Once you have decided to make the effort to conserve water in your home, the next logical step is to ask the question of where to begin. The answer to this question can be overwhelming to many home owners as there are numerous fixes that take a variety of effort and financial cost. It is often best to start by understanding the four or five biggest uses of water in the home and beginning with them. So, where do most Americans use their water? Since 70% of the water used by Americans is used indoors, let’s start inside the home.
• Toilets are the number one use of water in the home, accounting for 27% of indoor water use. This means more than one of every four gallons used goes for flushing the toilet. Toilets made before 1992 use up to 3.5 gallons per flush. Switching to WaterSense-labeled toilets or using an alternative toilet can save a family up to $2,000 in water costs over the life of the toilet, paying for itself multiple times.
• Washing Machines come in at a strong second using about 22% of the indoor water used. Energy Star-labeled machines use about 15 gallons per load which can be up to 50% less water than standard machines and far less than machines made before 1998.
• Showers account for 17% of water use and are the third largest consumers of water in the home. Similar to toilets, showerheads made prior to 1992 can use massive amounts of water, some up to 5.5 gallons per minute. Newer, efficient showerheads can be purchased for under $20 and have flow rates below 2.5 gallons per minute. This is another item that quickly pays for itself and can use less than 50% of the water in some cases.
• Faucets come in fourth accounting for 16% of the water used in the home. New WaterSense-labeled faucets can save 30% of the water used compared to older faucets and will perform equally well. Similar savings can be seen by replacing the aerator in the faucet with a newer one; the aerator in the screw-on tip is what determines the flow rate of the faucet.
• Leaks, unfortunately, also account for 14% of indoor water use and therefore are ranked fifth behind the big four. Leaks are a complete waste of water and should be checked for and fixed as soon as possible.
• Other uses account for the remaining few percent of indoor water use.
SNEAKY CARBON MONOXIDE
Sources of Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide comes from incomplete combustion. Combustion is another word for fire. Anything that burns in your home has the potential to produce this deadly gas. The most common sources include unvented space heaters (gas, kerosene), gas water heaters, running automobiles in attached garages, tobacco smoke, and leaks arising in chimneys, flues, furnaces, wood stoves, generators, and anything else gas-powered.
Typically, levels of carbon monoxide are measured in parts per million (ppm). One part per million (1 ppm) means there is one molecule of CO for every million molecules of other gases in the air (nitrogen, oxygen, etc.). Most homes will be below 5 ppm. Homes with gas stoves run a little higher, often up to 15 ppm, and levels of CO near a poorly maintained gas stove may be 30 ppm. Various occupational guidelines (NIOSH, OSHA) set the limit for exposure over an 8-hour work day between 25 and 50 ppm.
Minimizing Your Risk
In order to reduce the risk of high carbon monoxide levels, there are many things that one can do. First, all combustion equipment should be maintained and adjusted properly. Automobiles should never be idled in a garage, and similarly, generators should always be used outside of the home. Heating systems (furnaces, chimneys, flues, etc.) should be inspected yearly by a professional and repaired as needed. Space heaters and gas stoves should be vented outside. Use only the appropriate fuel in combustion devices. Be sure flues are open for fireplaces. Woodstoves should be sealed tightly and doors should close completely. Finally, a carbon monoxide alarm should be installed outside bedrooms on each level of the home.
There are many precautions you can take that will help your family avoid dangerous exposure to carbon monoxide. Click on any of the potential carbon monoxide sources in the house pictured below to read safety tips on how to stop carbon monoxide from invading your home.
If you suspect that CO is contaminating your home, the first thing you should do is to ventilate the area by opening all the windows. If you or a member of your family displays sudden flu-like symptoms, immediately evacuate your home and call the Gas Company, Oil Company, or fire department from a neighbor’s house.
A UL listed carbon monoxide detector or CO alarm is the best protection from the deadly dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure that the CO detector or CO alarm you use has been fully approved for its intended use. For example, do not use home-use CO alarms in boats or recreational vehicles, or garages as you may not be fully protected from the dangers of carbon monoxide.
Never unplug or remove the battery to silence a CO detector or CO alarm. You may go back to sleep and suffer the deadly consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning. At the very least, ventilate the area and change the detector’s battery. Always assume the worst for your own safety.
