Home Is Where the Risk Is

By Courtney Lebedzinski

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As another busy year begins, many of us have committed - or perhaps recommitted - to healthier habits and practices. Inspired by ideas and images of improving our health, we tell ourselves that this will be the year we make it happen.  But defining what “better health” may look or feel like can be challenging, leading many to ask themselves - How can I best improve my health?

Some of us are convinced that a better diet or exercising more

will bring the health  improvements we desire. Others might tackle water intake or sleep quality as a way to feel better.  But almost no one thinks about their home environments as the proxy for good health.

As for me, I’ve spent countless hours studying the complex interactions between our homes and other buildings and our health, and I am now convinced that well people cannot thrive inside of sick environments.

Let’s begin by exploring how our homes and other surroundings can affect us.

The Gene-Environment Interaction

Think back to 8th grade science class when you learned about genes, genetics, Mendelian inheritance, and - my favorite - Punnett squares. If this doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry.

Basically, classical genetics teaches that our genes make us who we are and play an important role in our predisposition for certain health issues. It also suggests that any person’s genetic health is simply a function of their parents’ dominant and recessive traits. Turns out, it’s not quite so elementary.

Over the last decade, mainstream science has come to a new understanding of how human gene expression works. This field, called epigenetics, is the study of how our environment influences our genes. To put it simply: Our genes may “prime” us for certain health issues, but it takes the right environment or circumstances to trigger that gene to express itself.

As an example, if an individual already has the genetic marker for breast cancer, it might be the daily exposure to hormone-disrupting plasticizers from vinyl window blinds that turn this gene on.

The average American spends 90% of their time indoors, with some 30% of their life spent in their bedroom alone! Is it any wonder then that, from an epigenetic perspective, our homes have profound implications on our health?

The Risks Inside Your Home Environment

Some people believe that their homes could never harm them – their home is too new, or expensive, or clean to make them sick.  We all want to believe our homes are safe havens - spaces for rest, relaxation, and comfort. But it is that same coziness that can lull us into a false sense of security about the safety of our homes.

The truth is that even the most expensive custom home is capable of negatively influencing occupant health.

With risks including lead, mold/moisture, carbon monoxide, radon, asbestos, toxic lighting, chemical pollution, non-native electromagnetic frequencies (nnEMF), poor indoor air quality, contaminated water, pests, asthma/allergies, unsafe conditions, psychological stress, thermal discomfort, and noise pollution, the list of possible negative home-health interactions is quite staggering.  

How Did We Get Here?

Over the last century, the increase in manufacturing, innovation, and technology has profoundly influenced every aspect of our lives, including our houses. We used to build with local and natural materials such as rocks, adobe, and plaster using time-tested building principles, a building process largely forgotten in post-Industrial Revolution America.

In 2019, this building style has been replaced with modern construction materials and techniques that could  unintentionally yet potentially endanger the health of some occupants.

In response to buyers’ demands of bigger, faster, and cheaper homes, manufacturers have turned to using man-made material alternatives to natural materials.

The result is that our homes could now be contributing to new health concerns.

Have You Considered...

•  The radon test that many people perform when purchasing a home maybe prone to false negative results.

•  Experts recommend that you test your water at the faucet at least once per year (then use contaminant-specific filtration).

•  The third most common way that people bring radioactive material into their home is through granite countertops.

•  A broken CFL light bulb (the curly kind) releases neurotoxic mercury vapors, and all humans and animals are advised to evacuate the room immediately.

•  As long as your smart TV is plugged into the wall, occupants are exposed to levels of microwave radiation – even when the TV is off.

•  Your sofa and mattresses are likely covered in halogenated flame retardants which are known to disrupt your hormonal system.

How is Designing for Human Health Different?

So I’ve got a question. What if we started building, designing, and remodeling our homes with occupant health in mind?

Considerations when designing homes for human health include everything from site selection and building design to the toxicity of building materials and furnishings. In studying this concept of a healthy home, we look at the following:

Designing for human health is different than building “to code.” In fact, building for human health occasionally opposes certain building codes, such as those that require the use of highly-fluorinated fire retardants, which could become harmful indoor air pollutants capable of making occupants ill.

Designing for human health is different than “green” building initiatives such as the tiny home movement or LEED certification. While building for human health and building for the  environment often look very similar, there are certain times that the path clearly diverges. For example, with a scoring system weighted heavily toward energy conservation, solar panels are very popular in “green” certifications. Solar panels, and their power inverters more specifically, can produce powerful electromagnetic fields and could create harmonics or “dirty electricity” throughout the home’s wiring, both of which come with their own set of health effects.

