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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

House Hazards

Air Date: Week of

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Unseen creatures may lurk in your home. Host Diane Toomey talks with indoor air quality expert Jeffrey May about his new book "My House Is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma."


TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. What lurks beneath your sheets, on your rugs and in the vents of your house may be making you sick. That's what Jeffrey May says. He's an indoor air quality expert who's often called upon to inspect buildings on behalf of their sick inhabitants. Like a detective, Mr. May follows clues to figure out whether mold, mites, or chemicals might be to blame and then he prescribes a course of action to correct the problem. Jeffrey May has written a new book, titled "My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma." Mr. May, some people might think calling your book "My House is Killing Me!" is a little over the top. How much artistic license did you take with that name?

MAY: Well, not very much, actually. A lot of my clients have actually described the problems in their house to me and ended with "my house is killing me." So I didn't invent the title at all.

TOOMEY: What are some of the problems that some of your clients have because of their homes? What are their symptoms?

MAY: Typically, people have respiratory problems. I mean, I think that's the common denominator. Bronchitis, chronic coughing. Some people have sinus problems. There are a lot of children with asthma and adults with asthma. People sometimes call me up, they've just moved into a house and suddenly they can't breathe.

TOOMEY: Describe for me what we're up against. What are the unseen enemies that lurk in our homes?

MAY: Those are two good words: unseen and enemies. Because, really, that's exactly what they are. They fall into different classes of sort of biological things, basically. They're organisms that lurk in hidden places and affect our health, because they get from their little hiding place into the air that we breathe. Typical locations for these might be in the heating system, in a furnace, or in a cooling system, in a radiator, or in carpets, or in beds, or in couches. And they can be microbiological organisms - things like mold, bacteria and yeast - or they can be insects that feed on these other organisms, or, actually, on our own human skin scales. I mean, we are very often the source of the entire problem. Someone sitting in a chair for many hours during the day is actually incubating organisms.

TOOMEY: I learned a new word from reading your book, and the word is "frass." Tell me about frass.

MAY: Well, frass is - I'm not that polite a person; I'm sort of a nerd. So most people use the word frass. But, I mean, I use the word insect fecal pellets. I mean, it drives people crazy when you're sort of blunt like that, but frass is basically insect droppings, and a very large percentage of house dust, in different areas, consists of insect droppings. And literally, it's just dust. The problem is that if you've got a lot of insect frass in a carpet for example and you walk on the carpet it becomes airborne.

TOOMEY: Let's take a virtual tour through a house. You're called to do an inspection. Tell me what your first step is.

MAY: My first step is to look at the outside of the house, to see if there's any issues that might contribute to moisture problems on the inside, because any kind of water problems on the outside can lead to excess moisture and mold and mite problems in the basement. Then I look around the basement to see whether there are any significant mold problems in the basement. And that's typically what I'll find. I would say that most finished basements and homes end up in dumpsters after I've done an inspection of the house. It's very satisfying to me to actually drive by the house after the inspection and see, because then I know that I was right. When they take the walls out of the basement and you see the mushrooms growing out of the walls that no one knew were there, you realize why people are sick.

TOOMEY: Mushrooms growing out of the walls?

MAY: Yeah. I inspected a physician's home who regularly sort of picked the mushrooms around the wood and the floor actually in one of the bathrooms of the house. It's really an enormous problem. The mushrooms are the sort of visible fungi, but the invisible fungi - they're called microfungi - they grow on surfaces. They form what we know as mildew, and a lot of times the mildew is colorless, you can't even see it. So you may have mildew growing on a carpet or on a wall. So that's really my big stop. Then I look at the heating system, because, particularly with air conditioning and hot-air heat, if you've got air blowing through ducts you have the possibility of distributing all kinds of contaminants. So then I like to look at the areas of the house where people spend most of their time, because it's sort of ironic - where we spend most of our time, those are the places that often will be making us sick.

TOOMEY: Let's imagine, in someone's bedroom, a nice comfy bed, with lots of pillows and lots of layers of bedding on it. It may look beautiful but it may be, as your book says, killing somebody.

MAY: That's right. It looks beautiful but very often, again, like the worst things are the ones with the feather quilts, the really puffy stuffs. I've looked at some of these feather things which, I mean, if I had to guess, I would say that somebody just basically took the whole chicken and threw it into the quilt and the pillow. They just kind of like forgot to separate the feathers from - I mean, I'm not even exaggerating. That's what these things look like when you look at the emissions from quilts and pillows. You'll sometimes find huge amounts of bacteria. And these actually are the bacteria that grow in the wings.

TOOMEY: The bathroom. Tell us what are some of the problems you find in bathrooms.

MAY: Well, one great problem are these mats. People, they step out of the tub, and then they're dripping water, and they drip into this mat. And then they use cornstarch body powder. Well, when you take cornstarch and put it all over your body, I mean, basically it's like you're in a pizzeria, you're throwing cornstarch all over your house, which is basically food. So here you are standing on a wet mat and then you're powdering yourself with cornstarch, so it's called dough, so you have dough in the floor of the bathroom, and then it stays damp and then little things start to grow in there. So you find dust mites, and you find all kinds of bacteria. There's even yeast growing in there. And that's sometimes the smell in the bathroom.

TOOMEY: So do we get rid of our beautiful bedding? Do we have to go around spritzing our walls with bleach? What are some practical tips that we can do to prevent these little creatures from overtaking us?

MAY: What's I think very important for people, particularly with asthma, is to put these mite covers on the beds and pillows, the allergy control covers, and it's absolutely essential. You want to be very careful, you want to put the covers on all the beds. It's expensive but it's worth it, because if there's mites in one bed there could be mites in another bed. That's very important. Another really important thing is keeping relative humidity low, in the basement below 50 percent. Very few people actually measure that. A lot of people run dehumidifiers but they never check and if the relative humidity's high it's just a waste of money. The filtration in air-conditioning and the heating systems is absolutely key. People seem to think that the filters in their home, the heating system and air-conditioning system, the purpose of the filter is to clean the air, and that's how they kind of sell these things. But it's not that at all. Really it's to keep the system clean. And if you've got cornstarch body powder and skin scales and all this other food running around in the air in your house and then you don't keep it from the air-conditioning coil, which is cold and wet all the time, you're going to end up with mold problems. So, filtration is really essential. And the type of filters that I always recommend are called media filters. So if you can see through a filter, it's useless. And I always recommend people use futons. We actually did just that. I mean, we have now only futon couches, because the futon couch can be covered with a dust mite cover and then look like a normal couch.

TOOMEY: So you practice what you preach.

MAY: You bet.

TOOMEY: Jeffrey May is an indoor air quality expert based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of "My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma." Thanks for joining us today.

MAY: Thank you, Diane.


TOOMEY: You can hear our program any time, on our website. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online send your comments to us, at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. And you can reach our listener line at (800) 218-9988. That's (800) 218-9988. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.00.




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