Identifying
an optimum
     home for
     optimum
          health
william j. rea, m.d.

When looking for a home to rent or buy, prospective residents are usually concerned with the suitability of the floor plan, and the appearance, location, condition, and price of the house.  The health conscious buyer and tenant check the home for a number of other health and comfort concerns.  They seek answers to the following questions:

  •  Was the home ever chemically treated to prevent termites?
  •  Have pesticides ever been used in the home, and if so, what kind and how long ago?
  •  Was pressed board, plywood, or foam treated with formaldehyde used in the construction of the home?
  •  Are power lines located near the home, and where do they originate?
  •  What kind of fuel is used to heat and cool the home and where are heating and cooling units situated?
  • As a prospective home owner/tenant, you can investigate a home's potential environmental problems, by generating a list of both the chemicals frequently used in the home that contribute to contamination and the areas that are commonly polluted.  By applying a scoring system -- giving a 4, for example, to indicate an excellent or preferred condition, a 2 for an average or acceptable one, and a 0 for an unacceptable one -- you can then estimate the overall condition of a property in which you are interested.

    Your observations will be the most important part of the evaluation, so go prepared to spend plenty of time looking at details.  take with you a flashlight, screwdriver, clipboard, and plenty of notepaper.  Crawl into attics, and sniff around basements.  Investigate what the surrounding land was, and is, used for.

    This pamphlet directs you to the areas and system of a home that commonly pose environmental problems.  If after reading it, you do not feel competent to judge a prospective home, you can always hire a professional home surveyor, having him examine the home particularly for maintenance and structural, electrical, and plumbing problems.  If you make inquires, you may be able to find a health conscious home survey professional.


    Table of Contents
    The Home's Location
    The Yard
    The Building Materials
    The Foundation
    The Basement and Crawl Space
    The Roof and Attic
    The Kitchen
    The Bathroom
    The Living Room
    The Bedrooms
    The Garage
    The Windows
    Heating/Cooling/Water Heating Systems
    The Electrical System
    The Water System
    Miscellaneous
    Conclusion
    About the Author

    This pamphlet contains information borne of Dr. Rea's research and clinical experience.  Reasonable efforts have been made to publish reliable information, but the author and the publisher cannot assume responsibility for the validity of all materials or for the consequences of their use.

    Neither this pamphlet nor any part of it may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, microfilming, and recording, or by an y information storage or retrieval system, without prior written permission in writing from the publisher.

    Direct all inquiries to the American Environmental Health Foundation, 8345 Walnut Hill Ln., Suite 225, Dallas, TX  75231

    copyright 1998
    the American Environmental Health Foundation
    Dallas, Texas


    The Home's Location
    The home's location can directly impact the amount of pollution to which it is exposed and that it is able to harbor.  Effecting the home is its proximity to sources of outdoor air pollution, noise, wind, and electromagnetic fields, its elevation, and the amount of sunlight it receives.

    Air pollution.  Check for agriculture, industry, and urban or automotive pollutants.  Be sure they are as far away from the home as possible.  Ascertain what the land was used for before it became a residential site:  Was it a toxic waste dump or landfill?  Was it farm land to which herbicides and/or pesticides were applied?  Were dry cleaning or service stations or their run-off located on, or near, the property?

    Noise.  Check for sources of noise, such as highways, busy streets, railways, airports, industry, or business.

    Wind.  Check for exposure to storm winds, high positive ion winds, and pollutant contaminated winds.  What sources of pollution are near the property you're investigating?  Which of these pollutants are carried by the wind and dumped in your area?  How frequently do winds carrying pollution cross your prospective site?  Of course, you want to avoid sites that are in the direct path or are a frequent target of pollutant carrying winds.

    Electromagnetic fields.  Are there high power lines, radio, T.V., or microwave installations nearby that may cause hazardous electromagnetic fields?  Are there any of these within a few feet to one mile of the site you're investigating?  If so, there is a potential for problems.

    Elevation.  Low-lying areas tend to accumulate pollutants, mold, and particulate debris.  High areas, which tend to have better dispersement of pollutants, are usually better.

    Light and sun. Is your site obstructed by tall buildings or trees or other barriers that could emit heat or foster positive ion winds or mold growth? Is it in a valley that will collect pollutants, dust, molds, or algae?


    The Yard

    The yard of a home can contribute to pollution problems if it is improperly drained or if it has allergenic and poisonous plants growing on it.

    Drainage. Check for low spots and clay soil that is poorly drained. Are there underground drainage pipes or springs dumping into a low area that will be a constant generator of molds and algae? Be sure the house is not built on a chemical dump, landfill, or farmland that has been sprayed with herbicides and/or pesticides or that it is not located near such areas that will drain into the home areas.

    Allergenic and poisonous plants. Are there plants in the yard that are known allergens to family members? Conifer trees emit odors year round, and they can sap creativity from some people. Check for plants that are poisonous to children and pets.


    The Building Materials

    Building materials can outgas and seep pollutants into a home for years after it is completed. Therefore, you should check for the greatest offenders--insulation, frame materials, the exterior finish, inside materials--before deciding to buy or rent a home. Also notice the overall condition of the home, which may suggest previous or potential problems.

    Insulation. Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI) appears as a light brown, foamy mass, or as a residual crust or powder. Check for its presence or its residues if it has been removed. You can do this by removing electrical cover plates on outside walls and looking inside for foam or residue. Check also attic and basement perimeters, especially where wires or pipes enter the walls. The presence of any UFFI is unacceptable. Check for fiberglass insulation. It too can cause problems. Check for molds, especially black Aspergillus, growing in the insulation.

    Frame materials. Check for wood assemblies joined with glue or types of wood that are allergenic to family members. Pressed board and plywood are full of formaldehyde and phenols, which can not only sap health and creative energy but also cause illness.

    Exterior finish. Check for woods treated with preservatives, particularly creosote (black and tarry), or pentachlorophenol treatments (usually light green). These are hazardous to human health.

    Inside finish. Look for the preferred materials of late and plaster, cement, ceramics, and hardwood. Check for interior plywood, simulated wood wallboard, or vinyl-finish wallboard (like that used in mobile homes). These are sources of indoor pollution. Make certain no paint containing fungicide or wallpaper is present.

    Condition. Check for rot, mildew, or moisture damage such as that reflected by blistering paint. Use a small penknife to probe wood for soft, rotting areas.


    The Foundation

    Not only is a faulty foundation expensive to repair, but also it can directly affect the home's ability to provide a sanctuary that promotes optimum health. It should, therefore, be examined for soundness, drainage, rot, and insects.

    Soundness. Check for cracks or signs of excessive settling, like gaps between the foundation and framing or lifted chimney flashing.

    Drainage. Check for down pipes discharging water onto the ground. Check for water stains on the foundation or other indicators of poor drainage. Make sure the foundation is well drained.

    Rot. Check for wood exposed to earth or to excessive moisture.

    Insect attack. Check for termite tubes or cells, wood parts less than 1 ft above ground, or lack of proper metal guards. Also look for Lashings Beetle, worm, or ant infestation, which is usually apparent from bore holes in wood, with powdery or granular castings below. Be sure no chemical termite proofing has been applied to the home. The chemicals commonly used to treat homes for termites, chlordane and DDT, have a half-life of 20 and 50 years, respectively.


    The Basement and Crawl Space

    Homes that have a basement or crawl space have the potential for additional problems that can affect human health.  Poor drainage, permanent dampness, the growth of fungus, and poor ventilation in these areas can spawn pollution that seeps indoors and reduces the quality of life for the home's occupants.

    Drainage.  Check floor drains or sumps by running a hose in them for 5 minutes to see if they back up.  Check carefully for watermarks or damage from flooding.  Be sure there are no streams or springs under the house.

    Dampness.  Are there cracks in the walls or slab?  Are there leaking or sweating pipes?  Is damp insulation present?  Are there dirt floors in the basement or crawl spaces?  These are very hazardous.

    Fungus.  Are musty odors or mildew stains present?  Is wood in contact with damp concrete?

    Ventilation.  Check for adequate or blocked ventilation, openings, and windows.  A crawlspace should be 3 to 6 feet above ground, with excellent ventilation.


     The Roof and Attic

    Intended to protect the home, its contents, and occupants, the roof, too, can be detrimental to the well-being of residents, if it is not properly installed and maintained.  The roofing materials themselves, poor ventilation, and the type of insulation installed under the roof, in the attic, may all affect pollution levels inside the home.

    Roofing materials.  Check for asphalt materials used close to doors or opening windows.  When these are heated by the sun, their fumes will have easy access into the home.  Don't use chemically treated shingles.  Their fumes too will invade the house.

    Attic ventilation.  Check for inadequate or blocked gable vents, soffit vents, or ridge vents.  Be sure that there is no pitch that can leak into the house when the roof is warm.

    Condition.  Check for leaks, damaged shingles, and corroded Lashings, which may lead to dampness in the attic.

    Insulation.  Check for inadequate or uneven coverage.  Check for loose fill insulation.  Is it blocking vents and recessed lights or sifting into the living space?  Be sure the attic is mechanically sealed so that fumes cannot enter into the home.


    The Kitchen

    Perhaps the most visited room in the house, the kitchen, contributes its own pollutants to indoor air, which can then affect the residents' health.  Pay attention to the ventilation, the range, the sink, the cabinets, and the flooring when you evaluate the kitchen.

    Ventilation.  Are there unvented ranges or vent hoods without ducts?  Preferred ventilators are rated for 200 cfm. or more.  (Check the identification plate.)  Also, the kitchen should have at least one window that opens.

    Range.  Gas ranges, whether new or old, are serious sources of indoor air pollution.

    Moisture damage.  Check for dampness or rot under cabinet tops, around sinks at baseboards, or at splash boards.

    Cabinets. Check for the presence of particle board (pressed wood), pine, or cedar cabinet frames that release formaldehyde or terpene fumes.

    Floor covering.  Check for soft vinyl or cushion vinyl flooring and particle board floor underlayment.  These contribute to air pollution.  Kitchen carpeting is unacceptable because it traps moisture and spills.  Look underneath other carpet for molds or toxic glues.


    The Bathroom

    If the kitchen is the most frequently visited room of a home, the bathroom is probably the most used room.  With its small size and repeated exposure to steam and water, it is an area that can quickly and easily introduce a plethora of molds and bacteria into the home.  Quality ventilation is very important to maintaining a healthy bathroom, as are appropriately maintained faucets, showers, drains, and commodes, the type of flooring used, and any source of room heat.  These should all be carefully investigated before you decide to buy or lease a home.

    Ventilation.  Look for a vent fan rated for 100 cfm or more.  (Check the identification plate.)  At the very least, one window that opens should be present.

    Moisture damage.  Check around the tub and shower, behind and under the toilet and behind the sink for mildew, dampness, or rot.

    Floor covering. Check for carpet installation. Is particle board underlayment used? Both are prone to moisture damage and are also sources of indoor pollution. The best bathroom floors are ceramic tile.

    Heat. Look for a heater or heat lamp adequate for quick drying of bathroom moisture. These will help prevent the growth of mold, mildew, and fungus.


    The Living Room
    The living room is a high traffic area that is easily polluted by dirt and odors carried in on shoes and clothes, food brought in from the kitchen, pet dander and hair, and any of a host of lifestyle activities. The type of floor covering used and a lack of appropriate room ventilation can add to indoor air pollution, since both can hamper pollutant dispersal and/or removal. Observe both carefully when you examine a home.

    Floor coverings. Are the carpeting or underlayment permanently fastened? These contribute to air pollution and cannot be safely cleaned.

    Cross ventilation. Look for at least two windows, preferably on opposite sides of the room, that open. Also, be sure there are good, clean air ducts.


    The Bedrooms
    An optimum home for optimum health will have a bedroom that promotes a good night's rest. This room should be quiet and free of as much airborne pollution as possible. To estimate the quality of the bedrooms in the home you’re interested in, pay attention to soundproofing, ventilation, and storage.

    Soundproofing. Check for windows facing sources of noise or non-soundproofed walls or ceilings that adjoin noisy rooms.

    Ventilation. Look for at least one window that opens. Be sure no room is over a garage, from where fumes, once emitted, can easily escape into the bedroom.

    Storage. Look for adequate storage for clothing and possessions, preferably separated from the bedroom. Keeping excess clothing and belongings out of the bedroom will significantly reduce dust and dust-related pollution.


    The Garage

    The garage can be a significant source of air pollution if it is adjacent to the house. Check carefully the common wall between the house and garage before deciding this is the home for you.

    Common wall. Are there openings or connections between garaged and living space? Detached garages are best. Breezeways are second best. Common walls and roofs are the worst.


        The Windows

    At their best, windows can let in fresh air, or they can block outdoor pollutants from entering the home. However, the material from which they are constructed, the way in which they've been weather sealed, the total number of windows in the home and their general condition may all affect their ability to protect the quality of air found in a home.

    Type. Check for inadequate single glass in cold regions or in noisy locations. Metal anodized aluminum hardwood frames are best. Be sure there are no vinyl window frames or solar screens on the inside.

    Weather seal. Are there poor fitting or stuck windows? Look for weather strips and thermal breaks on metal frames to prevent condensation.

    Adequate ventilation. Are there enough opening units to provide whole house ventilation in warm weather?

    Condition. Check for rot in frames and sash. Check the condition of putty or gaskets.


    Heating/Cooling/Water Heating Systems

    Homes can be heated and cooled in a variety of ways. Each type of system has advantages and disadvantages. You must evaluate the system in your potential new home in terms of the kind of fuel it uses, the materials it is made of, and the condition it appears to be in.

    Fuel. Look for electric systems, where possible. Fuel burning appliances, particularly gas and oil are sources of indoor pollution. Fire places can be hazardous.

    Type. Look for liquid-type radiators made of steel or iron, where possible.  No copper or aluminum should be present.  Warm air systems and electric baseboard heaters aggravate dust problems.

    Ducts.  Are there corrugated aluminum or synthetic ducts or those with fiberglass on the inside of ducts?  None of these are acceptable.  Be sure there are return air ducts and not plenums.  Plenums let in all the air from other places in the framing of the house, and they cannot be cleaned. Be sure the metal ducts are not cracked and that they do not have air intakes under the house where they can acquire mold or toxic chemicals.

    Condition. Are there signs of fuel leaks or aging equipment? Look for plaster walls that are impregnated from gas fumes.

    Chimneys. Where fuel-burning appliances are necessary, check for sound chimneys, free of cracks. There must be a combustion air supply to each unit and a draft control on oil-burning chimneys.


    The Electrical System
    Along with assessment of the direct effects of poorly located or constructed homes, which can increase the presence of indoor pollution and pose a threat to human health, you also want to examine the electrical system for safety. Notice the type of wiring, the circuit adequacy, and the general condition of the electrical system.

    Type of wiring. Look for the preferred conduit or metallic sheathed cable systems, where possible. Is there is knob and tube wiring (in older homes) that may have to be replaced due to fire hazards. (This is made up from single wires passing through porcelain knobs and tubes. )

    Circuit adequacy. Look for a minimum of 24 circuits in the supply panel for a full-sized home and at least one three-pin grounded outlet per wall in every room. If fuses are in use, are they the safety type that cannot be tampered with? Check for old or inadequate kitchen wiring that may be a hazard. Find out where the power lines enter the house. Be sure the fuse box is not in or near the bedrooms.

    Conditions. Is there brittle, cracked wire insulation, particularly in ceiling boxes? Check for connections or additions that appear to be carelessly or dangerously installed.


    The Water System

    Water quality effects the quality of human health. Not only can an individual ingest the pollutants in water but also contaminants can be absorbed through the skin during a shower or bath. The kind and number of water pollutants with which a person may come in contact are multiple and various, depending on the source of the water, the machinery used to transport it from its source, the type of container it is stored in, and the type of plumbing it passes through when it reaches its destination. When you are considering purchasing or leasing a new home, you must investigate both the source of your water supply and the type of plumbing with which it will come in contact.

    Water quality. If the house's water supply comes from a city system, check the municipal water quality. This information is available from the city's waterworks or health department. If a well or spring is in use, ask for recent water test results or perform a water quality test yourself including tests for solvent heavy metals, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticide content.

    Plumbing type. Look for the preferred all-copper water supply piping. Are iron or plastic segments in use that will have to be replaced? Are there leaded seams with galvanized pipes? Be sure there are no vinyl drinking or bathing water pipes. If vinyl or plastic water filtration systems or softening systems are present, they should be replaced by ceramic and steel filtration systems.


    Miscellaneous
    Along with the general systems identified for inspection here, you may find that your region of the country is susceptible to additional environmental pollutants that you will want to investigate. These include, but are not limited to, asbestos, lead-based paint, and/or radon. Problems with mildew and/or septic tank seepage may also prevail.

    Asbestos. In older homes, is there crumbling plaster or ceiling tile that may contain asbestos? The fibers can be seen as irregular white strands. The broken pieces will have to be removed due to the hazards.

    Mildew problems. In cold or damp climates, check all indoor surfaces carefully for stains or odors from fungus.

    Paint types. There may be lead-based paints in older houses. Any room that has not been painted for more than 20 years may have lead-based paint and wallpaper glue and may need to be repainted. Paint containing fungicide is extremely hazardous because of continued outgassing.

    Radon. Check with local health authorities or the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Regional office (the Environment Ministry in Canada) to find out if radon is a problem in your area. If it is, get radon test results from the home before buying or renting.

    Septic tank. Ask for a plan of the septic tank and leach field. Check carefully for signs of surface seepage over the field. Flush toilets repeatedly to see that the tank does not back up, causing drains to overflow.


    Conclusion
    The decision to lease or buy a new home can be a stressful one. Mistakes can be costly. Although it's not possible to anticipate every problem that might occur once you've taken possession of your new home, a little time spent researching those aspects that most frequently contribute to an unhealthy environment and that are involved in expensive repairs may reward you with years of healthful, comfortable living.

    About the Author
     

    William J. Rea, M.D., F.A.C.S, F.A.A.E.M., is a practicing thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon with an added interest in the environmental aspects of health and disease.  He is the founder of the Environmental Health Center-Dallas and is the current director of this highly specialized medical facility.  He is a lecturer of international stature and the author of over 100 peer-reviewed research papers related to the topic of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery and environmental medicine.  he is the author of a series of medical textbooks, Chemical Sensitivity, and he is co-author of Your Home, Your Health, and Well-Being.
     
     

     

    To buy products for the chemically sensitive see http://www.aehf.com.
    For more information on medical treatment see http://www.ehcd.com.
    For more articles on the relationship of health and disease to environmental factors, see the list of available articles and other information available here.