A chimney that is blocked or clogged due to a bird’s nest, leaves, or soot can cause combustion by-products, including carbon monoxide, to vent into your home. Cracked masonry could also cause a blockage. Periodic inspection and cleaning by a chimney sweep helps prevent these problems. A screen cap for the top of the chimney to discourage nest building is also a good idea.
Wood burning and gas-powered fireplaces are a common source of carbon monoxide in the home. Leaving the window open a few inches allows the circulation of fresh air in the room while preventing negative pressure build-up / backdrafting, which can draw carbon monoxide and other toxins into the home. Never use treated woods, painted wood, and scrap lumber in your wood burning fireplace. Only burn seasoned firewood made for that purpose. Additionally, before you start a fire in your fireplace, make sure that the damper is open and always leave the flue open even if the fire is almost out. Those last smoldering embers produce a high concentration of deadly carbon monoxide.
Gas log sets: Gas logs or burners produce a lot of carbon monoxide since the less-efficient, yellow flames are designed to create a cozy atmosphere. If you own a ventless fireplace be particularly careful since this type of appliance vents all combustion by-products into the room. As the fireplace is run, oxygen is taken from the room to fuel the combustion process. As less oxygen is available, the combustion becomes less efficient and more CO is produced. Some gas log sets use a sensor that shuts down the appliance if oxygen drops to a certain level. The main danger is that the appliance can produce CO even if the oxygen isn’t depleted from the immediate environment. It is always a good idea to look for an appliance with a CO safety shut-off device.
A furnace can produce carbon monoxide because of a mechanical failure or as the result of a cracked heat exchanger, flue or burner problems. Incorrect installation, damage caused by basement flooding, and even pilot lights can produce CO. A clogged or dirty burner can affect the air/fuel mixture resulting in inefficient combustion. Yellow flames and soot accumulation are indications that the furnace needs immediate maintenance. Frequent inspection and regular maintenance of the burner, flue, and chimney should greatly reduce any CO difficulties with your appliance.
Ventless space heaters are so dangerous that some states including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Utah and Washington now prohibit their use. Some of these heaters use a sensor that shuts down the appliance if oxygen levels drop too low. The danger is the appliance can produce carbon monoxide even if the oxygen isn’t depleted from the immediate environment. Never use a heater inside a house or an enclosed structure if the operating instructions tell you not to. Portable heaters and all other un-vented appliances vent all the combustion products directly into the interior of the home, so it is a good idea to look for appliances with CO safety shut-off devices. Always leave the window cracked a few inches to allow for the circulation of fresh air into the house if you use a portable heater.
Gas stoves and range tops are common sources of carbon monoxide in a house since they are rarely vented. Regularly cleaning the range top, oven cavity and burners will alleviate the possibility of CO emissions. If the burners are dirty and clogged, the fuel air mixture becomes improperly adjusted and causes inefficient combustion. Improper installation, a defective appliance or older appliances with rust or damage to the burner system may also cause the production of CO. Keep in mind the exhaust fan located over the range top is usually un-vented and does not help discharge CO outside the home. The fan only provides filtration of grease vapor and soot generated during cooking. The best way to avoid the production of carbon monoxide is to have regular maintenance performed, including cleaning and adjustment of the air/fuel mixture. Also, never warm your house using your natural gas or propane oven.
A water heater is another potential source of carbon monoxide. The appliance may be faulty when purchased or installed improperly. Basement flooding may cause the heater to function inefficiently. A clogged burner, blocked vent or even the pilot light can all produce carbon monoxide. Danger signs include a yellow burner flame and soot build-up. Regular appliance maintenance to ensure air/fuel mixture is adjusted correctly and cleaning of the burner components is recommended to ensure your protection against carbon monoxide poisoning.
A gas clothes dryer that is purchased faulty or installed incorrectly can be a carbon monoxide poisoning hazard. Damage caused by flooding and exhaust pipes clogged with lint could also cause CO to build up. The burner can become dirty or clogged and affect the air/fuel mixture resulting in inefficient combustion and the production of carbon monoxide. Frequent inspection and regular maintenance of the burner are good preventive measures. Remember to clean the lint filter after every load of laundry to keep your outside vent clear.
Grills, barbecues and hibachis should never be used indoors, or even inside the garage or on a porch or patio. The smoldering embers of charcoal produce great amounts of carbon monoxide. Always take care to grill a fair distance away from the windows of your house and keep those windows closed.
One of the greatest risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home is to leave your car running in an attached garage, especially if the garage door is closed.
