You may not believe this, but the air quality in your home can be worse than the air quality on a busy street. How can that be?
If the air on a busy street is better than indoors: what’s wrong?
This is mainly due to cigarette smoke, one of the main problems, as air analyses show. As a smoker, you inhale and exhale 300 different pollutants – including formaldehyde. Other factors that pollute the air we breathe are mold spores, which can be caused by moisture. Also, vapors from used adhesives or wood preservatives often create a more harmful environment than you would experience outdoors.
How can you tell if the living environment is making you ill?
There are five typical symptoms that can indicate indoor pollution: Eye burning, skin itching, throat scratching, irritable cough, and headache. Of course, these are all diffuse symptoms that can also occur when you have a cold or an allergy. It is suspicious if the symptoms clearly diminish or disappear completely during a long absence from the living quarters, for example during vacation.
What do I do if I suspect that my home is causing the symptoms?
First of all, ask an expert to inspect the home. Such an initial inspection usually costs between 50 and 100 USD and can often dispel the suspicion. If you want to be absolutely sure, you have to have samples taken, for example, a piece of wallpaper or floor covering, and have them analyzed in the laboratory. But be careful, an all-round examination of the apartment can quickly cost thousands of euros, so think twice about it.
Can’t harmful substances also be detected in the body?
We recommend the following sequence: first environmental monitoring, then human monitoring, i.e. the medical examination. Because as soon as questionable materials are found in the living environment, one can diagnose more specifically. In the case of formaldehyde contamination, for example, formic acid can be detected as a breakdown product in the urine of affected persons. Sometimes blood, hair, or saliva samples are also taken, depending on the suspicion.
What then happens if the values are actually abnormal?
If abnormalities were discovered in the home and also during the medical examination, the aim is to eliminate the cause. Sometimes it is due to a single piece of furniture treated with wood preservatives or a woolen rug from which toxic moth repellent leaks – this can of course be easily removed. In some cases, however, the entire floor covering has to be removed, for example when adhesives cause the symptoms. And if there is asbestos in the ceiling, a major renovation is even necessary.
Who bears the costs?
In the case of rented apartments, ideally the owner. But you should be able to present evidence of this. There are very clear guidelines that must be followed. For example, the room in question must have been locked for eight hours before a measurement is taken, otherwise, values can be falsified. If clear measurement values are available, health insurance companies usually cover the costs of the diagnosis. Renovation and refurbishment costs are the responsibility of the owner. However, I would like to warn you: Many people get in the way when it comes to paying. It can lead to long legal disputes for tenants. In some cases, moving is actually a better and cheaper solution.
What do you advise if neither an expert nor a doctor finds anything, but the complaints are still there?
Then you should consider a psychological component. Experience shows that about 15 percent of those affected with the five main symptoms mentioned above actually find causes in the living environment and building biology. For almost 85 percent, however, the psyche seems to play an important role. Presumably, unresolved couple or family conflicts can trigger a corresponding discomfort with symptoms, which is then sometimes wrongly blamed on the living environment.
Are there warning signs of pollutants when I move into a new apartment?
When plastic floors bulge and the consequences of strong sunlight become apparent. This also applies to seals on windows. Moisture can be indicated by chipped plaster. And a strong chemical or musty, musty smell is always a warning signal.
Window seals: Today we all live well shielded from the outside world – is it possibly more unhealthy than for previous generations?
Definitely! It used to be fresher in the old building and has been through a lot. Today, there is hardly any exchange of air due to the strongly insulated apartments. That started with the oil crisis in the 1970s: In order to save heating costs, living spaces were increasingly sealed. People only wanted to ventilate a little so that they didn’t waste heat. This is what led to the development of the field of residential medicine in the first place.
And what does that mean for us – less heating, more ventilation?
Exactly. The simplest and cheapest way to create a relatively healthy indoor climate is to air rooms generously several times a day. My tip: air the room crosswise for five to eight minutes twice a day, i.e. open the windows, open the doors and let the airflow through. But: Do not sleep with the window open or leave the window tilted continuously. That doesn’t have the same effect on the one hand, and on the other hand, drafts can make you ill again.
Who plans straight a large renovation or a building of houses: Are there any materials that are harmless?
The materials are actually not the problem, but how they were treated. Usually, it is varnish, glue, or stain that causes complaints. So you should find out beforehand which materials are biologically sound. At the university, we have developed a checklist with 75 questions that provides a good initial orientation (www.checkliste-gesundes-wohnen.de).
Indoor plants are considered ideal air filters. Can rubber trees and the like improve the living climate?
Plants certainly create a good atmosphere, but two or three plants cannot produce a measurable improvement in the indoor air. You would have to live in a jungle to do this – and then it would be too damp again, which would result in mold. By the way: If you discover mold in your home, it is imperative that you generously remove the infested materials. Cleaning up alone is not enough.