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April 13, 2013

5 ways your house might be making you sick

It was a chronic thing: Almost every time Erma Taylor's great-grandson caught a cold, he also ended up having a severe asthma attack. Taylor, a retired nurse, spent many hours at a hospital, helping to hold the toddler for tests and breathing treatments, and wondering what was causing the attacks.

The one thing Taylor never suspected was that something inside the Falls Church, Va., Cape Cod that she shares with her granddaughter and great-grandson was a source of the 3-year-old's medical problems.

It turned out that mold and mildew from years of shampooing the decades-old carpet were aggravating the little boy's respiratory system.

The carpeting was replaced with wood flooring through a nonprofit group called Rebuilding Together, and Taylor says she has seen marked improvement. "We haven't been back to the hospital since then," Taylor says.

Many homeowners may be unsuspecting victims of medical problems, from asthma attacks to lung cancer, caused by components and conditions in their houses, according to a new federal report.

More than 30 million homes have significant health issues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 20 million housing units have a lead-based paint hazard. And more than 6.8 million homes have radon exposures above the level at which remedial action should be taken, as determined by the EPA.

The trouble is that many homeowners and renters aren't aware of the link between their housing and their health. Radon exposure, for example, has no immediate symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning can initially resemble the flu. And exposure to some toxins may be confused with seasonal allergies.

"In our cars, we have oil and check engine lights," says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing. "There's no such light for a house."

A federal interagency body called the Healthy Homes Work Group released a report, "Advancing Healthy Housing: A Strategy for Action," in February, with the goal of reducing the number of homes with health and safety hazards over the next five years.

But, federal officials and experts say, a reduction in illness and accidents depends heavily on consumers being vigilant about the dangers in their homes.

"People spend more time looking at the kitchen countertops than they do at issues that can cause serious health problems," says Nancy Harvey Steorts, a realty agent in Virginia and author of "Your Home Safe Home."

"There are so many elements to having a home that's truly safe," says Steorts, former chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Many consumers think that they don't have anything to worry about."

Even Steorts, an expert in home safety, had a problem when she lived in Dallas. It started with a sore throat and escalated to symptoms of a heart attack. The problem stemmed from glue in the padding of carpet that had been recently installed, she says.

"Here, this happened in my own home," Steorts says.

Could your house be making you sick? Here are some common household hazards and some tips on how you can address them:

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