How Healthy Is Your House?

It's Time To Give Your Personal Abode A Checkup To Ensure It Truly Is A Safe Haven



All Images: Jupiter Images

Millions of us every year fall ill or sustain injuries because we overlook dangers in our own homes. Just as we see our doctor for regular physicals, it's in our best interest to consistently assess potential health and safety risks in our home environment.

Food for Thought

Because it's often considered the heart of the home, let's start in the kitchen. According to public health and food safety experts, tens of millions of illnesses in the United States — including salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and campylobacter — can be traced to foodborne bacteria. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six Americans gets sick every year from food-borne diseases, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Proper food storage, preparation, and cooking principles are obvious concerns. For guidelines, visit www.nutrition.gov, click on "Shopping, Cooking & Meal Planning" and then "Food Storage and Preservation."

But there's more than the food itself to consider. Kitchen sponges can harbor thousands of bacteria per square inch, as well as mold. The USDA recommends microwaving your sponge for one minute to kill micro-organisms and fungi. Other researchers have found that zapping it for two minutes destroys more than 99 percent of bacteria. To avoid a fire hazard, wet the sponge completely and don't microwave it any longer than two minutes. Once a week, toss it in the dishwasher with a load of dishes. And use a fresh dishtowel every day.

Cutting boards also provide a breeding ground for germs. While the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline says that either wood or a nonporous acrylic, plastic, or glass surface is OK for cutting raw meat and poultry, it recommends using a separate cutting board for fresh produce and bread to prevent contaminating foods that won't be cooked. Wash cutting boards in hot, soapy water after each use, rinse, and air dry or pat dry with a clean dishtowel. Disinfect at least weekly with a solution of one tablespoon bleach per gallon of water or with a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water. Flood the surface and allow it to stand for several minutes, rinse, and air or pat dry. Once a board develops hard-to-clean grooves, replace it.

Chemical Reactions

The nonprofit Home Safety Council estimates than nearly 20,000 deaths and 21 million medical visits result each year from home injuries, including falls, poisonings, burns, choking, suffocation, and drowning. Take a look around your house and assess where there's room for improving its safety profile. This is especially critical if you have children or seniors in residence.

Home- and pool-cleaning supplies, pesticides, prescription and over-the-counter medications, even vitamins and beauty products pose potential poisoning hazards, especially for children and pets. Store them out of sight and reach of kids. According to the U.S Poison Control Centers, a child is accidentally poisoned every 30 seconds and more than 50 percent of all poisonings occur at home with children under 5 years of age. Never refer to medicine as candy; and always lock the child-safety cap after each use.

At least once a year, dispose of unused and expired medications languishing in your medicine cabinet. However, don't just toss them in the trash or flush them down the toilet, which presents environmental and health hazards (traces of more than 100 different medications have been found in U.S. drinking water supplies). Instead, local and federal government initiatives offer safe and easy ways to dispose of them (see "Dump Drugs Safely"), or talk to your pharmacist.

Cleaning supplies and pesticides require special handling, too. Keep products in their original containers so you know what they are and when they expire. If you dilute a cleaning product or make your own, label and date the containers. Keep household cleaners and pesticides in a cool, dry place away from human and pet food storage areas. Pesticides can release toxic or flammable fumes, so don't keep them in a confined space.

You cannot dispose of these and other household hazardous waste materials in your trash or recycle bins; in fact, you can be prosecuted if they're discovered. Most desert cities hold periodic cleanup days; check with your municipality for dates. Additionally, there are collection sites throughout the valley (see "Hazardous Waste Disposal").

Finally, put the Poison Center number — 1-800-222-1222 — near every phone in your home, and save it on your cell phone.

Something in the Air

Anyone with allergies or asthma knows that household dust can be a serious problem. But what you might not know is that dust mites can be a major contributing factor. Invisible to the naked eye, these insects feed on human skin flakes and produce waste that can trigger allergic reactions. Humans continually shed skin, and we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, so dust mites are particularly prevalent in bed linens and mattresses. For tips on minimizing dust mites, see "Fight Mites" below.

Ironically, some products designed to keep our homes clean and healthy may contribute to asthma and allergies. Chemical ingredients such as bleach, phthalates, quarternary ammonium compounds (used in floor cleaners and disinfecting products), and volatile organic compounds are associated with respiratory ills. Even air fresheners can contain formaldehyde (a known cancer-causing agent) and phenol (which can trigger skin irritation).

Fortunately, there's a growing number of gentler cleaning products on store shelves today, so check them out. Or make your own, using natural ingredients like distilled white vinegar, baking soda, borax, lemon, liquid castile soap, and essential oils. Visit www.rodale.com/natural-cleaning-recipes for suggestions.

