Is your home
Your home may look perfectly fine but a range of factors can contribute to making
it a toxic environment. In some cases, your house could literally be killing you.
By Luisa Volpato
16 LOOK HOME
Alert! The paints you
use can emit volatile
which pollute your
For a culture that is known for its love of the great
outdoors, the reality is that we spend much of our
time indoors. Blame it on those TV home renovation
shows, but we are also a little obsessed with building
and decorating our retreat from the outside world.
But have you ever stopped to ask yourself: is your
house killing you? As drastic as that might sound, it is
the question posed by the SBS TV show of the same
name, which aired last year. This makeover show with
a difference takes a scientific approach to getting rid of
common indoor air toxins and their health risks.
The show’s host Peter Dingle, a university professor
in environmental science and expert in indoor air
and health, says the main culprits are right under
our noses. “Mould, pesticides, solvents, deodorisers,
cleansers, dusty carpets, paints, treated timber,
adhesives, fumes from gas heating … the list goes on,”
LOOK HOME 17
Killing you softly
Dingle and his expert team took their CSI-style
investigation to the house of Bronwyn and Brian Edler,
in the outskirts of Sydney. Surrounded by gum trees in
a quiet neighbourhood, it seemed the ideal place to
raise their young family.
“Little did they know the extent of the mould in their
house and the insidious effect it was having on their ill
health,” says Dingle. “The fact that they said they felt
better whenever they left the house was a pretty big clue.
“Each morning they woke up sneezing and they suffered
from constant fatigue and inexplicable mood swings. Rarely
did a week go by without at least one of them suffering a
cold, flu or stomach bug.
“I was particularly concerned about their nine-month-old
son, Sebastian. His skin was orange, he was lethargic and
not eating and growing – he had your classic ‘failure
to thrive’ symptoms.
The problem was found to be a leak in the roof, which
became much worse after heavy rain, and bad sub-floor
drainage and ventilation. There was a heavy musty smell
and mould growing on the surfaces and on their clothes.
“Symptoms of mould infestation can result in breathing
problems, nasal and sinus congestion, eye irritation,
sore throat and headaches. Three toxic species of mould
were found in the Edler house which are also linked
with conditions from pneumonia to serious neurological
disorders,” says Dingle.
Decontaminating the house took months to complete,
starting with rebuilding the roof and removing the concrete
flooring that was blocking the sub-floor air vents.
“Needless to say when the family moved back in their
health improved. The mould was seriously affecting
that baby’s health. I seriously believe that if we hadn’t
overhauled the house and treated them personally,
that child would have died,” says Dingle.
There’s something in the air
Ever wondered why you sometimes sneeze incessantly,
even when you don’t have a cold? Many people blame it
on hayfever or pollen in the air. But the answer could be
a lot closer to home.
Dingle also investigated the Adelaide home of Trenna
and Steve Moore whose son suffered from asthma attacks.
Although their gas heater kept their family room cosy,
the rest of the house was cold, resulting in condensation.
The moisture created the perfect environment for mould
and dust mites – common asthma triggers.
Bacteria, mould and mildew can form part of the
household “dust” that we breathe in.
Another lesser-known cause of poor indoor air quality
comes from artificial sources such as synthetic building
materials, finishes, paints and varnishes, even new
furniture, which releases pollutants.
Symptoms of mould infestation
can result in breathing problems,
nasal and sinus congestion, eye
irritation, sore throat and headaches.
Indoor air expert Peter Dingle says: “Throwing away
air fresheners, along with a lot of the typical household
cleaning products, is one of the easiest ways you can
instantly remove toxic chemicals from your home.”
It seems going back to basics, like using good
old-fashioned vinegar to clean mould, makes
the air in your home much safer to breathe.
18 LOOK HOME
Even the paint you choose can contribute to the quality
of your indoor air. Most paints, paint strippers, sealants
and wood varnishes are made up of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs). According to the US Environment
Protection Agency, health effects of some VOCs include
eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of
coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys,
and the central nervous system.
