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Airborne enemies in the home

June 27, 2008
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(This Old House) June 27, 2008-- Bud Offermann's targets are invisible contaminants, like dust mites, mold spores, or volatile organic compounds, that homeowners worry might be damaging their health.

"People come to me with all sorts of concerns," says Offermann, president of San Francisco--based Indoor Environmental Engineering, an air-quality consulting firm. "They have small kids with allergies, or they are having symptoms themselves."

For $1,500, he conducts a complete air-quality checkup. If the complaint is a respiratory ailment, he checks for mold in bathrooms, kitchens, and air-handling systems. If nothing turns up, he'll explore inside wall cavities and take air samples for laboratory analysis.

Offermann's more chemically sensitive clients sometimes call complaining of a generalized funk he terms "brain fog." In those cases, he tests for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemical compounds that can be emitted by wall-to-wall carpet, finishes, plywood, and other construction materials.

"It's kind of like detective work," he says. And these days, Offermann is busier than Mike Hammer after a triple homicide. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the air inside our homes and offices is up to five times more polluted than even the smoggiest industrial town.

Asthma in children, who inhale 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults, has been directly linked to the presence of dust mites, mold, and pet dander.

More formidable airborne enemies include radon, an invisible gas produced by uranium in the soil under your house; secondhand smoke; and poisonous gases like carbon monoxide, which can be emitted from poorly maintained gas stoves, furnaces, or fireplaces, and can cause headaches, chest pains, even death.

When not properly maintained, HVAC systems can become breeding grounds for mold.

"In most buildings and homes, the air handlers just aren't kept up," says Bill Eva, a senior industrial hygienist with an air-quality consulting company in Clearwater, Florida. "People don't realize how important it is to keep them clean."

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