If you are camping never bring a combustion device inside an RV or tents. Campers have been killed bringing portable gas lights and cooking equipment into their RV or tent. In one case, two Swiss Campers were killed near Pike’s Peak when they used a portable gas lamp to read in their tent. Gas lamps and other combustion devices can be very dangerous at high altitude because they make much more CO. Even a car will make much more CO at high altitude.
Insulation does reduce heat loss and keeps your energy bills down but they also decrease your fresh air supply in your home, making combustion less efficient and increasing your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Creating an energy-efficient home could create a negative pressure and cause a backdrafting effect that draws fumes into your home instead of exhausting them to the exterior. All fuel-burning appliances need to be in good working condition and exhausted to the exterior. Make sure there is adequate fresh air in your home at all times for efficient combustion to take place. Crack your windows or doors throughout the day. Consider saving a life more important than saving a few dollars on your energy bill.
LEAD ~ HEAVY MAN
Lead is a very dense, metallic element, often referred to as a heavy metal. It can have serious negative health effects and has been labeled as one of the most serious environmental threats to the health of children in the United States.
Sources of Lead
Lead exposure can occur in many ways including through air, water, food, dust, contaminated soil, and lead-based paints. Among other things, lead was historically used in gasoline, paints, and water pipes. Regarding homes, the largest source of lead is from lead-based paints. Exposure can be a problem when lead-based paints are sanded away from walls. The sanding creates lead dust in the air which is then inhaled. Homes built prior to 1978 are likely candidates for lead-based paints. Water pipes should also be inspected for lead.
Children and fetuses that are exposed to lead can see very serious adverse health effects, as the lead is incorporated more easily into children’s bodies than adults’. Lead exposure has resulted in lower IQs, behavioral problems, developmental delays (mental and physical), and attention problems. Children are also more likely than adults to put their hands in their mouths after touching surfaces contaminated with lead. At high enough levels, lead can cause coma and death.
Minimizing Your Risk
Knowing the likely places where lead could be found and avoiding the creation of lead dust is the best way to minimize exposure. Walls painted with lead-based paints are often best left undisturbed. Areas where painted surfaces rub together like windows and doors tend to create dust which can then enter the air. Similarly, the paint on fences and gates outside the home often chips away leaving lead dust in the soil. Children playing in the area can be exposed to lead dust or they can track the lead inside the home on their shoes.
Federal law requires that home sellers provide certain information for all homes built before 1978. Any information concerning the presence of lead-based paints must be disclosed and a “lead warning statement” must be included in the contract if there has been any history involving lead paint in the home. An EPA-approved pamphlet on lead-based hazards must be provided for the buyers. Buyers also have a 10-day period in which to have the home inspected specifically for lead. For more information on lead, a good resource is the National Lead Information Center Hotline at (800) 424-LEAD.
SNEAKY RADON ~ SERIOUS OR SCARE US?
Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless element created as a product of the nuclear decay of uranium and thorium, the two most common radioactive elements on earth. Radon will continue to be produced for millions of years at the same levels we have now since uranium and thorium take so long to decay. As the only known radioactive gas on earth, it is easily inhaled. Since it is dense, it remains low in the air and concentrates in basements and crawlspaces. Radon is considered the largest contributor to public exposure to radiation, and it is often the major factor in an individual’s background radiation levels. The only significant health effect from radon exposure is lung cancer, but the danger is very serious. For non-smokers, radon is the single leading cause of lung cancer in the United States with an estimated 20,000 deaths occurring yearly. Smokers have a significantly higher risk and are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer when compared to nonsmokers exposed to the same radon levels.
Sources of Radon
Radon is created as a product in nuclear decay reactions from naturally occurring uranium which is found in soil and water. It is often concentrated in basements and crawlspaces below ground level.
The effects of radon concentration are measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). These units measure the amount of radiation in a specific volume of air. There is no safe level of radon as any level of radiation can be harmful. However, the EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or higher. EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L since the radon may still be dangerous at those levels. The average radon concentration for inside air in American homes is 1.3 pCi/L. For comparison, outside air typically has a concentration of about 0.4 pCi/L. There is a danger in assuming that because the level suggested for a fix is 4 pCi/L, levels below 4 pCi/L are “safe.” This is a common misconception, especially in the real estate market, and one should be careful to warn people that any radon exposure can be dangerous.
