Your Toxic Home: Prevent mold and dust from taking up residence with your family

Has it ever occurred to you that the very home you regard as a sanctuary could also be harboring stealthy toxic threats? As long as mold and dust exist in the world, it really should, as these irritants can wreak havoc with your family’s health and ultimately do damage to the structure of a home.
Air quality expert Jeff May has performed scores of indoor investigations over the years and solved many a

Has it ever occurred to you that the very home you regard as a sanctuary could also be harboring stealthy toxic threats? As long as mold and dust exist in the world, it really should, as these irritants can wreak havoc with your family’s health and ultimately do damage to the structure of a home.

Air quality expert Jeff May has performed scores of indoor investigations over the years and solved many a mold mystery along the way. His crusade against misinformation and health threats to homeowners has led to four informative books including My House Is Killing Me, My Office is Killing Me, Mold Survival Guide, and, due out this June, Jeff May’s Healthy Home Tips.

“We often hear that mold is everywhere, and that gives people the impression that it’s okay to have mold and you can’t prevent it, and nothing could be further from the truth,” says May. “There may be areas so humid that it’s more difficult to control growth, but in most of the country, mold is not growing everywhere. There are definitely spores in the air, but that’s not the same thing as mold growth─a very, very important distinction to make. The same can be said about dust mites. Mold growth and dust mites can be controlled…it’s pretty straightforward.”

Don’t let mold take hold Indoors and out, mold spores’ ideal landing pad is one with moisture, air and organic matter to serve as food. This combination of conditions can be found everywhere from furnishings stored in damp conditions to cardboard boxes that come in contact with subterranean concrete floors or wood shelves. However, according to May, one of the biggest and most often overlooked havens for mold is the air conditioner, whether a humble portable or mighty central air setup.

“The irony is that you’re told to put in air conditioning for asthma and allergy problems, and in one way it’s helpful, but in another way it can be detrimental,” says May. “An air conditioning coil and everything around it is damp while the machine is running, so unless the surfaces are absolutely 100 percent clean, mold is going to grow. It’s almost inevitable that if somebody has an air conditioning system or a portable air conditioner and they don’t use adequate filtration, they’re going to get mold. So the single most important thing for all air conditioning is to use a decent filter.”

That means a pleated filter with a MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating of at least 8, or 11 if your family is prone to allergies. May also notes that in the case of a window AC unit, the filter it’s shipped with usually has a MERV rating far lower than 8, so an immediate filter upgrade is in order.

Basements are the other major household mold zones, and call for careful humidity control. Keep the humidity level below 50 percent, and to further combat mold attraction, keep finished below-grade spaces heated to at least 60 degrees around the clock. Also make sure that the grading and drainage patterns outside your home aren’t ushering in potential moisture and mold problems, and that ventilation is vigorous and properly directed outside.

Bust the dust

Serving as an irritant on its own and an enthusiastic host for mold spores, dust is also a toxic force to be reckoned with. Where pet dander and dust bunnies go, dust mites have already followed, and they especially love to dwell in carpeting, furnishings, bedding, radiators, air conditioners and─as many of us easily forget─behind and under refrigerators.

“Dust is the devil ─ you’ve got to get rid of all the dust!” warns May. For those tight, tricky, dust-attracting spaces around refrigerators and elsewhere, May recommends adding a specially designed 36-inch crevice tool to your vacuum attachment arsenal. And speaking of your vacuum, you’ll get closest to a dust-free existence if it employs a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter and debris collection via a disposable bag.

“People with allergies or asthma should not use a vacuum that doesn’t have a bag, because when you dump that accumulated dust out, you just create clouds of it all over again. It’s basically negating the whole job,” notes May.

Conscientious, consistent cleaning is basic to banning dust, but also take a turn around your home to track down and block other entrances for this irritant. Air leaks around and through doors and windows, unsealed ducts, and dirty air filters are all likely sources. Finally, ensure that any indoor DIY projects do more good than harm by sealing off work areas, rolling carpet protection film out over fiber-based surfaces, and cleaning up thoroughly after every work session.

More Toxic Troublemakers

Besides mold and dust, there are other toxic troublemakers that can cause problems in your home. Here’s a short list and what to do about them:

Lead Paint: If your house was built before 1978, there is a 75% chance that it contains lead paint. Undisturbed lead paint is harmless, but dust or paint chips created during paint prep or other remodeling projects post health hazards, especially to young children. For more information on lead-paint safety, log on to National Safety Council’s web site at

Water Woes: If your tap water smells like rotten eggs and tastes a little funny, is it unhealthy? Probably not. You can’t really tell about water quality from its look, smell or even taste. It’s the “silent” contaminants, the ones that don’t trigger your senses, that you need to worry about: lead from pipes in old houses; arsenic that naturally occurs in the earth; or microorganisms, pesticides and fertilizers that wash away from farms and lawns into storm drains and wind up in our drinking water supplies. All of these have been linked to serious illnesses.

Experts agree that the U.S. has one of the safest drinking waters supplies in the world, but that is no guarantee. For the best assurance of safety, you should periodically test your water through an independent, certified lab. Labs offer a variety of testing packages (lead, minerals, volatile organic chemicals, radon, bacteria, pesticides) at a range of prices ($30-$250). There are also home test kits for various contaminants. To find a lab, check your local yellow pages, get suggestions from your health department, call EPA's Drinking Water Hotline (1-800-426-4791), or visit

Asbestos: In one form or another, asbestos has been used in home construction for almost 100 years. If your home is more than 30 years old or so, you could be at risk. The two most common forms are cement asbestos, used in siding, and asbestos insulation, used to insulate heating pipes.

The risk of asbestos exposure is based on how friable it is (how easily it gets deteriorated). If the asbestos can be easily released to the air, then there is a substantial risk of exposure. This would be the case, for example, with heating pipe insulation made of asbestos. On the other hand, the risk of exposure from cement asbestos (such as siding), in which the asbestos is contained with in a binder, is very low. If you suspect you have asbestos in your home, it is best to get it tested by an independent lab to confirm it’s asbestos content. If the presence of asbestos is confirmed and the material is friable, then removal by a trained professional is recommended. Under no circumstances should you try and remove asbestos yourself. Doing so could easily contaminate the entire home.

Radon Gas: Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that occurs naturally when uranium in the soil breaks down. If inhaled, radon can cause damage to your lung tissues and can lead to lung cancer. It typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. The radon then becomes trapped inside your home, where it could build up to dangerous levels. Radon has been found in every state, in brand new homes and old homes, as well as homes with and without a basement. There are ways to test for radon in your home and, if necessary, reduce radon levels. The best source for radon information and remediation is

Note: Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. To find a local radio station, download the show’s podcast or sign-up for Tom’s free weekly e-newsletter, visit the program’s website.

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