Designing for human health means considering much more than just indoor air quality. The few building standards that consider human health tend to focus solely on indoor air quality. Although an important consideration, to be sure, I cannot agree that healthy indoor air quality is the single most important metric of human health. Focusing solely on indoor air quality neglects the other legitimate concerns that exist in conventional housing, as mentioned above.

So now that you know what building for human health is (and isn’t!), let’s discuss how we can take this knowledge to your house!

A Resolution for Truly Better Health:  One Year to a Healthier Home Challenge

As thousands of additional bodies are taking over gyms all across the Emerald Coast, this year I propose a different type of resolution. What if you tackled your health goals by addressing your home environment? If you’re willing, I would like to take you through a year-long journey of creating a healthy home for yourself and your family.

Here are some of the healthy home topics we will be covering this year:

1. Start with safety

2. Upgrade your lighting

3. Filter your air and water

4. Keep it dry

5. Minimize indoor emissions

As a tool for you, I’ll be posting free downloadable worksheets, helpful information, extra resources, and climate-specific tips exclusive to On The Coast Magazine readers, so be sure to grab those at www.wholesomehouses.com/onthecoast

I’m looking forward to helping you make progress on this year’s resolution, so let’s get started with your first challenge (see page 28) and change the way that you feel at home!


January 2019 Healthy Home Challenge

With the holidays still a fresh financial wound, let’s use January as the month to get a quick and completely free win, shall we? No trips to the store and absolutely no money needed, this challenge will allow you to sleep in a healthier home as soon as tonight!

Below are five $0 healthy home hacks that you’ll want to try! Even implementing just a couple of these tips could yield incredible results!

Turn off your router at night. Though a wired connection is healthier, faster, and more secure, I get it – it’s 2019 and you want wireless internet! Even if you must have WiFi during the day, turning your wireless router off at night (using a cheap timer, if needed) will help give your body a break from strong electromagnetic fields.

Take your shoes off at the door. Your shoes are covered in chemicals and pesticides, viruses and bacteria, and even poop! This simple step will drastically reduce the amount of nasties on your floor – a must for those with little crawlers in the home.

Unplug your electronics when not in use. Many electronics, including smart TVs, gaming consoles, wireless printers, and even some CPAP machines broadcast extremely high levels of microwave radiation – even when not turned on.

Toss the air fresheners. The smell of “ocean breeze” coming from your plug-in air freshener is actually a proprietary laboratory blend of hundreds of different chemicals under the deceptively-innocent-sounding term “fragrance.” Many of these compounds have known negative health consequences.

Want more free healthy home tips? When it comes to EMF, distance is your friend. Not only will walking into the next room to turn off your alarm clock help you wake up, it will spare you an electromagnetic assault that can rival what occurs under high-tension power lines.


February 2019 Healthy Home Challenge

When it comes to “healthifying” your home, few things can make a bigger impact than your bedroom. Not only do you spend more time here than anywhere else in the home, it is where you are located during your body’s critical rest and repair stage.

Because of this, building biologists and other healthy housing strategists often place a primary focus on creating a calming sleep sanctuary. Here are my top tips for helping you design a health-promoting bedroom:

Your room should be electrically quiet. The ideal is to cut the circuit breakers to your bedrooms every night. The next best strategy involves removing all non-necessary electronics from the bedroom, unplugging remaining devices when not in use, and positioning the devices that operate overnight (such as a CPAP machine or alarm clock) as far away from the bed as possible.

Use natural textiles. What goes on your skin goes in your skin, so it is important that both your pajamas and your bedding be made of natural fibers. Choose options made with organic cotton, linen, jute, or wool.

The goal is total darkness. Your bedroom should be completely dark when you go to sleep. To achieve this, you may need to purchase black-out curtains and put LED covers over the indicator lights of anything still plugged in.

Reduce allergens.  Your pillow and mattress are havens for dust mites and other allergy-triggers - and you breathe them in all night long! Keep dust mites, bacteria, and fungus under control by disinfecting your mattress and pillow with a vapor steamer (dry steamer) every two months. Also consider removing carpeting and bulky curtains from your bedroom.

Cool it down. Studies have shown that a cool air temperature can improve your sleep quality. Ideally, program your home to be in the 60-65° F range during sleep and then to begin warming up about 30 minutes before sunrise.

For bonus zero-cost tips and tricks for creating a health-focused home and to access more of my favorite bedroom best practices, hacks, and resources download my January & February Challenge Worksheets, visit www.wholesomehouses.com/onthecoast