Say No to Fumes in Your House

Wipe out the chemical odors that can trigger allergies and asthma.

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Spray Bottles Household cleaners come in a variety of spray bottles.

You bring home a brand-new shower curtain and your eyes burn for the next few weeks. The new carpeting looks great, but nobody can stand being in the room.

One important strategy for controlling allergies and asthma — aside from controlling your exposure to dust mites, pollen and mold — is to find ways to eliminate or reduce the household chemicals, fumes and smoke that can irritate inflamed tissues in your eyes and airways.

Here are some tips for clearing the air in your home:

  • Control formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, giving off irritating fumes that cause asthma flare-ups. "Everything from the furniture you buy to cleaning solvents to paint may have formaldehyde and other kinds of VOCs with these off-gassing properties," says Mike Tringale, director of external affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). "Particle board or pressed wood is often finished or treated with some kind of formaldehyde preservative."
  • These fumes dissipate over time, so don't hesitate to ask furniture, carpet or flooring dealers to allow a product to off-gas for a couple of weeks or so before delivery. Consider storing it in your garage before bringing it into the house, and provide good ventilation in your home at all times.

    Ventilation is particularly important while painting. Indoor paints now carry VOC ratings on the side of the can; compare products and buy the paint with the lowest VOC number.

  • Opt for PVC-free shower curtains. Plastic shower curtains containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride) can release a potent mixture of more than 100 VOCs — including toluene and xylene — that are classified by the EPA as hazardous pollutants.
  • Find safe substitutes for household cleaners, or make your own. "The more you can strive for a fragrance-free or off-gassing-free household, the better off you're going to be," says Mike. "When you're closed in a closet or bathroom using cleaning products like ammonia or bleach, it can become very noxious."
  • Basic ingredients for nontoxic cleaners include baking soda and borax, both of which clean and deodorize, and both found in grocery stores.

    Washing soda cuts grease and removes stains, and it's available in the laundry section of grocery stores or in its pure form, sodium carbonate, from chemical supply houses. White vinegar is also good for cutting grease.

    Hydrogen peroxide, an alternative to bleach, is available in supermarkets and drugstores. Sodium perborate, another alternative to bleach, is available from chemical supply companies.

    Homemade cleaners:

    To clean ovens: Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 1/4 cup of salt; add enough water to make a paste.
    To clean bathtubs: Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with enough white vinegar to make a paste.
    To clean drains: Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 1/2 cup of salt. Pour down the drain, and then follow with 2 cups of boiling water. Let it sit overnight.

  • Ban smoking from your home and that includes improperly vented wood stoves. It goes without saying that cigarette smoke is harmful to one's health, but so are wood stoves and fireplaces that send smoke into the house as well as up the chimney. Wood smoke contains a mixture of gases and fine particulates that can be extremely irritating to mucus membranes and cause respiratory problems. Use an EPA-certified wood stove, and call a professional to make sure it's properly installed.
  • There's an unavoidable presence of environmental triggers and irritants in the modern home, Mike says, but "if you can reduce it below the threshold needed to trigger your symptoms, you've done a good job."

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