We all want to live in a safe, healthy home, but unhealthy conditions are not always immediately obvious. The good news is that once you know what to look for it’s easy to clean up or make improvements. Doing so can literally save your life.
San Juan Basin Public Health cares about the health of your home as part of its mission to protect human and environmental health, through its Healthy Homes program.
Common sense dictates that your home should be clean, dry, pest-free and free of dangerous contaminants. While we recognize these as good practices, it can be tricky to protect your home from dangerous substances that you may not be able to see or smell. Here are some important checklist items to help identify and mitigate potential hazards in your home:
Contaminants in the home also include two toxic gases, carbon monoxide and radon. Buying a carbon monoxide detector is one of the easiest ways to protect your family from household contaminants, and is the only way to detect this odorless, colorless and deadly gas. Carbon monoxide detectors are especially important if you burn coal, wood or natural gas for heating or cooking in your home. You should properly maintain your appliances that use these fuels to prevent carbon monoxide from being generated in the first place.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters your home from the ground, especially in winter. It is odorless, colorless and is the leading cause of lung cancer in people who have never smoked. Radon testing takes three to seven days, and a radon-reduction system is significantly cheaper than other major home repairs. Depending on your income, you may be eligible to have a reduction system installed for free, so there is no reason not to test for radon. Starting in February, SJBPH will offer a series of radon education workshops at which you can obtain a free radon test kit or a referral to a certified testing contractor. Visit sjbpublichealth.org/radon to see a schedule posted by mid-January. Residents of the Durango area should also contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to see if their home may have used radioactive uranium tailings as a building material in the 1960s and 1970s. Visit https://cdphe.colorado.gov/umts to learn more about survey and removal options for this potentially dangerous material.
COVID-19 opened our eyes to another danger lurking in our homes: airborne respiratory virus particles. This winter, many families have been affected by COVID-19, RSV or flu viruses circulating in our community. While masking, testing and vaccination are critical tools to contain these viruses, prioritizing indoor air quality in our homes and businesses can help, too.
In a home without central heating, cooling or air conditioning, this can be as simple as improving ventilation when the weather allows by opening windows on opposite sides of a home to introduce fresh air. This can radically decrease the amount of virus particles that accumulate inside the room or rooms getting cross-ventilation. In the winter months when you might not want to open windows, consider getting a HEPA portable air cleaner and running it before and during times when you have family and friends over. If you do go this route, make sure your cleaner is appropriately sized for the room or floor you want it to clean.
Homes and businesses that have central air handling should get that system “tuned up” (or “recommissioned”) by a professional every four to five years. Just as your car needs maintenance and repair to maintain peak performance, so does your building. Recommissioning your HVAC system up to its original design performance can make major indoor air quality improvements while saving you energy and money. Beyond this simple step, research into the pandemic has taught us that increasing ventilation rates and upgrading HVAC filters can seriously decrease transmission of airborne viruses indoors. This is good news for employees and customers of upgraded buildings. Resources to help improve ventilation and air filtration are available at covid19commission.org/safe-work-travel.
These simple steps will keep your home free of the most common contaminants that cause illness. SJBPH encourages you to learn more about how to keep your home healthy and take the steps to keep your family safe. More information about keeping a healthy home is available at sjbpublichealth.org/eh.
Brian Devine is environmental health director at San Juan Public Health. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.