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Sick House Syndrome

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What Is Sick House Syndrome, and What Causes It?

Sick House Syndrome occurs when a house can’t “breathe” and rid itself of indoor pollutants, resulting in poor indoor air quality—a “sick house.” Inadequate ventilation allows these pollutants to build up, causing potential health risks to the home’s occupants. Young children, the elderly, and some chronically ill persons are most susceptible to the effects of Sick House Syndrome. Pets can be affected too.

Common sources of indoor pollution include tobacco smoke, certain carpeting and flooring materials, furnaces and fireplaces, pressed wood cabinets and furniture, and household cleaning products. In addition, a buildup of moisture can cause mold, which can grow uncontrolled and undetected inside walls, attics, crawlspaces and other areas. Mold spores are released into the air and can also travel throughout the home via heating and cooling ductwork, so what seems like a localized problem can actually be spreading all through the home.

People living in sick houses are often unaware of their situation because air quality conditions usually worsen over a period of time. It can sometimes take years for substances to build up to problem levels, and the home’s occupants won’t even know it. Individuals can react very differently to indoor air pollutants, which can make it complicated to pinpoint the causes of symptoms.

How Can Indoor Pollution Be Reduced?

Source control is usually the most effective way to improve indoor air quality. In some cases, eliminating the specific sources of indoor pollution is all that is necessary; for example, removing carpets and repairing faulty furnaces. It’s also a good idea to have heating and cooling ducts cleaned every few years.

For many other offending substances, improving ventilation is a key means of decreasing indoor pollution. These include tobacco smoke, cleaning products, and moisture buildup. Many newer homes, in particular, are so well insulated and sealed that only a very limited amount of fresh air can get in. In this situation, using attic or window fans and opening windows when weather permits are easy and inexpensive ways to increase ventilation.

Besides particulates and an unpleasant odor, tobacco smoke has another insidious way of affecting a home. Over the years, it can be absorbed by wall, floor, and ceiling materials and may need to be professionally removed. Designating the home as non-smoking will go a long way toward limiting not only the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke but also how the smoke affects the indoor air quality.

Asbestos and lead do not normally cause problems if they are undisturbed, but these hazardous substances should be analyzed by a qualified professional to determine if sealing, abatement, or removal is warranted. Whatever the conclusion, these are definitely not DIY projects. Professionals will have the proper training, safety equipment, procedures and disposal methods to safely deal with these substances. The presence of these materials may also need to be included in disclosure forms when selling a home, so special attention is warranted in these situations.