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Have you had a lingering cough, headache, nausea or feel fatigued way too frequently? It may not be a cold or a virus it could be your house making you sick. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks poor indoor air quality among the top five environmental risks to public health.

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Have you had a lingering cough, headache, nausea or feel fatigued way too frequently? It may not be a cold or a virus it could be your house making you sick.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks poor indoor air quality among the top five environmental risks to public health. Air pollution levels inside a home can be two to five times higher (and occasionally 100 times higher) than outside. And Americans spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors.

The California Environmental Protection Agency says sources of indoor air pollution include formaldehyde glue in older pressed-wood products (newly manufactured pressed-wood products have dealt with this problem), aerosol sprays, solvents, cleaning agents, moth balls, unvented or malfunctioning gas appliances, cigarettes, and wood stoves.

Those who react adversely to air pollutants may have headaches, nausea, asthma-like symptoms, irritation to the respiratory system or skin, fatigue, and dizziness. The California EPA says long-term exposure can lead to cancer, as well as heart and respiratory disease.

Too-Tight Homes

Each winter many Americans aggressively caulk, seal and insulate to make their homes more energy efficient and reduce their heating bills. But the American Lung Association says making your home too airtight without air-to-air exchangers or some other apparatus to control indoor air quality is unhealthy" particles and allergens are trapped with no way to escape.

The considerable health risks associated with common household pollutants and allergens may have been overlooked in the past by the general public, says Neil Schachter, M.D., professor of pulmonary medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and past president of the American Lung Association of the City of New York. Making homes airtight and energy efficient may increase health risks -- especially for young children, the elderly and the estimated 42 million Americans who suffer from asthma and hay fever symptoms.

The ALA says the newer your home, the more you are at risk for health problems stemming from poor indoor air quality. Many new homes are built airtight, with the result that indoor humidity rises and molds grow. In addition, allergens, dust particles and pet dander become trapped.

Clifford W. Bassett, a medical doctor writing for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, agrees, saying tight homes can be especially hazardous to kids.

Energy-efficient homes may also be responsible for increased sensitization in children to a variety of different indoor allergens, such as mold spores, animal dander, cockroaches and house dust mites, as well as exposure to passive cigarette smoking and household chemicals, he says.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide has no odor or color. But it can be deadly.

In Moss Point, Miss., a family of five came close to death last November. A faulty heating system emitted carbon monoxide, sending all five to the hospital.

I got up at 5:03 a.m., getting ready to go to work, homeowner Willie Smith told The Mississippi Press. I went to the bathroom and I felt real, real dizzy. Everything just turned yellow. I put some cold water on my face.

His wife passed out on the floor. He and one of his three daughters had problems awakening his oldest daughter, 14. The family was ultimately taken to the hospital, surviving the ordeal.

But there are many who don't. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that carbon-monoxide poisoning from heating systems and water heaters kills about 160 Americans each year.

Carbon monoxide can be produced by burning any fuel. Initial symptoms are flu-like headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness.

Having a professional inspection of your fuel-burning heating appliances is the first line of defense against the silent killer, carbon-monoxide poisoning, said CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton.

The Worst Offenders

The Mayo Clinic says that in addition to carbon monoxide, the most dangerous pollutants of indoor air include tobacco smoke and radon.

If you don't smoke, but live with someone who does, you have a 30 percent higher risk of lung cancer than someone in a smoke-free home. Smokers should take their habit outdoors. The Mayo Clinic says air-filtering devices help, but they don't remove the smoke's gases.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas derived from the radioactive decay of uranium found in rocks and soil. It can't be seen or smelled, but radon can seep into your home through basement cracks, sewer openings and joints between walls and floors. Once radon breaks down, it clings to dust and smoke, ultimately harming lung cells if breathed in. If exposed long enough to high enough levels, lung cancer can result.

The EPA says radon causes anywhere from 7,000 to 30,000 deaths a year. About 7 percent of the homes in the United States have worrisome levels of radon. A radon test kit, available at hardware stores, will tell you whether radon lurks in your house.

Homeowners who find high levels should call the U.S. EPA radon hotline (800-767-7236) or contact the air-quality division of their state health department.

If you're remodeling and have new carpet in mind, the ALA says you should be aware that the flooring is often laden with chemical emissions. Some people report eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; skin irritations; shortness of breath; coughing; and fatigue. Carpet also becomes home to pesticides, dust mites and fungi.

The CPSC, which has received more than 500 complaints since 1988, continues to investigate the relationship between new carpet installation and health problems.

The complaints led the CPSC to study what chemicals come from carpet and whether those chemicals could cause the health problems that consumers reported. The CPSC collected carpet samples directly from the production line. Laboratory work was performed to determine the types and quantities of chemicals released from carpet cushions used under the carpet.

The CPSC says studies are inconclusive, but offers the following tips for installing new carpet:

Ask about the carpet industry's voluntary green label program for new carpet. The label tells consumers that the carpet type has been tested and passed emissions criteria. The label, however, is not a guarantee that the carpet will not cause health problems. A toll-free phone number is available on the label for updated information on the industry's program.

Ask the installer to unroll and air-out the carpet in a well-ventilated area.

Open doors and windows.

Leave the house during the installation. Try to stay out until several hours after the job is complete.

Other Culprits

The Mayo Clinic also cautions that cleaning products can release toxic fumes. Experts there say to never mix chemical products, always follow instructions. Make sure the area in which the product is used is well-ventilated.

Painting inside can also produce irritating fumes. The Mayo Clinic recommends opening up your house and running exhaust fans for the first few days after you paint.

Lead-based paint was used in homes until 1978, when the CPSC restricted its use in residential dwellings. It can be found both inside and outside the home on windows, doors, walls and other building components. When intact, the paint does not pose a danger. However, as it deteriorates, or when it is disturbed during common renovation and painting activities, it creates lead dust hazards that can contaminate a home. People can swallow this dust through ordinary hand-to-mouth actions like eating and playing. This exposure can trigger serious health problems. In children, lead damages the brain and nervous system at a critical developmental phase. Children who are exposed to lead often have behavioral and cognitive problems and have difficulty in school. Adults may suffer high blood pressure, damage to kidneys and other ill effects.

For more information about lead in paint, visit

Another chemical to heed caution with is formaldehyde, formerly used in pressed-wood products and still in use in some glues, adhesives, paint and coating products. In addition to building materials, it is also a potential by-product of unvented, fuel-burning appliances.

Exposure to the chemical can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; coughing; skin rashes; headaches; dizziness; nausea; vomiting; and nosebleeds.

The U.S. EPA says formaldehyde is probably a carcinogen, but says the lifetime cancer risk for someone exposed to the chemical in their home is less than one chance in a million.

The ALA says if you or a family member has a reaction, you may want to remove existing pressed-wood products from your home. The group also says to maintain moderate temperature and humidity levels and make sure there is plenty of ventilation formaldehyde release is accelerated by heat. n

Michele Dawson is a freelance writer based in Elk Grove, Calif.

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