With the arrival of spring's warmer temperatures and longer, brighter days, it’s tempting to throw open your home’s windows and air the place out — especially with all the dirt, dust and other allergens that have accumulated over the winter.
But a good airing isn’t enough. Irritants such as dust mites, pet dander, mold, pollen and chemicals can quickly turn a home from comfortable to intolerable if you (or someone in your family) are one of the three million-plus Canadians (according to the Asthma Society of Canada) who live with asthma and allergies. Over 15% of asthma and allergy sufferers are children between the ages of four and 11.
Many products that we use year-round in our homes are released into the air, then recycled repeatedly. "Often indoor air quality is worse than outdoor air, since we seal ourselves in our homes after using cleaning agents, or we have little time for household duties such as dusting or controlling pet dander,” says Robin Wilson, a healthy-space interior designer and president of Robin Wilson Home.
To get ahead of seasonal allergies, you need to spring clean with a focus on certain hot spots. Here are 11 tips that will help make your indoor environment safer and healthier for your entire family:
1. Keep night time from being mite time
One of the chief allergy-causing culprits lives right under your head. Dust mites are microscopic creatures that live and multiply easily in warm, humid places like your pillows and the rest of your cozy bed, and feast on flakes of human skin. Their feces contain a substance called Der P 1, a very potent allergen that can cause asthma-like symptoms, eczema and chronic sinus problems.
Wilson notes that people typically change their pillows every six years, but recommends we pay more attention to our bedding, as we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. “Replace your pillow every three years and wash your pillowcase weekly in hot water,” she says. She also suggests you put a hypoallergenic cover on your mattress, preferably one with no toxic, formaldehyde-based fire retardants, and wash it at least twice a year.
2. Freeze stuffed toys once a month
Your child’s crib or bed can get dusty as particles settle into their stuffed toys. Wilson suggests a simple way to kill dust mites and keep your child's favourite toys sneeze-free: Place them in a freezer bag and freeze for 24 hours. “Tap the toy before you pull it out of the bag, and dispose of the bag along with the carcasses of microscopic dust mites that have fallen to the bottom,” says Wilson. When buying other types of toys, stick with items that are washable or easy to wipe clean.
3. Eliminate upholstery dust
Grandma was onto something decades ago when she used a tough, clear plastic cover to protect her sofa. Upholstery fabric not only sheds its own fibres, but also absorbs dust. Instead of opting for unflattering plastic, Nikki Smith, a Toronto mother of three, prefers using machine-washable slipcovers on her sofas and chairs. “They’re easy to remove and clean when the kids stain them with food and drinks,” says Smith. “They also allow me to change the look of my furniture without the expense of replacing it.” While the slipcovers are in the wash, take the cushions outside for a beating to remove deeply embedded dust, and to get a great arm workout!
4. Limit the use of heavy drapes and blinds
Curtains and blinds are major dust collectors. Consider roll-up, washable vinyl-coated window shades. If you do prefer curtains, be sure to wash them frequently in hot water, says Wilson.
5. Upgrade your shower curtain
Ever notice that new plastic smell when you open the package of a new, vinyl shower curtain liner? Don’t breathe too deeply, warns Wilson: That aroma is actually toxic gases that have built up in the packaging and are being released into the air in your home. A safer alternative is a nylon curtain liner. It doesn’t emit a toxic smell, looks nicer and is much easier to clean. You can also add half a cup of white vinegar when you put the shower curtain in the wash to help disinfect it and kill any existing mold naturally and safely.
6. Put a lid on it
Lowering the lid when you flush can actually limit the spread of disease. “Most people don’t realize that some older toilet models will spray fine drops of water at least two feet outside of the toilet if the lid remains up during a flush. This can be a health hazard for e-coli contamination,” says Wilson.
7. Are Fluffy and Fido making you wheezy?
If you’re sensitive to pet dander, regular home cleanings can dramatically reduce allergy symptoms. Pet allergies are caused by the proteins found in animal dander, urine and saliva. "I have a long-haired cat and a dog, and my roommate actually had to get another apartment because she developed a severe allergy to cats,” says Calgary landscaper Ian Martel.
Martel, who can’t live without his furry companions, tries to reduce exposure to pet allergens by thoroughly washing his hardwood floors and repeatedly vacuuming his furniture with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a well-sealed HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter.
Other environmental tactics to consider include regularly brushing pets outside and bathing them weekly with shampoo formulated to neutralize dander.
8. Use natural or non-toxic cleaning products
Keep your home’s air healthy by using non-toxic cleaning products or inexpensive, natural alternatives from your kitchen, such as baking soda, white vinegar, lemon and cornstarch. Calgary mom and home daycare owner, Angela McCullough, swears by the power of tea tree oil, a natural disinfectant thought to fight bacteria, various fungi and viruses. “I mix 10 drops of oil with water in a spray bottle and use it on surfaces around the house, on the kids’ toys, our clothing and the floor. It’s also great aromatherapy,” says McCullough.
9. Giving your walls a new splash of colour?
Use non-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint, which won’t produce off-gases, leave an obnoxious paint odour or stir up asthma or allergies. And it doesn’t look any different on the wall than smelly, traditional paint!
10. Find mold in not-so-obvious hangouts
The drip pan under your fridge is a welcoming neighbourhood for mold, so be sure to empty it regularly and scrub it with a brush dipped in vinegar. Clean out the bottom of your dishwasher, too.
11. Have a "shoes-off" policy
Outside grime and dirt from wherever you’ve been comes in with you on the bottoms of your shoes. Removing them at the door will keep germs, pesticides and chemicals off your floors.