Minimizing Your Risk
The only way to know if a family is at risk from radon is to test for it. Home kits can be purchased at most hardware and home improvement stores or online for under $20 and analyzed for around $30. These tests require placing the kit in the basement and sending it back for analysis after a few days or a week. If radon is detected in the home, it is highly recommended that the state radon office be contacted to find contractors who can fix the problem.
Formaldehyde (CH2O) is a colorless gas with a strong, sharp odor. It has traditionally been used in adhesives and glues and as a preservative for biological specimens. Formaldehyde can have many negative health effects including burning eyes and throat, wheezing, rashes, fatigue, nausea, and difficulty in breathing when exposure is above 0.1 parts per million. High enough concentrations may also trigger asthma attacks. The most serious effect is that it is a known carcinogen in animals. Bear in mind that humans are in the animal kingdom.
Sources of Formaldehyde
The most significant sources of formaldehyde in the home are from pressed wood products such as plywood, paneling, particleboard, fiberboard, and products made with these pressed wood products. The formaldehyde comes mainly from the adhesives used to hold the layers of wood together in these products as well as other glues. Urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are the type which releases the most formaldehyde. These resins are used in the medium density fiberboard popular for drawer fronts, cabinet fronts, and furniture tops. Formaldehyde is also a by-product of tobacco smoke and can also come from unvented kerosene heaters and gas stoves.
Typically, like carbon monoxide, levels of formaldehyde are measured in parts per million (ppm). One part per million (1 ppm) means there is one molecule of formaldehyde for every million molecules of other gases in the air (nitrogen, oxygen, etc.). Most homes will be below 1 ppm. However, homes containing a large amount of new pressed wood products can register formaldehyde levels as high as 3 ppm. This is well over the minimum level needed to cause respiratory issues. In July of 2010, President Obama signed into law the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act which establishes limits for formaldehyde emissions from these composite wood products.
Minimizing Your Risk
In order to reduce the risk of high formaldehyde levels, there are many things that can be done. Exterior grade pressed wood products can be used instead of interior grade; these products do not contain the more dangerous UF resins.
Also, the types of adhesives that are used in furniture and building materials can be researched before these items are purchased. Since formaldehyde is released more at higher temperature and humidity levels, moderate moisture and temperature levels should be maintained within the home and ventilation increased when new products containing formaldehyde are brought into the home as most of the toxic gas is released when the products are new.
BIOLOGICAL POLLUTANTS ~ JUST ICK
Biological pollutants, unlike radon, carbon monoxide, and other chemical sources, come from living things. Sources include mildew, mold, viruses, bacteria, pet dander, pest droppings, pollen, and dust mites, among other things. Biological pollutants can often be found in wet or damp areas that promote growth like unvented bathrooms, pans in air conditioners and humidifiers, and near cooling coils. Also, areas that collect dust can harbor biological pollutants such as carpeting and rugs, bedding, and drapes.
Primarily, the health effects associated with biological pollutants include asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and potentially harmful toxins. Asthma can be triggered from mold, dander from pets, and droppings from pests such as insects or mice. Allergic reactions can develop after repeated exposure to a particular allergen. Often the symptoms of allergic reactions such as sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and watery eyes will worsen over time with exposure.
Minimizing Your Risk
Minimizing the risks associated with biological pollutants involves eliminating the factors which allow them to thrive. Since the two biggest factors are moisture and dust, taking care of these issues is at the forefront.
1 Relative humidity in a home should be 30-50%. Attics and crawl spaces can be ventilated, if necessary.
2 Standing water, water-soaked materials, or wet surfaces should be eliminated and dried to minimize mold and mildew.
3 Regular cleaning will reduce the effects of dust mites, dander, and pollen. Drapes and bedding should be washed regularly. Carpets and rugs should be regularly vacuumed and dust should be kept to a minimum.
4 People with allergies should not be in the house when it is being vacuumed.
5 Evaporation trays in air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and refrigerators should be cleaned regularly.
