Most of us consider our homes or apartments safe havens from the outside world. When we think about threats to our health due to environmental factors, most of the first things that come to mind are found outdoors: Insect bites, air pollution, and unsafe drinking water are just a few examples. But the reality is that our homes may not be quite as safe as we’d like to believe — there are a number of safety threats within the home that you should be aware of.
Here are seven threats and how to prevent them in order to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy.
“Black mold can be a lung irritant and can cause significant allergic reactions,” Bram Dolcourt, M.D., Emergency Medicine/Medical Toxicology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, tells SheKnows. Dolcourt says mold loves moisture, so it’s crucial that wet areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, and basements be properly dried and ventilated. Although small areas of mold can be cleaned with bleach solutions, Dolcourt recommends contacting a contractor to address the problem if mold is affecting a larger area.
A lot of us have humidifiers in our homes — but Tania Elliott, MD FAAAAI FACAAI, board-certified allergist, tells SheKnows that this product is “a total no-no when it comes to some of the most common indoor allergens — dust mite and mold.” Elliott explains that having a humidifier can actually make things worse because both dust mites and mold are living organisms that need water to thrive.
“By using a humidifier, you’re creating a perfect feeding ground for these critters,” she says. “The goal is to keep the relative humidity in the home at less than 50 percent. You can check this with a humidity gauge that costs under 10 dollars.”
Andrea McKee, M.D., Lung Cancer Expert Medical Advisory Panel Member and Medical Spokesperson for the American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE, explains that radon is “a naturally occurring radioactive, colorless, odorless gas that exists in many homes.” It isn’t a term we hear very often, which is frightening because radon is the second leading preventable cause of lung cancer in America and the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. McKee tells SheKnows that there are an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year attributable to radon exposure.
“To protect yourself and your family from radon exposure, test your home,” McKee advises. You can find inexpensive radon testing kits online or at your local hardware store, and testing can also be done by a certified radon-testing professional. “If levels are found high, a radon mitigation system can be installed in the home for about the same price of a large television screen and thereby decrease the risk to normal exposure levels,” McKee says.
“Commonly available pesticides are generally safe to humans in small, skin exposures,” Dolcourt tells SheKnows. “However they are associated with skin irritation and may cause significant allergic reactions.” For example, causes of severe shortness of breath have been linked to exposure to common insecticides. In rare cases, insecticides can cause tremors and seizures.
“Proper personal protective equipment must be used and care must be taken to spray or apply the products as directed by the instructions,” Dolcourt says.
Dolcourt explains that drain cleaners come in two types: Acid-based and alkaline based. “Acid-based products contain strong acids that can cause severe skin and eye burns if not handled properly. Accidental ingestion can cause burns to the mouth, esophagus and stomach,” he says. “These burns can be quite severe and may require surgery.”
Dolcourt notes that popular online videos have shown “bombs” made from these products that may make them look safer than they are. In reality, they must be kept out of the hands of children, and adults need to be vigilant about using them only as directed and with appropriate personal protective equipment.
Small disc batteries are very powerful and easily swallowed by children. “Even dead batteries can still have enough power left in them to cause injury,” Dolcourt tells SheKnows. “Swallowed batteries can cause significant burns to the esophagus and stomach.”
In order to prevent this threat, make sure that batteries are properly stored and that dead batteries are properly disposed of as they can still pose a threat.
If you live in an older home, Snehal Smart, MD, a doctor at Pleural Mesothelioma Center, emphasizes the importance of being aware of the threat posed by asbestos. “While having asbestos in your home is something to monitor, the danger arises when asbestos is disturbed, which typically occurs during a home renovation or DIY project, or as a result of wear-and-tear,” Smart explains. “When this happens, millions of microscopic fibers are released into the air, which can be inhaled or ingested by those in the home.”
To prevent exposing yourself and your family to asbestos, Smart advises that anyone who owns an older home take extra precaution before beginning any home repairs or renovations. Even if a project seems minor, she says it’s always best to hire a professional if there’s a possibility that asbestos could be present. Asbestos abatement companies can test for asbestos and remove any if the results come back positive.
A version of this story was published May 2019.
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