Real Estate

Experts Share Tips On Dealing With Home-Based Allergies And Sensitivities

Many of the 50 million Americans who suffer from allergies don’t realize that changes to their home environment can ease their discomfort. Most of the messaging they see – especially the countless advertisements – focuses on medication. There are other options, and they generally don’t come with potential health-related side effects. I interviewed three experts by email to get the latest wellness design solutions for people who suffer from allergies and sensitivities.

Recent Trends

“The prevalence of allergies and asthma has increased during the past decades,” observes Paula Henao, M.D., assistant professor of allergy, asthma and immunology at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. “Industrialization and pollution worldwide have increased dramatically in the past decades, and there is a possible link between air pollution and respiratory diseases,” she notes. Chemicals in our air may also be interacting with traditional airborne allergens, she adds, and other air pollution issues like the smoke and ash from wildfires can also contribute.

Tracey Stephens, a Northern New Jersey area kitchen and bath designer focused on sustainability and wellness, agrees, citing research she’s seen, “A Harvard School of Public Health study from this past April found that extreme weather conditions like heat, drought and flooding are causing allergy season to start earlier and last longer.” There are a number of effects from heat and pollution, she comments, contributing to her emphasis on indoor air quality for homeowner health and comfort.

“For every project and every client, as much as is possible I reduce the amount the amount of off-gassing toxins, basically anything that would irritate someone’s respiratory system.” That includes specifying materials with low and no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) and recommending induction cooking appliances over gas models. The latter have been shown to exacerbate health problems for people with respiratory issues like asthma, as well as contributing to other serious health conditions.

Wellness Technology

One of the trends we’ve seen in recent years is technology supporting wellness design, especially indoor air quality, a focus of New York-based technology educator and design engineer Joey Feldman. “Advanced air purification solutions are recommended within the home,” he advises, noting that there are different types, some requiring professional design and installation.

These are the ones that are going to be most continuous and work most smartly with your home’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The best versions will address the smallest virus particles, as well as allergens and pollutants, he adds. Pointing to a University of Buffalo study on one popular smart system, he says, “Air velocity, production quality, leakage and bypass all play a critical role in device efficiency versus filter testing alone.” Having HEPA filtration is great. Tying it into a smart home system is potentially greater, especially one designed to integrate into an automated platform that will monitor all facets of your home’s health, safety and comfort performance.

Respiratory Allergies and Issues

Respiratory reactions to allergens can be caused by dust mites, animal dander, mold and, even more unpleasant to contemplate, observes Henao, cockroaches. While hay fever is typically associated with outdoor activities during the warmer months, “because people spend more time indoors in the winter, they tend to be most affected by indoor allergens during the winter season,” she points out. Those are present throughout the year, she cautions.

For those with central heating and air systems, Stephens instructs, “Clean your HVAC system every few years and install a UV light in it, which helps control mold in the air handler coil.” Those without such a system can benefit from a room air purifier. “I got one for our bedroom recently and I’m amazed at what a difference it has made,” the designer shares. “I no longer wake up congested and my husband isn’t snoring!”

Managing mold and pests like roaches is also essential, Henao advises. Good ventilation is the key to the former, Stephens comments. “Use a powerful exhaust fan either on a humidity sensor or timer and make sure to run the fan for at least 30 minutes after turning off the shower.”

Parental Notes

Henao also comments that it’s impossible to completely eliminate indoor allergens, much to many people’s frustration. “This helps convey to parents that, even if they are perfect in all avoidance measures, allergens will still be present in our daily environment.” Dust mites are ubiquitous in our bedding, upholstery, carpeting, draperies and other textiles and they prefer humid environments, she shares. That may be good news for Arizonans, and bad for Alabamians. But even households with dehumidifiers should know that they are impossible to get rid of altogether, Henao reminds us.

“That said, I discuss with parents strategies to decrease the concentration of mites, including washing bedding regularly and keeping home clean (but with the child not present when sweeping is done, as that can aggravate symptoms).” For pet dander allergens, she advises keeping the dog or cat outside of the child’s bedroom. She also recommends having a HEPA filter, (particularly in the bedroom or areas where the allergy sufferer will be more frequently present). “These can be expensive, but can be helpful for more airborne indoor allergens, like animal dander.”

Skin-related Allergies and Sensitivities

Skin-related allergies typically show up in rashes a few days after exposure, Henao says. The most common causes of this contact dermatitis are lotions, perfumes, nickel jewelry and some topical antibiotic ointments, including neomycin. These are distinct from the types of skin issues that arise from other irritants. These can be uncomfortable and possibly unsightly, but outside of the allergy specialization.

Stephens suggest for anyone suffering from these issues: “With skin irritation, I find it’s not the kitchen and bath building materials per se, but the cleaning products used after. I rely on the Environmental Working Group’s research, which rates thousands of products for their safety for people and the environment.” She advises looking for the simplest cleaning products possible and avoiding those with unnecessary fragrances. That might require reading quite a few labels before putting items in your cart.

Water-borne Issues

The good news from a medical perspective is that there are no water-borne allergens in public drinking water, Henao observes. (There are definitely other issues, as noted here.) “However, water damage in the home can lead to development of mold, [and] this can cause issues in mold allergic patients,” she advises. Fortunately, there are leak detectors available to sound the alarm when something is releasing water where and when it shouldn’t. (In addition to the health benefits, there may be incentives from your insurance company for adding connected leak detectors.)

Stephens says she’s been recommending whole house water filtration systems lately. “It’s great to have fresh, safe, good tasting water from every tap,” she notes. It’s also great to have fewer irritations on your skin and hair.

Final Thoughts

Stephens also proposes one additional warning when it comes to the health of older homes’ occupants: “In more than a few projects, we’ve discovered asbestos – in floor tiles, in insulation around the furnace or steam heating pipes, and even as an additive in plaster walls from work done in the 1940s. It’s probably a good idea to hire a company to test a patch of the proposed renovation area before any demolition in any home built before 1989 when the EPA banned asbestos.”

***

Author’s Note:

Contributors Feldman, Henao and Stephens will be sharing more allergy and sensitivity insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (August 16, 2023) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can save the date and join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.

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