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Could our homes actually be making us ill?

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By Ruth MacEachern

Product Manager

Jun 21, 2019

Most of us devote a great deal of time and energy to making sure that our homes are safe and clean. You naturally want to feel that your house is a safe place, a place where you can control your environment to be sure that everything is hygienic and risk-free. If your pet leaves you a present on the carpet, you naturally take steps to not only remove it but also clean and disinfect any surfaces it has touched. If you find some loose wiring, you get it fixed as quickly as possible. But if you’ve never given any thought to ventilation, it may be that all the time, serious health risks have been escaping your attention.

Because they’re invisible (and often odour-free), airborne particles and toxic gases can undo all the good work you’ve put into keeping yourself and your family healthy. We’re all familiar with the increased risk of lung cancer associated with smoking, but many Britons don’t realise that their homes contain two other airborne contributors to lung cancer: the tasteless, smell-less Radon gas, and ordinary traffic fumes. In heavily-polluted urban areas, exposure to traffic fumes may present the cancer-risk equivalent of smoking a packet of cigarettes a day, while as much as 14% of lung cancers in the UK may be caused by Radon gas, according to Public Health England. These two risk factors are present throughout the country, but there are many more dangerous fumes and gases specific to particular regions. If you live in a rural area, you may not be particularly exposed to traffic fumes, but the chances are that you are exposed to pesticides, some of which are highly toxic but have no telltale odour.

These are just the hazards which come in through the window (or, in the case of Radon, up from the ground). Most of us also pollute the air in our homes with the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in everyday products.

As well as pollutants, the air in an ordinary family home is typically full of allergens—natural chemicals that may be harmless in small quantities, but become dangerous if they are allowed to build up, or if someone in the house already suffers from an allergy. These allergens include pollen, pet dander, dust mites and the spores of mould and fungi. 

For a truly safe and hygienic home, a whole-house ventilation system is essential. Effective ventilation can tackle all the health risks posed by poor quality air, from Radon gas build-up to the effects of excess condensation.

Radon gas

Radon is a naturally-occurring gas. It’s produced by the decay of uranium, a mineral found in all rocks and soil. This means it can build up in any part of a building which is close to or embedded in the soil and isn’t properly ventilated. Radon typically enters homes through cracks, especially where floors meet walls, gaps left around ducting or electrical cables, drains and sumps. It commonly builds up in cellars and basements.

It’s also radioactive. Like any radioactive chemical, it can damage human DNA and cause cancer. Radon is particularly hazardous because it is a gas: we breathe it in, and it can damage the cells lining the lungs. After smoking, radon exposure is the second biggest cause of lung cancer in the UK, responsible for between 3 and 14% of all lung cancers. 

Although low concentrations of radon constitute less of a risk than higher concentrations, there is no amount of radon which carries no risk whatsoever. That said, a radon level of up to 15Bq/m3 (becquerels per cubic metre of air) can be said to be safe, simply because this level of radon gas is typical in outdoor air. A 100Bq/m3 increase in radon concentration increases the risk of lung cancer by 16%. In residential buildings, offices and schools in the UK, the average level of radon is 20Bq/m3, but levels as high as 10,000Bq/m3 have been measured. Most people encounter their greatest radon exposure in the home. 

Concentrations vary depending on a range of factors, including the amount of uranium in the soil underlying the property, the avenues available for gas to travel into the home, and above all the ventilation system in place in the property. No measure is more effective against the build-up of radon than proper ventilation. In many European countries and states of the USA, anti-radon provisions are now required in all new-build properties. However, many UK homes were built before the discovery of radon’s effects (the link with lung cancer was first noticed in deep miners), and are not constructed to avoid radon build-up.

Any UK home could potentially have a problem with Radon build up. The only way to know is to conduct a Radon test. EnviroVent can help you test your home and, if necessary, consider ventilation options.

Volatile Organic Compounds—VOCs

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals found in a wide range of domestic produces. Ironically enough, one of the most common sources of VOCs in household air is cleaning products and aerosol air-fresheners. Another widespread contributor to household VOC-levels is new furniture, which is typically treated with a formaldehyde-based fire retardant.

VOCs are classified as harmful pollutants. Inhaling formaldehyde irritates the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, which can uncomfortable or even debilitating. VOCs can also irritate the eyes, and even the skin of people sensitive to them, causing a persistent and unpleasant rash. Since some VOCs have only recently been introduced to the market, long-term effects of some of these chemicals are still unknown.

Unless you have adequate ventilation in place, the chances are that your home has a background build-up of VOCs. Arrange for a survey to ensure that you are not endangering your body with these hazardous chemicals.  

Allergens and mould

Natural chemicals, too, can build up in your home and cause health problems. If you have pets, a build-up of dander and other particles can provoke an allergic reaction in people sensitive to it, as can a build-up of pollen (especially if you live in a rural area). Dust mites also accumulate naturally in an insufficiently ventilated home. Dust mites are a leading cause of asthma and can cause the onset of the condition in children.

In an inadequately ventilated home, the build-up of condensation in the air is nearly unavoidable. Moisture can enter the air of your house from outside (thanks to the British climate) or from inside, as you go about ordinary activities like cooking, cleaning and laundry. Excess condensation is not especially harmful in its own right (although it makes you more likely to catch a chill), but it creates ideal conditions for the development of black mould. The spores of black mould have been found to cause a range of respiratory problems, including asthma, especially in young children. Wherever condensation build-up is an issue, black mould is likely to result, and you may not spot it—if it forms in an out-of-the-way area such as under a sink—until it has begun to release its harmful spores.

Protect your health with a ventilation system

The good news is that all of these health risks can be tackled with a single solution: whole-house ventilation. A mechanical whole-house ventilation system tackles airborne health risks in a minimum of three ways. First, mechanical ventilation ensures that the air pumped into your home is filtered and free of pollutants and allergens from the outside air, including traffic fumes, industrial chemicals and pollen. 

Second, mechanical ventilation removes the airborne toxins which build up inside your house—and in doing this, a mechanical system is far more effective than opening your windows. Draughts might move air, but usually only as far as the next room. Mechanical ventilation ensures real airflow from the interior to the exterior of your home. 

Third, mechanical whole-house ventilation is continuously active, meaning that the health of your lungs isn’t dependent on having good enough weather to open the windows, plus a bit of a breeze.

If you opt for mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR), you can also enjoy the health benefits of a stable interior climate (not to mention the savings in energy and energy costs).

Click here to arrange a full Home Health check. We will assess your home for the full range of risk factors: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), Humidity, Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Formaldehyde and Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOC).