What Makes a Healthy Home?

When planning to build or buy a new home it is good to consider what makes a healthy home for you and your loved ones to live. There are many factors to consider both inside your home and out to have a low toxicity living environment. I consider this important for everyone but especially for chemically sensitive people. Indoor pollution can be just as bad or worse than the pollution outdoors. There are combustion product pollutants, biological pollutants such as molds, pet dander and pollen; volatile organic compounds or VOC’s; lead dust and asbestos. Here is an overview of some of the issues at hand.

Indoor air quality or IAQ

Sick Building Syndrome or SBS is a term that has been in use since for decades and can also be called Environmental Illness. Today’s uber efficient, super tight homes especially need to have non-toxic materials inside for good indoor air quality. The American Lung Association states that poor indoor air quality can cause cancer, infections, headaches, asthma and other maladies. We are not reported to have issues with Radon in the Austin Texas area like many other areas in the United States have. Need I even talk about cigarette or cigar smoke indoors? For more information see Indoor Air Quality at Lung.org and EPA.gov as well as other sites. The EPA site allows you to Take a Tour of the IAQ House which goes room by room explaining key pollutants and how to address them.

What can we do to have better IAQ or indoor air quality?

Control Moisture

It is important to control moisture inside of your home not only for your own comfort level but also to inhibit mold growth. Your HVAC system is designed to remove moisture from the air as well as keep you cool in the Summer. Be sure and hire a competent HVAC company to properly size your air-conditioning system so it will remove the moisture sufficiently. You might also consider a separate de-humidifier system for those days when it is just the right temperature naturally but the humidity is high. A UV or ultra violet light can be added to your HVAC’s duct system. Exhaust fans are needed when cooking and bathing or showering to vent excessively humid air to the outside of your home.

Other HVAC and Combustion Related Matters 

In times past, homes were known for being drafty. In todays’s greenbuilt, uber tight homes, there is little fresh air entering the home naturally resulting in inadequate ventilation. This may necessitate having a fresh air intake built into your HVAC system to ensure there is enough fresh air inside your home. You might also consider adding a media filter system with thick HEPA filters. With a wood burning fireplace there can be smoke and or carbon monoxide (CO). Gas appliances such as stoves, water heaters and heaters can also emit carbon monoxide. Be sure to have all fireplaces and gas appliances installed properly and use them properly. Have carbon monoxide detectors in your home to monitor the air.


In the old days cottonseed and other natural materials were used for insulation or thick stone walls created thermal mass. Unfortunately, asbestos was used as insulation in some old buildings. Even though asbestos is a natural material, when disturbed, it can become airborn and is a known carcinogen. Today there is fiberglass bat insulation, open and closed cell foam insulation, recycled blue jean (cotton) insulation, wool insulation, blown cellulose insulation and more.


Floors, Subfloors, Floor Coverings and Floor Sealants 

In the old days all flooring and sealants were natural and did not emit VOC’s or Volatile Organic Compounds. I see many historic homes with natural stone, heart pine and other hardwoods that are over 100 years old and look as good as the day they were installed. In those days sealants were made from natural materials like resins, waxes and oils. Some examples are linseed oil, carnauba wax and tung oil. Today, there are many, many flooring choices but not all are natural or desirable, especially when concerned about healthy living. Which flooring is right for you? Our indoor air can be polluted by VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds as well as formaldehyde and benzene found in flooring, subflooring, adhesives and sealants. A person with chemical sensitivities might be wise to look at natural materials like bamboo, cork, linoleum, stone or wood and if you desire area rugs- natural fibers like wool, sisal or cotton. I have a friend with chemical sensitivities who is an artist. She painted her concrete floors with no VOC paint which looked really cute. Earthen floors are also an option in a naturally built home. Natural stone is great as long as you don’t use a chemical sealer. Linoleum has come back from the past as Marmoleum in many designer colors and patterns.


The Garage: Is Attached or Detached Best?

Most homeowners park their gasoline or diesel powered vehicles and store their lawnmower, gasoline, as well as other toxic chemicals like paint thinners and lawn chemicals in their garage. In that case, a detached  garage is definitely best because those fumes can enter your home. Of course, it would be nice to have a covered walkway to the house. My garage is attached to my home but I drive a hybrid vehicle. When I pull my car into my garage it is in EV or Electric Vehicle mode so it is not emitting pollutants. I no longer have any gasoline powered yard equipment so I store no gasoline in my garage. Because I have such a tiny lawn I gave away my gasoline lawnmower and gas weedeater. Now only I have a small electric weedeater and hand tools for my yard. I garden organicly so there are no toxic lawn and garden chemicals.