“Volatile organic compounds are a class of chemical
substances that are carbon-based and become airborne,
or volatile, at room temperature,” explains Dingle.
“Avoid using oil-based paints and solvent-based lacquers
indoors. All typical paints if used indoors in a poorly
ventilated area can cause serious health issues, though
in recent years zero-VOC paints have been introduced
to counter health impacts.”
One such paint was created by Rockcote, a Queensland
paint company. “According to studies by CSIRO, indoor
air pollution can be three times worse than outdoor air,”
says Bob Cameron, founder of Rockcote.
“70% of the indoor air pollutants are made up of the
volatile organic compounds which are emitted from the
paint over a period of time.”
This fact prompted Cameron and his team to apply
their environmentally friendly thinking to create VOC-free
paints, even when the other paint companies said
it couldn’t be done.
The trouble with timber
Just like paint, the building materials used in a home can
also pose a health issue, says Dingle. A mixture of copper,
chromium and arsenic, CCA for short, is injected into soft
woods to prevent fungal decay and termites. Until recently,
wood treated with arsenic was commonly used for decking,
fencing, poles and most outdoor uses of timber.
“Wood dust from any timber including CCA-treated
timber may cause skin irritation and breathing difficulties,”
“It may aggravate asthma, eye infections or affect
wearing of contact lenses. CCA leaches from timber due
to weather and rain, and if the timber is used for domestic
purposes it can contaminate the skin,” says Dingle.
In response to the Australian Pesticides & Vetinerary
Medicines Association recommendation, CCA-treated
timber is no longer permitted for use in garden furniture,
picnic tables, domestic decking/patio, handrails, exterior
seating and children’s play equipment. Alternative wood
preservatives are available that don’t contain CCA.
If you have CCA timber already in place, Dingle suggests
using a sealant or paint to prevent picking up the
components from skin contact with CCA timber, but this
coating then needs to be maintained regularly like other
coated timbers around the house.
Building healthy homes
One of the best ways to improve indoor air quality is to
ensure your house is well ventilated. This is more than
just opening the windows and doors. Reducing built-up
moisture and ensuring good air circulation needs to be
built into the walls and structure of your home and can
be largely dependent on the building materials you use.
Building systems that can provide ventilation and
moisture clearing properties include fibre cement
US architect Peter Pfeiffer has spent 20 years developing
methods to mainstream sustainable or green building
practices. He is a fan of the water-shedding properties
of James Hardie fibre cement products.
“If a house flexes a bit and the house is clad in masonry,
stone or brick, you’ll get cracks,” he says. “Here [with
weatherboard] you’ll still have good water shedding,
you won’t have cracks to let moisture in.
“If water gets a stone or stucco or brick product wet
and then the sun comes out, it drives a strong amount
of vapour into the house creating humidity problems.
With Hardie siding [weatherboard] products there’s no
such problems, it sheds water,” he says, referring to
when it’s installed and maintained correctly.
Pfeiffer was so impressed with the James Hardie
weatherboard products that he built his own house
using it, which may have resulted in more than just
good building design.
“Our second son had asthma, and the doctor suspected
it was environmentally caused. Four months after moving
into the new house, his symptoms are all gone. And that’s
great,” says Pfeiffer. n
70% of the indoor
air pollutants are
made up of the volatile
which are emitted from the paint
over a period of time.
Bad indoor air quality can be due to bacterial
and fungal contamination of air filters within
airconditioning systems. Since the building air
is being circulated through this system, mould
spores, bacteria and odorous VOCs could be
released through the airconditioner and
contaminate the air. To avoid this, maintain
your airconditioning systems regularly.
If you have an unflued gas heater you will
be breathing in the nitrogen dioxide and carbon
monoxide emitted from combustion of gas.
Replace your unflued gas heater with a flued
gas heater and ensure there is good ventilation
to reduce health risks.