Is your home toxic?

Living Well | Sarah Marinos | Posted on 04 June 2019

These are the seven places your home is probably hiding harmful chemicals.

Our home is our sanctuary. It’s the place where we can feel safe…or can we? Some everyday household fixtures and materials are not as harmless as we think, silently emitting chemicals and fumes. And nooks and crannies can be a breeding ground for mould and bacteria.

Living with this cocktail of chemicals, fumes, bacteria and moulds can lead to eye, nose and throat irritations, headaches, asthma, eczema and chronic respiratory disease.   

“As much as 70 to 90 per cent of our time is spent indoors so what is in these confined spaces that impacts our health and wellbeing?” asks Dr Cameron Jones, an environmental microbiologist at Biological Health Services in Melbourne.

Messy bed with white sheets and duvet cover and a rustic wooden frame


Seven places your home is harbouring toxins

Bedding 

Dust mites love bedding where they feed off dead skin cells, and pillows can hide fungi. New bedding, particularly memory foam mattresses and pillows, may contain formaldehyde – a strong-smelling chemical widely used in manufacturing.  

“Memory foam might be good for your posture,” says Cameron, but it releases formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are found in many household products, building materials, paints and synthetic fabrics and have been linked to eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, allergic skin reactions and even damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. 

  • Wash sheets, pillowcases and bedding in hot water – higher than 60C. Use dust mite-resistant covers on mattresses, pillows and quilts.

Carpets

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) warns that vacuuming carpets releases clouds of dust mites into the air for around 20 minutes or so after cleaning. New carpets and carpet glues also pose a risk as they may contain VOCs. So before carpet is installed, it should be unrolled and aired for a week.

  • Look for carpet brands with ‘low emission’ products.

  • Dry steam cleaning kills mites.

Caramel leather couch on timber floors next to a rack of old records

Synthetic woods and glues in some laminate flooring can contain chemicals that release harmful gases.


Chocolate leather recliner chair on a high-pile white rug next to a window

Carpets and rugs are a playground for dust mites. Choose low-emissions products and dry steam clean regularly.


Grey bucket chair with throw cushion on timber floors in living room

Ever wondered why your new couch has a distinctive smell? It’s probably the chemicals used in the fabric’s manufacturing.


Synthetic flooring and cabinetry

Synthetic woods and glues in some laminate flooring, kitchen cabinetry and new shelving contain chemicals that release gases. Vinyl flooring can contain phthalates – chemicals that make plastic tougher. Some research suggests exposure to phthalates may increase the risk of premature birth.  

  • Open windows and don’t overheat rooms as higher temperatures raise formaldehyde levels.

  • Look for cabinetry and flooring made without formaldehyde glues. 

  • Choice recommends timber flooring with a natural-oil hard-finish coating.

Upholstery

New furniture often smells due to chemicals used to manufacture fabrics, to glue furniture and to ensure fabrics are flame-retardant. “Air new furniture in the garage so gases dissipate,” says Cameron. Fabrics also collect dust mites – leather or vinyl lounges are a cleaner option.

  • Dry steam cleaning fabric upholstery reduces dust mites.

Bathroom and laundry

Wet areas attract condensation, and this encourages mould. A dank odour is a tell-tale sign of a mould problem and while bleach removes visible signs, drying wet areas as quickly and as often as possible slows mould growth.

  • Use an extractor fan and open windows as much as possible.
Caramel leather couch on timber floors next to a rack of old records

Wet areas attract condensation, which is the ideal breeding environment for mould.


Chocolate leather recliner chair on a high-pile white rug next to a window

Keep bathrooms clean and dry, and always turn the fan on or open a window when showering to reduce condensation.


Grey bucket chair with throw cushion on timber floors in living room

Forget bed bugs. It’s the dust mites you should be worried about in your sheets, pillowcases and mattress.


Roof insulation

Cross-flow ventilation in roof spaces agitates insulation that can blow particles into the air. If you replace old insulation, choose a product with low toxicity, such as natural wool bulk insulation, advises Sustainability Victoria.

"If you can see daylight when you look in your roof space, then rain can get to your insulation,” says Cameron. “As insulation becomes damp it becomes a breeding place for bacteria, fungi and yeasts.” 

  • Replace loose roof tiles or sheets and seal holes with silicone or bitumen-backed tape and a heat gun. 

  • Replace damp, damaged insulation.

Gas heating

Faulty gas heating systems are a serious risk because they produce carbon monoxide. This odourless gas can spread through homes and lead to tiredness, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and vomiting. It can be fatal. Risks arise if a gas heating system is installed incorrectly or if flues become blocked.

  • Energy Safe Victoria recommends having gas heaters serviced and tested for carbon monoxide leaks every two years.

  • Don’t use gas heating overnight.