Identifying and Preventing Illness-Causing Elements in Your Home

Updated on May 14th, 2019
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The home is sacred. It’s the place families should feel the most secure and protected. Just about every house eventually needs modifications and updates to ensure it ages gracefully, as well as to keep it well-protected against outside elements. From outdated pipes to poor insulation to rotting structural wood, not to mention years of exposure to varying degrees of heat, wind and precipitation, there are all kinds of ways pollutants can enter your home. It’s important to evaluate its safety and look for ways to both solve existing problems and prevent future issues.

This guide will help you inspect and assess your entire home for possible pollutants, as well as offer insight into possible solutions. It will discuss everything from allergens to potentially life-threatening risks, but do keep in mind that many allergens present in a single home can create more detrimental problems. Be sure to take into consideration the age, location, and type of home you have, as well as any other local factors like neighborhood pest problems or inclement weather conditions.

Pet Dander

If you have a dog, cat, bird, or rodent member of the family, pet dander will be a major concern. Pet dander is simply the near-microscopic particles of skin that can be rubbed off onto furniture, carpet, clothing, skin, and hair, and even the most well-groomed of pets are going to have natural dander. Unfortunately, when those with allergies have contact with pet dander, they can have extreme irritation in the eyes and nose, as well as respiratory issues like wheezing, sneezing, and congestion. A severe allergy and prolonged exposure can even cause tightness of the chest and rashes.

Whether or not anyone in your home is allergic to any of your pets, it’s still important to reduce dander as much as possible. Establish boundaries for where your pet can and can’t go, keeping certain lounge areas and all eating and meal preparation surfaces off-limits. Bathe your pet regularly — however often your vet recommends — and wash any bedding or linens they spend time in. Vacuum at least weekly, and wipe down surfaces consistently, especially in high-pet-traffic areas. Use HEPA filters for your heating and cooling system and your vacuum.

Dust and Mites

The truth is that every home is going to have dust somewhere. Most people won’t have many health issues based on household dust alone, but it can cause sneezing, itching, watery eyes, and coughing if left unchecked. It’s especially important during the spring and summer months when pollination is often at its peak, and particles that make their way inside could linger among dust bunnies.

Take special note of the places dust tends to gather the heaviest, and maintain them especially carefully. Dust at least weekly, and ditch the feather duster and dry cloths for electrostatic dusters that trap dust more effectively. Carpets should be vacuumed regularly (don’t forget the HEPA filter) to prevent dust and dirt buildup — especially in areas that see a lot of traffic like entryways and the living room — but if you have a lot of hard floors, consider buying a small dust mop as well. They can reduce the dust left behind by some vacuums, plus can be stored and accessed quickly and easily.

A majority of household dust is made up of our own skin and clothing particles, so don’t neglect your bedding and furniture. Anything machine washable should be laundered in hot water regularly, especially blankets and pillowcases. For items that are dry clean only, taking them outside for a thorough shaking can be effective maintenance between professional cleanings.

Dust mites are another common household pest, and they can cause a similar irritating reaction as the dust they feast on. Many who are sensitive to dust mites show asthmatic symptoms, and for some, it can even cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing. If you’re noticing these kinds of symptoms, consult your physician.

dust mite
Image via Pixabay

You can eliminate and prevent dust mites by using hypoallergenic bedding and furniture covers and getting rid of years-old pillows. Wash clothing, bedding, and curtains in hot water weekly, and replace as much wool or feathered materials as possible. Dust mites thrive in warm, humid climates, so be particularly mindful of any areas in your home (perhaps those near large, sunny windows) that will regularly carry more heat. If your problem is especially bad, you may even want to replace much of the carpet in your home with wood, tile, or another hard material that will be less prone to collecting dust.

Mold and Mildew

Mildew is going to pop up just about anywhere in your home that sees a lot of moisture, especially the bathroom and kitchen. Tropical, humid regions can be especially prone to mildew growth, so if you’re on the coast or near a large body of water, you’ll want to be especially vigilant. The mere presence of mildew is typically not a major health threat on its own, but children and seniors can be particularly vulnerable to subsequent respiratory issues if it builds up.

Depending on where and on what kind of surface the mildew is on, there are different methods for cleaning it. Fortunately, there are natural solutions that can be just as effective at cleaning without the harsh chemicals. Some areas may need to completely dry out before you can scrub away the mildew, and be sure to wear a mask while you’re cleaning. Children, seniors, and pets should ideally be out of the house while you work, or at the very least in a faraway room.