6 Basements should be kept clean, dust free, and dry. A dehumidifier can keep relative humidity to 30-50%, if necessary.
7 Exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms can keep air dry and flowing
PESTICIDES & DISINFECTANTS ~ WEIGH THIS OUT COHABITATION OR YOUR HEALTH
Pesticides and disinfectants are generally chemical agents that are designed to kill or eliminate pests such as insects, termites, rodents, and microbes. Being that these are toxic to pests means that these chemicals can also be toxic to humans. According to the EPA, three of four homes in the United States have used an indoor pesticide within the past year and 80% of people’s exposure to pesticides occurs inside. Do not underestimate the potential dangers of pesticides. In 1990, there were an estimated 79,000 children poisoned by pesticides. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants claims that nine of the twelve most dangerous and persistent chemicals in the environment are pesticides. Many of these have long been outlawed or restricted (e.g. DDT) but they persist as contaminants in the environment. Bear in mind that the suffix “-cide,” also used in “genocide” and “suicide,” means “to kill.”
Health effects vary greatly but include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness, central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerve) damage, kidney problems, and cancer. Because the active and inert ingredients vary so greatly in these products, there is no specific maximum exposure level to discuss.
Minimizing Your Risk
In order to reduce the risk from pesticide exposure, there are many things that can be done. The home should be kept clean and dry to avoid having pests. The use of chemical pesticides should be eliminated where possible. If they must be used, they should be mixed outdoors and the directions followed carefully. Animals and plants should be treated outside and ventilation increased when they are indoors. Pesticides should not be stored inside the home. If moth repellants like paradichlorobenzene are used with clothing, they should be stored in a separate vented area. Many air fresheners also use paradichlorobenzene; it is best not to use them.
Also, biological pesticides can replace chemical ones in some instances, like in the control of gypsy moths where a bacterial agent can be used instead. Plants that are disease-resistant can be used to avoid the need for pesticides altogether. If a pest control company is contracted, they should provide a clear written explanation of what specific pesticides will be used and what pests are being treated. Pest companies can legally use stronger, more toxic pesticides than regular consumers can purchase, so the dangers may be increased.
Instead of using disinfectant sprays for cleaning, non-toxic cleaners such as vinegar can be used, which clean equally well in most cases without the associated health risks.
OH AND WE CAN NOT FORGET THE VOC’S ~ Volatile Organic Compounds
Unlike lead or carbon monoxide, which are specific substances, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, include a wide range of chemicals of varying properties and toxicity. The term volatile means that a substance evaporates, or turns into a gas fairly easily at low temperatures. Once the substance evaporates, the gas is free to move throughout the home and can be breathed easily into the lungs. This is how VOCs can easily enter the human body.
Sources of VOCs
Most volatile organic compounds in the home come from solvents used to dissolve other substances. These solvents are often found in paints, cleaning supplies, lacquers, adhesives, markers, copy machines, fuels, paint thinners, and some building materials. They are typically widely used in the home.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber derived from rocks and soil. It has very good fiber strength and is heat and fire resistant. Due to this combination of properties, asbestos has been used in building materials, for insulation, and as a fire retardant. It can be found in floor tiles, shingles, and also in car parts where heat from friction can build up. Most people are under the assumption that asbestos is no longer used. This is not true. Asbestos has been banned for certain uses but is still approved for many uses as well.
Sources of Asbestos
In the home, asbestos may be found in vermiculite insulation in attics and walls. Seventy percent of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. during most of the 20th century came from a mine in Libby, Montana contaminated with asbestos. If you have vermiculite insulation, it is safe to assume it is contaminated. Asbestos can also be found in fire-resistant boards or paper around wood stoves, in asbestos tape or materials on water pipes, in door gaskets on furnaces, and in heat-resistant fabrics.
Health problems from asbestos come mainly from inhaling the particles released when materials containing the substance are disturbed by demolition or remodeling work. The material containing the asbestos generally must be disturbed in order to release the unhealthy particles into the air. Following exposure, sometimes heath effects take years to appear. Lung diseases are the primary risk of exposure to this dangerous substance. The biggest three diseases that result are:
•Mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the linings of the lungs)
•Asbestosis (a progressive, long-term lung disease)
Minimizing Your Risk
There is generally no need to be concerned about asbestos unless involved in a remodeling project. Asbestos is most harmful when it is disturbed and the fibers become airborne from sanding, cutting, sawing, or drilling asbestos-containing materials. These materials are generally best left undisturbed if they are in good condition. If materials suspected of having asbestos may be disturbed during remodeling, it is best to have the home inspected by a trained and accredited asbestos professional. For those who have damaged asbestos materials or are planning to do work that will disturb these materials, a professional should be called to either repair or remove the asbestos. Repair usually involves sealing the asbestos so fibers cannot be released. Is fiberglas next?
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT… get an inspection, understand when you are buying, be Pro-Active.