©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Household toxins can come from  unlikely sources and cause serious health problems.

A Guide to Household Toxins

You may not see or smell them, but a wide range of toxins may be in your home. Some can cause serious health problems. Read on to learn how to find and eliminate these potential hazards.

Lead

Before World War II, most homes were painted with lead paint. In fact, about 75 percent of all homes built before 1980 have lead-based paint. In 1978, the United States banned lead paint for interior use, but many non-lead paints were then used to cover older walls that still contained traces of lead. Sanding off this bottom coat of paint releases lead dust that is highly toxic.

In addition, many ceramic-glazed and antique dishes contain lead, as do some older painted wooden and metal toys. Older homes may have lead pipes that can seep lead into the family's drinking water. This is especially serious in families with infants when tap water is used to make the formula. Traces of lead may also be in the soil of the yard where children play.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.6 percent of children aged 1 to 5 years had harmful levels of lead in their blood. Children are at greater risk of lead poisoning because they have more hand-to-mouth exposure, have less body mass, and are growing at a faster rate than adults.

Children don't even have to eat dirt or paint chips to be harmed by the lead. Unfortunately, lead dust is absorbed by the body. Minor traces of lead in the body can cause extreme fatigue, headaches, mental confusion, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and vague aches and pains. According to the American Lead Consultants, even low levels of exposure to lead can cause a four- to six-point drop in a child's IQ. But higher amounts of lead poisoning can have even more drastic effects, including damage to the brain, kidneys, and nervous system, especially in young children and fetuses. It also can be fatal.

If you think your house may have lead paint, contact your local health department or your state or county agriculture agency, or call the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD. Although wiping windowsills frequently and vacuuming often can reduce some of the danger of lead dust, experts say it is vital to remove it entirely to prevent the possibility of lead poisoning. In many states, if you are aware of the presence of lead paint in a house you are renting or selling, you are required to disclose that information to potential renters and purchasers.

Radon

In our zeal to build airtight buildings for more efficient heating and cooling since the energy crunch of the 1970s, we've sealed ourselves into boxes where we are prey to a deadly gas known as radon. Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the decay of uranium in rocks, soil, and building materials. This gas may be lurking beneath your home, your office, or your child's school and can creep inside through cracks and seams in the building. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that radon may be the second leading cause of lung cancer, ranking just after cigarette smoking. Radon is responsible for causing anywhere from 7,000 to 30,000 of the 140,000 cases of lung cancer annually in the United States. According to a Swedish study, those at greatest risk of developing lung cancer from radon were smokers living in homes with high radon levels.

Before buying a home or to check levels in your present home, test for radon by using a radon detection kit, called a "charcoal canister," available at most major hardware stores. Start with the basement, as that is closest to the ground and has more potential for seepage. The EPA recommends that all homes below the third floor be tested, as radon tends to dissipate as it moves upward.

For more information about radon, contact your local chapter of the American Lung Association, or visit their Web site at www.lungusa.org. You can also call the EPA's radon hotline at 1-800-767-7236. Ask for "A Citizen's Guide to Radon."

Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been in use since ancient times. It was used as insulation in one quarter of all homes, hospitals, and office buildings built from 1920 to 1970. Self-contained asbestos is safe. As the fibers age, however, they disintegrate, forming a fine dust. This dust from the asbestos fibers can cause serious respiratory problems, including cancer. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of the asbestos dust because of their size. In 1973, the EPA banned the use of asbestos as insulation for schools. Sixteen years later, the ban was extended to forbid the production and sale of asbestos products by 1997.

If you live in an older house or apartment building or work in an older office building, ask your local environmental control agency for an asbestos inspection. If it is discovered, do not try to remove it yourself. Have a reputable and knowledgeable technician remove it.

Formaldehyde

Experts estimate that most of us spend 90 percent of our time inside our homes and offices. Many of these buildings are sealed boxes with windows that either cannot open or are not open due to air conditioning and heating considerations. In essence, we breathe recycled air most of our day.

