How your home is making you sick (and what to do about it)

If you’ve heard me speak at a live event, or attended one of my workshops or courses, you will have heard me ramble on about how much of an impact our home environments have on our health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the reality is your homes could be quietly killing you.

Even the NHS website lists a condition on their website called ‘sick building syndrome’…

But fear not!

You can improve your health by improving your home. Like anything worthwhile, it’ll likely take some effort and/or investment, but who can put a price on health?

So here are the top five silent assassins that lurk within your home, and my top five tips to overcome them.

1. Top of the shit list – STRESS. Your home should be the place you rest, retreat from the world, recuperate from illness and feel most at ease. If you can feel your blood pressure rising every time you step foot in the door, whether that’s due to clutter, awkward layouts, dark rooms, an uncomfortable indoor climate (hot/cold) or you just feel a bit deflated with the lacklustre decor – then these micro stresses are flooding your system with cortisol on a daily basis. It’s time to do something about it.

Solutions to stress – Take a step back. Assess what is actually causing you discomfort and stress in your home environment and then write down at least 3 solutions for each issue. For example – it stresses you out that even though you have built in wardrobes in every bedroom and a big laundry basket on the landing, you are constantly going round picking up other peoples clothes off the floor/furniture. It’s driving you mad. Why can’t they put things away?! Our goal as designers is to make it as easy as possible for our clients and their families to live in their houses. Why spend a fortune on a beautifully designed home, if it’s always a mess and you can’t enjoy it? Laundry baskets in each wardrobe, as well as one in the bathroom are a must. Wall hooks in communal areas for hanging up stray layers that get doffed off throughout the house are also a cheap and easy hack. Finally, hanging space in joinery for people who never hang anything up (teenagers…) is a total waste of space. Instead go for small, sectioned cubbies within drawers that they can easily sort their outfits and kits into, and they’ll be much more likely to put stuff away.

2. FIRE RETARDANT TREATMENTS. The legal regulations state that all upholstered items of furniture, from sofas to headboards, as well as the carpets our children play on or the mattresses you’re sleeping on top of, must be treated with fire retardant. Unfortunately, these toxic treatments are not chemically bonded to the item they coat, so they leach into our bodies every time we touch them. Flame retarding chemicals that contain bromine (BFRs) and organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) are very concerning as both can severely hinder neurological development in children.

Chlorinated Tris (or TDCPP) is a known carcinogen but continues to be added to polyurethane foam in furniture, as well as many baby products. The substance has also been linked to lower sperm counts for men and altered hormone levels.

Phosphorus Flame Retardants (PFR) can cause the development of allergies as well as asthma when they occur in indoor dust.

Studies have also linked flame retardants to thyroid and endocrine disruption, and problems with foetal development. Blood and urine tests reveal that we carry many of these retardants with us all the time. They can even be found in breast milk.

Solutions to FR toxins – do your research and choose items that are naturally flame retardant. Wool is a wonderful material. It doesn’t require chemical FR treatments as it’s naturally fire retardant, it’s versatile for any application of upholstery or under foot and can be dyed any colour. If purchasing new furniture is off the cards for now, then open those windows as much as possible and let fresh air circulate to carry those particles away. Use organic cotton or linen bed covers for your foam mattresses and add wool throws to your chairs. Lastly, but certainly not least, clean like Mrs Hinch. Vacuum rather than sweep, then wet mop to get rid of as much settlement as possible and wash your hands before you eat, which can reduce your chemical load by a whopping 75%.

3. VOCs. If you’ve ever done any kind of redecoration, this may be a term you’re familiar with – but what does it mean? Volatile Organic Compounds are found in paints, air fresheners, synthetic candles, cleaning products, aerosol sprays, moth repellents, dry cleaned clothing and many building materials.

But why are they dangerous?

They can cause skin and eye irritation, allergies, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, fatigue, and even kidney/liver damage, some types of cancer and can totally overload of your central nervous system, causing chronic ailments.

Know anyone who has moved into a new build property and then started complaining of a chronic health issue? It’s likely due to the building materials and cheap trade paint off gassing.

And ‘low VOC’ paint options just won’t cut it…so don’t buy into the greenwashing.

