehicle while it sits inside the garage, even with the garage doors open. Start lawnmowers, snowblowers and other yard equipment outside, never inside.
At least once a year, hire a heating contractor to check your furnace, vents and other sources of carbon monoxide. Make sure your fireplace chimney is clean and in working order with an annual checkup.
-- Lead poisoning poses a serious health risk for children. Lead is not used as much in paint, pipes and other materials as it once was -- indeed, lead paint was banned in 1978 -- so houses built prior to 1950 are the most problematic.
If you are planning to remodel your older home, or have just finished a renovation, beware of dust or paint chips. Otherwise, look for cracking, chipping or flaking paint, or doors or window frames where paint is being rubbed away.
Also check for lead pipes, which are a dull gray in color and scratch easily with a key or penny, or pipes which are joined with lead solder. Water that flows through them can contain lead.
Your state or local health department can tell you how to check for lead at little or no cost, and most hardware stores carry low-cost lead testing kits. But if you find lead, don't try to remove it yourself. Getting rid of lead in the wrong way can make the problem worse, so find a certified contractor for the job.
-- Public drinking water is safe, but if you have a well or other private water supply, it's up to you to protect yourself. And since you can't see, smell or taste potentially dangerous microbes, you should have your H2O tested about every two years for bacteria, nitrates and perhaps pesticides at a laboratory.
You should also take care of your well. Have it checked by a professional if it is more than 20 years old. Make sure there are no gaps between the well casting and the material or ground around it.
-- When it comes to hazardous household products, buy only what you need, and read and follow the directions. Properly dispose of what you don't use, or give the leftovers to someone who can use it. Never burn or dump leftover containers.
Most of the information for the above comes from the Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (www.nifa.usda.gov). Other good sources include the Office of Healthy Homes within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (www.hud.gov/healthyhomes), the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov/iaq) and Healthy Indoor Air for American Homes (www.healthyindoorair.org).