Formaldehyde is found in insulation, fiberboard, paneling, carpeting, and fabrics and is used in window treatments and upholstery. Although formaldehyde insulation is no longer used in new construction, it may be present in older homes, places of business, or schools.

You probably remember the smell of formaldehyde coming from your frog specimen in high school biology class. It bothered your mucous membranes then, and it can have the same effect in its present uses. Gases from this chemical can also cause dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms. Check with an environmental specialist especially if your surroundings contain a number of synthetic products with formaldehyde as their base.

Water Quality

Although it may be difficult to think of water as a potential hazard, pollution has made this situation a reality. While many travelers worry about the quality of drinking water when they venture abroad, they also need to concern themselves with the safety of drinking water at home. Our drinking water has become polluted by industrial wastes, pesticides, lead, and bacteria.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. To remove most pollutants from your tap water, use a home water-filtering system.

A home water-filtering system can help screen out many of the pollutants in tap water, but not all of them. Bottled water isn't 100 percent safe, either. Today's Food and Drug Administration requirements only specify that bottled water be as safe as water that comes out of the tap.

Don't just worry about drinking water either. Be careful about the water you swim or boat in also. Swimming in polluted water can be dangerous. You can absorb the contaminants through your skin, nose, and eyes, and some water is bound to get swallowed.

Allergens

More than 40 million Americans suffer from some form of allergy. For some, the allergy symptoms may be no more than a runny nose, itching eyes, or a slightly annoying skin rash, but for others, allergies can pose a serious health hazard causing unrelenting vomiting and diarrhea, severe asthma attacks that make it difficult to breathe, or hives and swelling of throat tissues.

In some cases, an allergic reaction can become so severe that the person suffers from anaphylactic shock. Although most of us with allergies will never have to deal with a life-threatening attack, the nuisance and expense of simply run-of-the-mill sniffling and itching is enough to make us take action.

Because a complete cure is not in the offing, the best strategy is to minimize exposure to the offending triggers. Here are some tips on how to reduce your risk from allergens:

  • Avoid carpeting wherever possible; instead, use wood or linoleum.
  • Don't store things under the bed because they collect dust.
  • Omit heavy curtains, draperies, Venetian blinds, and upholstered furniture.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom area; if you don't have a pet, don't get one.
  • Do not use feather pillows; sleep without a pillow or only with the kind your doctor recommends.
  • Vacuum your mattress often because it contains dust mites.
  • Wash blankets and pillows every two weeks in hot water.
  • Encase your mattress, pillow, and box spring in allergen-free plastic coverings.
  • Keep bedrooms uncluttered to cut down on dust accumulation.
  • Remove books from your bedroom because they attract mold spores.
  • Eliminate houseplants and flowers because they drop pollen, and the wet potting soil invites mold.
  • Exercise inside when the outdoor air quality is bad or the pollen count is high.
  • Invest in a vacuum cleaner that holds dust in a cup or airtight bag, rather than the kind that recycles air through a cloth or paper container.
  • Keep windows closed at night.
  • Change your heating and air-conditioning filter monthly to reduce the dust and mold accumulation.
  • Avoid using chemical cleaning agents in aerosol containers because they are easily inhaled. Instead use natural cleaning materials such as baking soda or vinegar.
  • See an environmental physician or allergist for possible allergy shots.
  • If you are severely allergic to shellfish, peanut oil, corn, or other food products, make sure to read the ingredients lists on food labels carefully. Ask about the recipes and ingredients of food items that do not have labels, such as those at a restaurant or other people's homes. Remember that even smelling or touching these foods can produce an allergic reaction in some individuals.
  • Wear a medical ID bracelet if you have a severe allergy to a food or medication.
  • If your child has an allergy, be sure to inform teachers and camp counselors.
  • Watch out for dyes and chemical additives such as sulfites, monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, and nitrites that may trigger allergies.

While you may have not been familiar with the toxins discussed so far, you use other toxic subtances every day. Continue reading to learn what substances can accidentally poison the members of your household.This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.