Pets can be originators of biological pollutants like dander but for those of us who can’t live without them and enjoy the many positive benefits pets can give us there are dog, cat and even bird breeds promoted as hypo allergenic (no pet is 100% hypoallergenic) that produce less allergens. For example, in dogs, breeds such as the Poodle, Portuguese Water Dog, some terriors and others. Breeds like the Poodle and Portuguese Water Dog do not shed so this may help in keeping floors, bedding and other surfaces cleaner. For a list of suggested breeds consult resources like PetMD.com or your allergist. Also see the athsma and pets section at EPA.gov My super sensitive friend is able to have multiple indoor cats of all varieties inside. She uses a dust free, natural plant based litter material.

NASA study

NASA did a 1989 study called Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement which proved that indoor plants actually remove many toxins from the air. Among the chemicals screened were Benzene, Trichloroethylene and Formaldehyde. However, there is one caveat about indoor plants I have noticed from my sensitive friend. She cannot have plants in the house because of her multiple cats but also that there could be mold type spores in the dirt. I have always enjoyed plants and have orchids, corn plant and others in my home. If you are not a plant person, I am happy to share some tips on selection and care. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf

 Electro Magnetic Fields

 TVs, phones and other electronic devices in our homes may emit electromagnetic radiation or EMR. Look outside the home as well for issues with electro Magnetic fields. The home may be located close enough to large power lines to be affected.

Don’t Clean by Polluting 

There is virtually an arsenal of toxic cleaners, fresheners and other household products at our neighborhood grocery stores. Not only do they add tons of packaging waste to our landfills, they can add toxic fumes and chemicals to our home environment. For every toxic chemical based product, there is a better, more natural, less toxic alternative. You’d be amazed at how much just simple vinegar can do towards cleaning. Any rugs you do have should be vacuumed or laundered often to help prevent dust and dust mites. A good vacuum that does not blow out a lot of dust is imperitive. Try a Miele, Nilfisk or Rainbow. I personally have used a Rainbow® for decades which uses water as a filter to trap dust and dirt plus has HEPA filters.

Our Clothing and Personal Care Products

A good friend of mine recently had an extreme rash on her arms and other areas from using a shampoo. Anywhere the shampoo touched her skin was fiery red and flaky dry. It is a good idea to do a little research and use only products that are as natural and non-toxic as possible. After all, if on city sewer, that goes into the system and out as effluent, possibly heading downstream. You may have specific allergies or sensitivities to certain product ingredients. Think about whether you really want to use things like fabric softener sheets and clothes treated with chemical flame retardants. When working with my sensitive clients, I am careful to not use perfumes or even scented natural oils.

The Outside Environment: In Our Yard

How can we have a healthy, yet beautiful yard? Organic gardening practices are best for maintaining a healthy yard for your plants as well as people and pets. Lawn grass may be a huge water hog as well as a traditional source of allergens and chemicals. Low water use varieties of lawn grass are best for Austin and the surrounding areas of Central Texas. Do not subscribe to using weed and feed type products with Atrazine, which not only pollute your yard with this chemical or others but also add their toxin to rainwater as it runs off into our creeks, rivers and lakes. There are natural herbicides like corn gluten which you top dress with and use as a pre-emergent. For spot treatment, weeds can be pulled or sprayed with various non-toxic products which may include strong gardeners vinegar. Fire ants are not native to Texas but were accidentally imported into the US and have since made their way here. For treatment of fire ants, there are drenches available commercially mixed such as Antifuego – which is sold as a drench and not an insecticide and made from molasses and orange oil with compost tea. You can make your own using items like Medina orange oil and molasses. Beneficial nematodes also help to control fire ants as well as fleas in your yard. Electric or gasoline blowers actually create a dust bowl effect. Don’t subject you or your neighbors to that. I subscribe to organic soil care practices like The Dirt Doctor, Howard Garrett who has a Toxic Chemical Blog on his site DirtDoctor.com.

For Pollen Sufferers

Many people are allergic to pollen in the outside air. Two of the main culprits in the Austin area are mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei) which causes “cedar fever” and oak pollen. There can also be a high mold count or a lot of dust in the air.

 Buying a Home: Resale and Retrofit or Build ?

There are many things that can be done to mitigate an existing home. Just imagine if every body decided to build and no one wanted to buy an existing home. HERS Energy Raters are also trained in Healthy Home and can assess your home. The EPA has rolled out its Indoor airPlus program to promote indoor air quality in new homes.

About the Author

Betty Saenz is a GREEN REALTOR® or EcoBroker® practicing Real Estate in the Austin Texas and Central Texas area who has a long standing interest in nature, ecology and health. Betty is not a Medical Doctor, HVAC professional or mold expert and has obtained all material herein from 3rd party sources. This article is meant as a brief overview. Betty will be happy to guide you in finding or building a home with your specific needs in mind or provide professional Real Estate services in selling your greenbuilt home. Betty also has Healthy Home Consultants and Bau-Biologist to refer you to if desired.