Mold can become a bigger problem more quickly than mildew, and some forms are even toxic. Warm and humid spots in and around the home tend to be the most prone to mold growth, but you also might see it appear on the ceiling, wall, or floor as a result of cracks or poor insulation. It typically has a musty, earthy scent, and in some cases may be more easily smelled than seen — it can sometimes grow on the inside of your walls or roof. It’s crucial to be sure your pipes are in good working order and to check for leaks if you have reason to believe there could be a problem. Be especially vigilant if you live in a region that sees bitter winters capable of freezing and cracking pipes.

Black mold is the most dangerous kind, and while it’s commonly found in areas like basements and laundry rooms, you should keep an eye out anywhere with significant moisture. It’s a dark, greenish black, and tends to grow in a circular pattern. As it expands, you might discover wet, slimy areas as well as dry, charcoal-like residue in areas where the mold has dried.

If you believe you might have black mold growing in your home, keep the area clear of people and pets until you can have it professionally inspected. If the problem is minor and you’ll be able to clean it on your own, be sure to wear protective gear like gloves, safety glasses, and a mask. Let the area dry out completely once you’ve finished cleaning, then check it again (with your mask on) when it dries. Repeat as needed, and seek an expert opinion if your efforts aren’t cutting it.


Using green cleaning and home products can make a positive impact on the kinds of chemicals your family is exposed to. However, there are other risks from materials in your home that could be polluting the air. Certain drywalls, cabinets, pressed wood, and furniture may contain formaldehyde, a colorless gas that can be dangerous if too much is inhaled. People may exhibit symptoms like eye irritation, nose bleeds, coughing, and sore throat if they face regular overexposure, but others may not notice any outward health effects at all. Extended exposure can increase a person’s risk of cancer, especially in the nose and throat, even if they never show any obvious symptoms.

Image via Pixabay

You can purchase and use a home testing kit to evaluate whether formaldehyde is a prevalent issue in your home, but the CDC advises that you likely aren’t at risk and in need of assessment unless you can smell strong chemical odors or have any symptoms of formaldehyde overexposure. Identify and eliminate as many contributing pollutant materials as possible, and see a doctor immediately if you do experience symptoms.


Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that can be extremely dangerous and has even been linked to lung cancer. The most common source of radon in the home comes from its foundation: uranium in the ground a house is built on breaks down and releases a radioactive gas, which can permeate into the home. It can be especially detrimental if there are cracks or drains through which it can enter, leading it to build up and amplify your family’s exposure.

It’s important to note that radon can be a problem in just about any home, new or old. Homes with basements may be slightly more prone to risk because of proximity, but testing your home is a good idea regardless. If you’re buying or moving into a new home, a radon test should be included in your inspection; otherwise, you can purchase a kit to perform a test yourself.

Carbon Monoxide

One of the deadliest pollutants that can enter your home is carbon monoxide. It can build up as a result of all kinds of different factors, often tied to an engine-, fire-, or gas-related element. Take the following steps to ensure your home isn’t at risk:

  • Have your chimney cleaned every year to get rid of debris and soot buildup
  • Never use a generator, portable gas camp, or flameless chemical heater indoors
  • Only use charcoal outdoors in well-ventilated areas
  • Have your home’s heating system, water heater, and other coal-, gas-, or oil-burning appliances checked by a qualified professional every year
  • Check that your gas appliances are well-vented, directing exhaust slightly upward and toward an exterior window or door
  • Never use a gas stove or range oven for heating

Wear a mask for any close-up inspecting, and get everyone out of the house immediately if you have reason to believe there’s a leak. Call a professional for further assessment and assistance. Remember, carbon monoxide is often called a “silent killer” because leaks and buildup often go undetected, and everyone in your family, including children, seniors, pets, and YOU, are at risk of poisoning.

face mask
Image via Pixabay

The most important step you can take is installing a carbon monoxide detector, which operates much like a smoke detector. You should install one on every level of your home, ideally placed in the rooms where there are gas appliances or other risk factors.


Older homes are at an increased risk for asbestos, though the information should have been disclosed in documents from the sale of your home. Nevertheless, if you think something may have been overlooked, incorrectly recorded, or if you think a previously-sealed section is now causing issues, getting an inspection by a trained professional is a good idea. You may have even noticed signs that asbestos-infused materials were once a part of your home; for instance, say you plan to redo your floors and discover tile outlines in 9”x9” patterns. That particular size of floor tiles is commonly associated with asbestos, and there could be lingering remnants even years later.

Building materials like certain kinds of drywall, ceiling, and flooring tend to be the main culprits of asbestos in the home. The problem can be further amplified if there are cracks or crumbling sections of the building that can release even more fibers into the air. As a homeowner, your biggest issue with asbestos may come with a remodel. Be sure to double-check all of your paperwork to verify where your home stands with asbestos, and consider calling in a trained professional to perform an inspection before you begin. Because asbestos is difficult to assess and the process requires significant safety preparation and knowledge, it’s best to consult a professional.

