Protecting your family from 6 possible hazards

Published On: May 10 2012 09:24:57 PM EDT

According to Consumer Reports, there could be six hidden hazards in your home.  Indoor air quality isn't on most people's radar. Only 9 percent of Americans consider it a threat to their health, and 70 percent aren't concerned about it at all, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

But many of the things people do or don't do, can add to the stew of airborne contaminants in their homes and worsen asthma, allergies and other health conditions.

Household cleaners:  A 2009 study by the Environmental Working Group identified 457 air contaminants, 24 were linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, in 21 household cleaners.  Products labeled "green" were better overall, though the group found 93 contaminants in Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner.

That's partly because many claims on cleaning products aren't based on any standards. Fragrances in cleaners are seldom disclosed. Terpenes, for example, give products a pine or lemon scent, but they're linked to respiratory problems. They also can react with ambient ozone to form formaldehyde, a known carcinogen  and other irritants.

Consumer Reports suggest that what you can do:

Old lead-based paint:  Planning to paint? Old lead-based paint is the most significant source of lead poisoning in the U.S.  Roughly 35 million homes, or about half of those built before lead-based paint was banned in 1978, have lead paint, according to a recent federal study. Yet only 17 percent of those we surveyed said they had their homes checked for it.

You can put yourself in danger by scraping, sanding, or burning lead-based paint. Lead can also be released when painted surfaces rub against each other, as when a window is opened. Children are particularly at risk.

What you can do:

Carbon Monoxide and Radon:  Carbon monoxide and radon are colorless, odorless, and deadly. CO kills quickly. Faulty gas ranges, cooktops, and furnaces can emit CO, as can wood, kerosene and propane heaters.  Gas generators also emit CO, so don't run them in a garage or outside near open windows. Radon is the top cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, though it can take years of exposure. It seeps from rocks, soil or water beneath your house.  Radon levels can vary greatly, even from home to home on the same block. The only way to know whether your house has a radon problem is to test for it.

What you can do:

Combustion particles or gases:
Even vented gas ranges, cooktops, furnaces, and fireplaces can release harmful gases, soot and particles into the air if they're not properly installed and maintained.

The same is true with vented wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.  Unvented fuel-burning appliances always release small amounts of those substances.

When someone in your household smokes, the nicotine released by the cigarettes or cigars adheres to walls, carpeting, drapes, and other indoor surfaces and can react with nitrous acid (chiefly from unvented gas appliances) to form carcinogens, according to a recent Department of Energy study.

What you can do:

Interior Mold:
The ideal indoor relative humidity is between 30 to 50 percent.  Less than that and nasal passages can become dry.  At higher levels, mold can grow.  Humidifiers and dehumidifiers can help or create more problems.  Humidifiers should be emptied daily and disinfected regularly because mold can grow within 24 to 48 hours on wet surfaces. Mold and bacteria in the tank can be released into the air.

Dehumidifier filters and tanks also need maintenance, though not as much. Check the manufacturer's directions.  Bathroom exhaust fans also reduce humidity but need cleaning to avoid dust buildup, a medium for germs.

Not all cleaning is smart. Air ducts need cleaning only in limited circumstances-when there's visible mold, pests, or dust clogging them. Still, 49 percent of survey respondents clean their ducts at least once a year.

What you can do:

Air fresheners, candles and incense:
Behind the soothing fragrances of air fresheners, candles, and incense are volatile organic compounds. Air fresheners can also contain phthalates, which are linked to cancer and reproductive problems.

"A few manufacturers changed their products after our 2007 report found phthalates in 12 of 14 air fresheners we tested," said Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council.   "That's good, because companies are reformulating to make their products safer, but it's also bad because it's hard to know what's currently in any given product."

Scented candles and incense also release soot and particles into the air, which can trigger asthma attacks and allergic reactions.

What you can do