If you don't see large dust deposits or visible mold growth or smell a musty odor, duct cleaning is probably unnecessary, says the Environmental Protection Agency. It's normal for return registers to get dusty as air is pulled through the grate, but they can be easily vacuumed or removed and cleaned.

It's more important to test your home for radon, a radioactive gas that is the country's second-leading cause of lung cancer. Radon has been found in homes in all 50 states. The EPA and surgeon general recommend testing for all residential areas below the third floor (www.epa.gov/radon).

Another vital preventive measure is to have your gas appliances (including gas fireplaces) checked annually for carbon monoxide leaks. And never run cars, lawnmowers, portable generators, or other combustion devices inside the garage. Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that you can't see or smell, but collects when fuels are burned. Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector near bedrooms, and check or replace batteries when you change the time on your clocks in the spring or fall, just as you do for smoke detectors.

Every Move You Make

Falls are the leading cause of unintentional home injury and death in the country. Older adults are by far at greatest risk. One in three people age 65-plus falls every year, accounting for 1.8 million emergency room visits and nearly 16,000 deaths. Children younger than 5 are the other demographic group with high rates of falls.

Keep floors and stairways clear of obstacles, and clean up spills immediately. Tuck electrical and phone cords away from the path of foot traffic. Use nonslip mats in tubs and showers; install grab bars if you have seniors in your house. Use nightlights in bathrooms, halls, and bedrooms. Keep items you use often in cabinets you can easily reach. Use safety gates at the top of a stairway if you have young children.

Despite our best efforts at prevention, accidents happen. Be prepared by having an adequate first-aid kit on hand, check it regularly, and replace any used or out-ofdate contents. You can buy a ready-made kit from the American Red Cross or your local drugstore. Or you can assemble your own (the American Red Cross, Mayo Clinic, and WebMD websites offer content lists). Additionally, take a first-aid course, including CPR, to prepare for a possible medical emergency. The American Red Cross offers courses, including ageappropriate classes to help kids understand and use first-aid techniques (visit www. redcross.org for local offerings).

Finally, review how well your personal space provides opportunities for you to stay fit and healthy. Do you have a bicycle, yoga mat, or exercise equipment? Is your refrigerator filled with fresh fruits and produce? Do you even remember when you last bought a mattress and box springs? Sleep is vital to our body's need to restore itself. Industry experts say that, in general, a mattress set that's been in use five to seven years is no longer providing optimal comfort and support. If you wake up with stiffness, numbness, or aches, it may be a sign that you need a new mattress and foundation.

Once you've given your house a thorough assessment, fill whatever "prescriptions" it may need and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you've created a healthy environment for yourself, your family, and your guests. Then mark the calendar to give your house another checkup next year.


DUMP DRUGS SAFELY

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department participates in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's national prescription drug Take-Back program, providing a local venue for people who want to dispose of unused or expired medications. Six sheriff stations, including those in Palm Desert, Indio, and Cabazon, serve as drop-off sites. Visit www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/ drug_disposal/takeback/index.html for scheduled events.

With the TakeAway program, desert dwellers can mail unused or expired pharmaceuticals in postage-paid envelopes. Visit www.cathedralcity.gov, click on Medication TakeAway Program, and follow the prompts.


FIGHT MITES

To prevent problems in the bedroom (and elsewhere in the house) due to dust mites, take these steps:

Cover Mattresses and Pillows with dust-proof (allergen-impermeable), zippered covers.

Wash All Bedding weekly in hot water.

Maintain Low Indoor Humidity, ideally 30 to 50 percent (you can measure humidity levels with a hygrometer, available at the hardware store).

Keep Your Pet's Sleeping Quarters as far from yours as possible, and launder pet beds regularly.

Vacuum carpets, furniture, drapes, and mattresses regularly, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Use Dusting Tools that capture rather than redistribute particles; microfiber or damp cloths are good, and Swiffer-type dusters also are effective.


HANDLING HAZARDOUS WASTE

The following resources provide the special handling required to dispose of hazardous waste:

The Burrtec Waste and Recycling Facility at 41800 Corporate Way in Palm Desert accepts batteries, fluorescent bulbs and tubes, electronics, and oil.

The City of Palm Desert offers residents a home collection program. Contact Burrtec at 1-760-340-2113 to schedule a pickup. Collections are limited to four per calendar year.

Countywide, you can dispose of antifreeze, oil, paint, and batteries on Saturdays at the Riverside County household hazardous waste collection facility, 1100 Vella Road in Palm Springs, or Monday through Saturday at the Coachella Valley Transfer Station, 87011 Landfill Road in Coachella.

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