Solution to VOCs – read labels ruthlessly. Some brilliant paint brands such as Graphenstone, Edward Bulmer and Lakeland are completely VOC free. Replace your paraffin wax candles and synthetic air fresheners with natural alternatives such as essential oils or St Eval candles. As well as choosing natural cleaning products and letting that air flowing through open windows as often as possible, load up on plants. There are many indoor plants that are relatively hard to kill (for those of you who aren’t green fingered) that literally suck pollutants out of the air and improve your air quality. Peace lilies, barberton daisies, snake plants, English ivy and aloe vera all top the list.

4. MOULD. Damp and condensation cause mould and bacteria to proliferate your home, and as silent killers go, black mould is one of the worst. If your bathrooms and kitchens aren’t well ventilated, the hot air caused from cooking and showering will then condense in the cooler surrounding air. If left to settle, you can end up with mould around windows and tiled areas and these can cause anything from mild lung irritations to pneumonia.

Some fuzzy types of mould, like that found in damp basements or behind the back of furniture that sits against an exterior wall can release spores into the air, which you breathe in and ingest. These can cause unexplained symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, post nasal drip and allergic reactions.

Black mould is by far the worst of the lot. Ingesting the mycotoxins released from the spores can cause irreversible lung damage, sleep apnoea, pulmonary conditions and even death.

Solutions for mould – don’t ignore it! If you have mould in your home you need to tackle it as soon as possible. White vinegar kills mould at the root and prevents it from regrowing (wear a mask whilst you’re cleaning as you’ll be rubbing and disturbing the spores). Ventilate your home as often as possible and try to maintain a steady temperature with your heating system. If you suspect your home has a more severe damp problem, then it’s time to call in the experts.

5. LIGHT. How on earth can light make you sick? I hear you ask. Our bodies were once upon a time, finely tuned to a circadian rhythm. Your internal clock runs on a 24 hour cycle and when you’re in sync with your circadian rhythm, you sleep better, cells regenerate faster, you heal quicker, your emotional state is calmer and your hormones are in balance. Light and dark has a profound impact on our sleep cycles and hormone release and this can be detrimental to our health.

Most people nowadays are aware of the ‘blue light’ from computer screens and phones that are affecting us, but what about the rest of the lights in and around our homes?

LED lamps have replaced almost all artificial light sources in our homes, which from an energy output perspective, is great. BUT they can have a negative impact on our health. Most standard LEDs have a colour temperature on the Kelvin scale (imagine an orange sunset at around the 2000K mark, and a blinding midday sun at 10,000K) of around 3000 – 7000 Kelvin…and it’s too high. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between the sun and a table lamp, so if the colour temperature of our bedside lamp is telling our bodies it’s midday, then it’ll be much harder to wind down and go to sleep.

LEDs can also exacerbate mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression by suppressing the bodies natural melatonin production, as well as increase migraines in people who are particularly sensitive to flickering light – as LEDs are effectively little diodes that flicker on and off at a very quick pace, usually imperceptible to the human eye, but can still have an effect on our brains.

Aside from the more obvious artificial light sources in our homes, natural light also plays a big part in our health and wellbeing. If your home is orientated to be north facing it may feel quite dark and cold, and although there’s nothing we can do about the position of the building it’s self, we can alter the interior decor and lighting design to maximise the feelings of warmth and comfort in spaces such as these.

Solutions for Light – Check which direction is North in your home and see whether the rooms that are on this elevation are being used at an appropriate time of day so as to maximise the natural light. If your kitchen is at the front of your house which is North facing, could you move it to the back of the property to take in the wonderful midday sunshine of the south facing aspect?

Ensure that the LED lamps in your lights are the best quality you can afford. The better the product, the stronger the diode and the less perceptible the flickering will be. The drivers are also extremely important and that they’re all compatible with your existing wiring.

Choose lamps (bulbs) that are 2700K in colour temperature, it’s a nice comfortable warm light that is bright enough task lighting, without being too bright or blue. 2400K is the perfect colour temperature for table lamps used in an evening.

Ensure your lighting plan is layered, if your only option is to have a ‘big light’ on or off, add more circuits to include wall lights, picture lights and table/floor lamps.

Lastly, but most importantly, if you aren’t aware of PFOA, watch the movie Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo. It’s the true story of a lawyer called Rob Bilott who took on the behemoth company DuPont who knowingly poisoned their local community and still to this day manufacture and sell Teflon coated products that are literally killing people.

On that happy note, I encourage you to ruthlessly research what you put in your houses, because you have the power to dramatically improve the health of yourself and your family by making better choices for your home.

For more environment tips, project updates and interior design insights, you can find Studio JQ on socials @thestudiojq

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