Most Canadians are aware of the health risks posed by chemical toxins in the workplace. However, many of us may not know of the risks posed by long-term exposure to chemicals in the place where we spend most of our time: our homes.
In the vast majority of cases, the best way to reduce levels of chemical contaminants is to prevent them from entering your environment in the first place. To keep your house as chemical-free as possible, thoroughly screen all substances you bring into your home and carefully select building materials if you’re building or renovating.
To identify potential sources of toxins, take an inventory of the products and materials that you use and avoid or minimize those known to give off chemical emissions (also called off-gassing). Unfortunately, only a few products-such as glass, ceramic tile, metal, stone, and other hard, inert materials-do not release emissions. To find out what other products may emit chemicals, look at literature or websites that provide reliable information about specific products or consult with qualified experts who are trained to understand the materials you’re using.
The most common sources of off-gassing are the chemicals used to clean around the home, including solutions, floor wax, stain removers, air fresheners, scented soaps and detergents, fragrant fabric softeners, and personal cosmetics. Using these substances can result in continuous exposure to chemicals, so if you or your family experiences any adverse reactions, switch to unscented or non-toxic cleaners.
Another source of chemical emissions are products that you use frequently and in large quantities, such as building materials. In general, substances such as paint, varnish, and glue will release emissions at the beginning and decline over time to low or non-detectable levels. Materials that are subject to high temperatures (such as a carpet laid over a heated floor) or high moisture levels (like particleboard furniture kept in a humid spot) can also be significant sources of chemical emissions.
Unless you have an impaired sense of smell, you can often use your nose as a guide. But remember that while an odour can indicate the presence of emissions, the absence of odour doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility of chemical contaminants. The concentration of the chemical contaminants may simply be lower than what you can detect or they may have no discernable odour, such as with carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and radon.
Occasionally, poor indoor air quality comes from unexpected sources. For example, strong, unpleasant odours have been traced to overheated plastic sockets in light bulbs receptacles, so never use a higher wattage bulb than recommended and note that some light fixtures may require a ceramic socket.
To reduce kitchen odours, take proper care of your garbage or compost container, including rinsing any meat packaging before tossing it into the trash and keeping perishables in the freezer until garbage day. Always turn on the range hood while cooking. In the bathroom, use the exhaust fan to remove moisture and residual odours.
If you notice that the air quality in your home deteriorates suddenly, examine any items you’ve brought into the house recently. If you think you’ve identified the culprit, isolate the item in another room or encapsulate it temporarily with polyethylene. Then note whether removing the item helped clear the air.
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