Allergies are among life’s more aggravating burdens. For many people, things like pollen cause their nose to run, their eyes to water, fits of sneezing and other nasty little reactions. However, millions of people also suffer from a more severe affliction: allergic asthma. Allergic asthma can be triggered by common household allergens such as mold, pet dander and dust mites. By breathing in these allergens, it can cause someone with allergic asthma to wheeze, cough, have shortness of breath—and even send someone to the emergency room. These ill effects can drastically impact the day-to-day lives of those afflicted with the condition. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), nearly half of the American population has asthma in their household or immediate family, while another 29 percent know someone with the disease. Currently, the AAFA is campaigning to educate Americans with allergic asthma on how to eradicate allergens and help to improve the overall health-related conditions in their homes.
Extreme How-To recently spoke with Andrew Dan-Jumbo, spokesman for the AAFA campaign, about steps homeowners can take to minimize these allergic triggers. Dan-Jumbo, home-improvement expert on TLC’s “While You Were Out” television show, offers some smart suggestions on how to make homes more healthy, while also adding value to the house.
Tiny Sources of Trouble
According to Dan-Jumbo, allergens can hide in unexpected places like nooks and crannies, stuffed animals or on the family pet. Pet dander (small flakes from the skin and coats), cockroaches, rodents and even pollen can trigger an allergic asthma attack in people living with the condition. One of the keys to fighting these triggers is cleanliness.
“You really have to be quite vigilant and maintain a level of cleanliness in the home if you do suffer from allergic asthma, because the consequences can be quite grave,” says Dan-Jumbo. “So we really encourage people to be clear on what triggers allergic reactions—things such as mold and dust mites.”
In fact, the AAFA suggests washing sheets once a week in 130-degree hot water to kill dust mites and their eggs. Other tips include using special mite-proof mattress and pillow covers, never allowing pets on the bed, and washing pillows and pet beds once a month.
“Homeowners also need to keep an eye on the collection of moisture and dampness in the home,” says Dan-Jumbo. “Keep the living space dry and clean, and use bleach to kill off mold. Homeowners should be very consistent with this.”
Window sills and door jambs are likely places to find mold. And ordinary house dust is actually made up of a collection of all types of allergens. The bottom line: The cleaner your house is, the less allergens you’ll have floating around.
A Healthy House
With so many areas of the house playing host to allergens, there’s a lot of cleaning to do. However, certain design features of a house help to combat these allergens, and help cut down on all this routine maintenance that keeps the house clean and healthy.
“The floor is one place to look,” says Dan-Jumbo. “It turns out that wall-to-wall carpeting is a huge source of allergens. For people living with allergic asthma, it would be advantageous to design a house that can make use of hardwood flooring, ceramic tile or natural stone. Using these flooring materials instead of carpet eliminates a huge surface area that can collect dust mites and pet dander.
“I would also include a ventilation system that allows you to remove moisture, such as high-quality exhaust fans with high CFM (cubic feet per minute), especially in the bathroom and kitchen. These fans should also create very little noise, so you don’t hesitate to use them. The moist air needs to be exhausted out of the house rather than re-circulated. Consider these ventilation systems when you wire your house. For instance, timers are always a good idea. It’s nice to have a fan operated by a timer that turns on after you’ve left the room, operates for a certain amount of time and then automatically shuts off.
“Ventilation systems are very important, especially in today’s homes, which are sealed so well from the outside,” notes Dan-Jumbo. “Rather than open a window, which can invite seasonal allergens into the house, such as pollen, a good ventilation system would be helpful for someone suffering from allergic asthma. Some of the more modern, up-to-date systems have a filtration process that scrubs out the air particulates. Some of the very latest systems use other processes as well to actually kill off the allergens before they get passed around the air-duct system. I’m a big fan of the high-pressure heating and ventilation systems that run the air through narrow diameter PVC pipe. These are 2- to 3-inch diameter pipes that you can feed through interior wall cavities. These PVC pipes inherently stay a lot cleaner as opposed to the old-fashioned galvanized duct work seen in most homes. Those old ducts get very dirty and dusty over time, and you have to bring a company in to have them cleaned. But the new systems, because they’re made of plastic and because of the high-pressure air movement, stay much cleaner.”
He notes that any excessive moisture in the air can also lead to problems. “I have an old house that was built in 1912 and has heavy cast-iron radiators,” says Dan-Jumbo. “I love those things, because once they get going, they give off heat long after the boiler and pump have shut down. But, they dry the air out quite a bit, so I started using a humidifier. And it turns out that the humidifier had been causing a problem in the house. I had it set too high—in excess of 50-percent humidity. This was leading to the growth of mold spores. That’s another issue—some homes have whole-house humidifiers and you’ve got to make sure you don’t set them too high. Keep it under 50 percent, and keep those things clean.”
“Basements are also a huge issue, as far as moisture penetration,” says Dan Jumbo. “Inspect your basement thoroughly if there are signs of a leak and determine where the water is getting in. There are a lot of polyurethane and silicone-based caulks you can use for cracks in the wall. Dry the basement out as much as you can. And install drain tile. There are also ways to release hydrostatic pressure outside the basement wall and beneath the basement floor to lessen the force of the water that’s trying to get inside. You don’t want to deal with a damp, moist basement, because it’s a perfect breeding ground for mold. And if your house does have a whole-house, forced-air system and the furnace is in the basement, then the system will ingest the air that’s in the basement and pump it throughout the house.”
And, don’t forget to look up. “The attic is a critical part of the house. Keep an eye on the roof to make sure it is water-tight,” suggests Dan-Jumbo. “A lot of homes don’t have sufficient insulation in the attic, so the heat gets inside from the house. Especially in northern climates, this can cause freeze/thaw cycles and lead to ice damming, where the ice comes back up beneath the roof shingles and gets into the attic space. Then you’ve got moisture amongst your insulation, which can lead to mold problems. Whatever type of insulation you choose, you really need to use enough of it to keep the heat out of the attic space. I actually like the polyurethane foam insulation. It’s an expanding insulation, where two chemicals mix together, and the reaction is they expand to fill up the void in the wall cavities. And the polyurethane insulation is also very moisture–resistant. The polyurethane does have air pockets, but it’s far more moisture-resistant than fiberglass insulation, which can actually soak up moisture.
“You also have to ventilate the attic space adequately. This means plenty of ventilation in the eaves and the soffits. Ridge vents are always a good idea, and maybe gable end vents,” says Dan-Jumbo. “For extreme conditions—especially in the summertime if you have a lot of heat buildup in the attic—you want an attic fan that actually draws air through the attic and expels it through the roof. These fans are wired to a pre-set thermostat, so it’s not something you have to worry about because it’s automatic.”
For more information on fighting allergic asthma, including a room-by-room guide to reducing allergens in the home call the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America at 1-800-7-ASTHMA.