This article appears in Summer Home & Garden magazine 2020.
Not all Americans are lucky enough to live in a healthy home. Poor indoor air and water quality, pests and chemicals top the list of everyday environmental worries.
About 30% of U.S. households expressed concerns about some aspect of their home endangering their health, according to new research about consumer trends and home contractor preparedness from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and The Farnsworth Group, a market research firm.
“Homeowners are more knowledgeable, especially younger homeowners with children,” said Grant Farnsworth, director of business development for The Farnsworth Group. They are looking for ways to limit how their home impacts their health, he said.
Traditionally, “home health” referred to clean air and clean water, but now includes chemical dangers and safety risks.
“We’re expanding the definition of what a healthy home means to include not only health but well-being — healthy mind, body and spirit,” Farnsworth said.
Americans spend as much as 90% of their time indoors, where the air can contain two to five times higher concentrations of pollutants than outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Homes that are tightly sealed keep children and adults breathing the same stale air, which can cause physical health issues ranging from itchy eyes and allergies to troubled sleep and asthma, said Matt Power, editor in chief of Green Builder magazine.
Opening windows and skylights to create airflow inside is a small but mighty action to increase your home’s health.
“Many people don’t think about the air inside their homes, but it can become polluted from the buildup of chemicals and toxins that come from things like paint, carpet, furniture upholstery and plastic toys, and from human activities like cleaning, cooking and drying clothes,” said Peter Foldbjerg, senior manager of daylight, energy and indoor climate at the Velux Group, a company that specializes in windows and skylights. “With this in mind, opening windows and skylights several times on a daily basis can help refresh the air inside your home.”
To create airflow in a single-story home, open windows on both sides of the house. In a two-story home, open a window on the ground floor and one on the second floor to take advantage of the chimney effect: Warm air naturally rises and escapes through the upper window, replaced by cooler air from outside. If your home has skylights that open, the same effect can be achieved by opening a window and a skylight together, Foldbjerg said.
Poor ventilation is often amplified by behaviors such as cooking without using a range hood for ventilation, Power said. Cooking a roast can release enough pollutants from gas flames, oils and fat into a home’s air to equal the air in a polluted city for about an hour or two, according to a study from the University of Colorado.
To get stale air out and bring fresh air in, install a heat recovery ventilator (in cold climates) or an energy recovery ventilator (in warmer climates), Power said.
Inadequate bathroom venting can lead to steep increases in humidity and the rapid growth of mold spores and dust mites, which when combined with summer heat can trigger allergies and other poor health impacts, Power said.
“Consider a bathroom remodel if yours is old and compromised,” said Oren Farkash, owner and founder of South Land Remodeling in Los Angeles. “During the remodel, install ceiling vents and a window, if possible, to provide better air flow and moisture prevention.
“Having water and/or moisture in the wrong places can cause mold, which is extremely unhealthy — even deadly,” Farkash said. “Take the proper measures to avoid water getting into any walls, flooring and other unventilated areas. Also, make sure your roof isn’t leaking or too old. A good roof is key to helping avoid water damage and mold growth. If it is leaking, hire a pro to fix the spot or replace the roof, whichever best fixes the issue.”
Prices coming down
Driven by homeowner demand for healthier alternatives manufacturers are responding with new products, Farnsworth said.
Whole-home smart systems from companies like Broan-Nutone and Panasonic can collect and monitor indoor air, then take action to reduce the level of contaminants. If the system senses cooking smoke in the kitchen or painting fumes in the basement, it reacts by venting out bad air and circulating in fresh air, he said.
Financially, energy efficient projects and smart technologies “are getting more within reach as they become the norm,” Farnsworth said. If you’re interested in improving your home’s health, do your research and hire a contractor or builder who is knowledgeable and focused on home health and well-being, he said.
“COVID-19 only added fuel to the fire. People are now more aware than ever of home health-related projects and their benefits,” Farnsworth said.