Remedying an asbestos problem typically involves sealing or covering up the affected area. Again, unless you have experience and training, it’s usually best to have the work done by a professional. If an inspection leads to a recommendation of full removal, it means the problem is very serious, and qualified assistance is even more vital. Improper disposal can not only prevent the problem from being solved, it can actually increase your family’s risk of exposure.


Lead-based paint was used in many homes before it was banned by the federal government in 1978, so it’s possible it was used in your home even before you owned it. Often it breaks up into dust that can be extremely dangerous, even toxic, if inhaled. This is part of why it’s so important to exercise a lot of caution when it comes to any home renovations or improvement projects — even if you’re not certain that there could be dangerous elements within your house’s structure, chancing it could cost you your health.

But paint isn’t the only place you might find lead in your home. It’s been known to enter drinking water via the corrosion of pipes made with lead, especially in areas where water has high acidity or low mineral content. Typically, the older the home, the greater the risk, but even relatively new homes may have lead fixtures. Changes were recently made to the Safe Drinking Water Act, making the newly-accepted maximum lead content of pipes and other plumbing fixtures to be 0.25 percent. While you might not be able to re-pipe your entire home based on this new standard, do check back often for important updates to research and requirements.

Image via Pixabay

The most efficient way to test for lead in your home is to contact your local health department, though you can purchase an at-home kit. However, a kit usually offers only limited insight and won’t be as accurate as a thorough, professional evaluation. An assessor may take multiple samples per room to get a complete idea of exposure, and the cost will vary.

Avoid bringing any lead-based products into your home, and keep your pets, children, and elder family away from affected areas. Be especially vigilant about sweeping up particles from these areas, always wearing a mask and making sure no small pieces will be found or ingested. Drink and cook with filtered water, even if your pipes haven’t been shown to be dangerous, and stay acute to local alerts and concerns in your area.

A Note on Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution can come from a variety of factors:

  • Products or materials that release dangerous particles into the air
  • Poor ventilation
  • Temperature and humidity levels

Many of the previously-discussed elements can be major contributors to indoor air pollution, and it’s important to keep in mind that you must cover all of your bases collectively to eliminate as many health risks as possible. The key overall is to find the best balance of ventilation and reducing hazardous particles in the air.

Once you’ve sought out and solved (to the best of your abilities) your home pollutant problems, you might want to consider elevating the overall air quality with an air filter or purifier. They come in various sizes and models, some of which can be moved room-to-room and others that are meant to cover multiple large areas at once. Shop carefully, paying attention to both the pollutants it protects against — most aren’t designed to eliminate gaseous elements — as well as the circulation rate. You’ll want both to be somewhat strong in order to make the most of your investment.

General circulation is also an important part of air quality in your home. Trading indoor air for new is not only refreshing, it can flush out lingering pollutants. When possible, open a few windows or doors to get a cross-breeze that will circulate indoor air with fresh air from outside. Fans can be an excellent aide if your home doesn’t have an ideal layout for this technique. Even just once a week can be beneficial. If, however, you live in a major city or other area with serious outdoor pollution, stick with an air purifier and fans to keep your home fresh.

Moisture is a common contributor to many illness-causing elements in the home, so be sure that the bathroom, laundry room, and kitchen get plenty of ventilation. Wash your bathmats in hot water regularly, and hang them for proper drying between uses. Open windows and fans can help a room dry up a little more quickly, reducing the chances of mold and mildew. If you live in a humid region of the country, you may want to consider purchasing a dehumidifier. Many can be transported throughout the house to be used just about anywhere or anytime. Plus, they can even knock the temperature a few degrees cooler, helping get rid of those hot, humid problem zones.

Remember that just about every home will have room for improvement when it comes to limiting dangerous elements, so don’t feel overwhelmed. Tackle the most vital issues first to ensure your family’s health and safety — when in doubt, always contact a professional. Once the emergency situations (if there are any) are handled, your responsibility is controlling the controllables: getting your appliances checked and serviced, using safe home-cleaning products, reducing the dangerous elements in your home, encouraging proper air circulation, and maintaining proper dryness and temperature. With diligence, your home will remain the safe space you trust it to be.

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Natalie is Redfin's Managing Editor and oversees content planning for the Redfin blog. She edits all posts published on Redfin Real-Time, and works with guest contributors to craft expert content. Before Redfin, Natalie was a Lead Editor at SheKnows, where she helped build and scale the largest community of women writers. Her dream home would have a huge art studio and a library full of books.

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