- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The complaints: Headaches, runny nose, chronic coughing and sneezing. Allergists see it again and again, but the bad news isn’t the diagnosis; it’s the cause. Your home can make you ill.

“They feel sick when they are home, and they feel better when they are not home,” says Dr. Sal Hakim of the Allergy and Asthma store. “They know something is wrong.”

Pollutants ranging from household mites to molds and mildew can trigger allergies, making home a harbor for a long list of health hazards. Mold and mildew creeping behind wallboard can go undetected for years. Air ducts can get clogged with dust, oil and debris — even furnace residue. Left unchecked, indoor pollutants can lead to problems ranging from chronic colds to asthma.

Dr. Hakim opened his Gaithersburg store to help allergy sufferers with products — from air purifiers to mite-proof bedding — designed to curb indoor pollution. He also offers air-quality- and mold-testing services so clients can pinpoint the source of health problems.

“Eighty percent of the time, [indoor allergic reactions are] caused by dust mites,” Dr. Hakim says. “It’s often narrowed down to a handful of reasons.”

Whether you are buying or selling your home this year, a healthy-home checkup may help make your property more marketable.

If you haven’t looked at your air ducts, inspect them for dust and mildew. Hire a certified inspector to do a whole-house inspection for mold and mildews and make sure your heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system and air-handling unit are inspected regularly.

“Indoor air quality is something that is relatively new to most people,” says Aaron Mindel, executive director of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association. “There’s a lot more awareness today.”

The association advocates inspecting home air ducts a minimum of once every two years to avoid buildup. Air-handling units and air-conditioning and heating coils also should be cleaned regularly to avoid trapping moisture and mildew, Mr. Mindel says.

Air-duct scrubbers are equipped with pressurized bristles, and they wind through a home duct system. Cleaning an average-size home costs about $350 and takes two to three hours. Larger homes can cost as much as $1,000, depending on the size and type of system.

“If I were selling a house, I would probably mention that I had the ductwork cleaned as a selling point,” said Ron Koster of Rite Way Duct Cleaning Service in Cheverly. “Anytime you remove dirt and dust from the environment of a home, you make it more sanitary.”

Older homes can be a source of health problems stemming from such sources as dirty ductwork and damp, moisture-filled basements. Almost all homes have underlying health risks of some sort, but the problems can turn severe if water seepage is ongoing or molds are allowed to fester.

Toxic mold first became a national phenomenon after an outbreak in Cleveland established a link between a toxic mold and lung problems in young children. Ever since news of the outbreak appeared in the national media several years ago, the industry has grown dramatically; many inspectors are now qualified to inspect for mold.

Inspectors advise adding mold inspection to a home sale, especially if there is visible moisture or a home smells damp.

“If there is water intrusion, there is going to be mold,” says Larry Weintraub, president of Structural Concepts, a home-inspection company serving Northern Virginia. “It’s a perfect opportunity for the spores to grow.”

Mr. Weintraub entered the field several years ago after completing a training course at a laboratory that conducts mold testing. He urges homeowners who smell any type of mildew to authorize the tests to make sure a health risk isn’t found before a home is sold.

He charges $350 for a mold inspection that includes two air samples and a swab taken from the mildew area. In most cases, the molds are not toxic and can be cleaned easily, but in some cases, the tests have found severe problems.

“Most of the molds that are discovered are allergenic molds, but they are nontoxic,” Mr. Weintraub says. “But I have had several houses tested with toxic molds, and [families] have had to move out. Some led to lawsuits.”

This year’s wet weather has created the perfect environment for allergens to develop and grow. Without direct sunshine or large amounts of outdoor air to ventilate a home, indoor pollution can accumulate to unhealthy levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

That can lead to high levels of exposure, given that most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. The EPA estimates that pollution levels can be two times to five times greater indoors.

Poor indoor air quality can lead to headaches, runny nose, sneezing, sinus problems and difficulty breathing. Severe cases include vomiting, diarrhea and even seizures linked to exposure to certain types of molds, according to information provided by the Certified Mold Inspectors and Contractors Institute.

Pinpointing the source of a problem can often prove difficult for homeowners. Moisture problems are often clearly visible and can be tracked to a primary source easily, but finding the source of other microscopic allergens can be tricky.

Allergists advise homeowners to clean rugs thoroughly with a hot steam machine and remove heavy drapes or cloth blinds where dust can accumulate.

If a home has old wallpaper or rugs, remove and repaint or leave floors bare.

Also, try to keep temperatures constant. Avoid humidity by using exhaust fans in bathrooms and running air conditioning systems during the summer. Allergists advise patients to keep humidity between 30 and 50 percent in their home. Homeowners can buy a hand-held hygrometer at a hardware store to test home humidity levels.

In some cases, getting rid of mold can mean removing old drywall or sealing basement walls to keep out moisture, but most problems are fixed through heavy cleaning. Make sure to use a solution that kills mold — not merely covering up the smell — and keeps it from coming back.

“Most often, the problem is simple and doesn’t require a lot of remediation,” Dr. Hakim says. “Something like a [high-efficiency particulate arresting] air purifier can make a big difference, and it’s low maintenance.”

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