Pets, pests and pillows: how to spot the secret health hazards hiding in your home

Helen Chandler-Wilde
·7 min read
how to spot the secret health hazards for pets hiding in your home
how to spot the secret health hazards for pets hiding in your home

When was the last time you washed your pillows? Or hoovered the cracks in your radiators, checked the space between your ceilings and floors, or the soot coming out of the candles on your mantelpiece?

If you have to pause for a moment to think about the answer, then your home could be filled with pollutants that could be causing problems with your sleep, breathing or skin, according to My House is Killing Me!, a recently updated book by husband and wife team Jeffrey and Connie May.

They have decades of experience as certified indoor air quality technicians, spending their days uncovering the cause of mysterious health complaints in American homes. They’ve seen it all: from huge fungi growing on walls to basements full of mouse droppings. But often, even seemingly pristine homes can be harbouring health problems. “In a way, those ones are more interesting: there's more of a puzzle to solve”, says Connie, who speaks to me on Zoom from the couple’s Massachusetts home.

When we think of indoor air pollution we usually think of log burners, which have been in the news a lot recently, but in fact this can be sorted into three categories, according to Jeffrey: pets, pests and people. The first category is obvious for anyone with an allergy to cats or dogs, but pets can also be the victims of the toxic air in our homes, says Jeffrey. Owners are unlikely to clean their dog’s bed as often as they clean their own, which can mean that it becomes a source of dust and create breathing difficulties for your pet. To keep things clean, they recommend covering your dog’s bed in an old blanket which can be put in the washing machine. “Dogs get asthma, too”, says Jeffrey.

The second category is pests, which includes mice, rats, spiders and insects. Sometimes infestations of mice are obvious from the tell-tale scratching noise, but often they can go undetected. Jeffrey says that he has frequently found the interstitial space between ceilings and floors filled with mouse droppings after a group has been living there undisturbed for years.

These droppings feed a host of insects, which in turn feed spiders, which could mean that one issue turns into several. “It's an unseen war going on”, says Jeffrey. “If no one’s cleaned out the dust in the bottom of a closet for years then that’s basically all bug poop.”

But not all pests are animals: mould and fungi can be an issue too. Anywhere with damp can be a haven for these creatures, which reproduce by releasing microscopic spores into the air. Inhaling spores is associated with a range of health issues including lung inflammation, asthma, and breathlessness.

Jeffrey describes once doing an inspection in a home where fungi had grown rampantly after a pipe had burst. It was so bad that he insisted Connie stay outside out of fear for her health. He went in fully masked, resolved not to touch anything. “The couch was covered with mould”, he says. “My hair stood on end and I was terrified: there were mushrooms everywhere.”

The last source of problems is people. Your outer layer of skin entirely regenerates itself roughly once a month, shedding about a pound of dead cells every year – one of the major components of dust.

These skin flakes are a delicious protein-rich meal for dust mites: microscopic creatures that live in every home. Their droppings are an incredibly common cause of allergies, so could be the trigger for symptoms like eczema, itchy eyes or sneezing.

wood burning stove
wood burning stove

People can also cause indoor pollution with the things that we bring into the home. The Mays draw up a long list of innocent-seeming products that can be an issue. You may have heard of the issues around wood-burning stoves which, despite the rustic and cosy look, emit dangerous particles into the air. Research released by the government last month shows that these stoves produce three times more particulate pollution than all traffic in the UK.

This is bad news – these particles are so small that when they are breathed in they can circulate in the bloodstream, causing damage to several organs. It can be really serious, especially for people with asthma: the Mays say they have had calls from people complaining about the pollution emitted from a neighbour’s wood-burning stove. To reduce damage, burn dry wood – wet wood will be banned for sale in homes from May because of the additional smoke it creates when burning.

People tend to overlook other sources of smoke in the home which can be a problem too. The Mays say they have visited several homes where candles have left black marks of soot on the walls. Jar candles can create more soot than pillar ones, so think about swapping your glass jar scented ones for candlesticks.

candle
candle

People can also cause problems with our choice of soft furnishings. Feather pillows and duvets can be dust magnets, leading to coughing and breathlessness, a condition that has been dubbed “feather duvet lung” by a paper in the British Medical Journal. Carpets can collect major dust too, as can the folds in your radiators which are often hard to get to.

The Mays recommend hoovering regularly and trying a steam vapour cleaner to blast the dust out of your radiators. If you have breathing issues, a persistent cough or you’re sneezing a lot and you’ve already been to the doctor, the Mays suggest swapping your bedding and covering up your carpets with plastic sheeting and seeing whether it gets better.

So what can we do to make our homes healthier places to live? Do not turn to heavy-duty cleaning products, which can in themselves cause issues. “We encourage people to use unfragranced cleaning products, because fragrances are just chemicals that add to the air”, says Connie.

laundry
laundry

This can be a particular problem at the moment because of all the hand sanitiser that we’re using. It’s designed to evaporate quickly, which means that it leaves chemicals lingering in the air, which can irritate some people’s lungs. An Australian study from last year tested 26 “pandemic products”, including air disinfectants and hand sanitisers, and found that “all emitted hazardous compounds”. The authors conclude that these unrecognised risks to help could be easily reduced by unfragranced versions of these products.

Simple cleaning techniques are therefore best. Remove dust with a damp cloth, open the windows every day for ventilation and take care to clean areas that might otherwise go unnoticed like the inside of cupboards and underneath furniture. Consider buying a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which will keep little particles inside the machine more effectively. In hard to reach areas, they recommend steam vapour cleaners to remove dust.

Be aware of sources of humidity inside your home, like air drying clothes indoors, or even wet hair after showering. The Mays recommend drying your hair before going to bed after once discovering the source of a young woman’s cough was her damp, mouldy pillow.

window
window

We can also make smart choices about the things that we decide to bring into our home in future: light your wood-burning stove sparingly and consider hard floors over carpets. If you do want a cosy flooring choice, think about washable rugs instead of wall-to-wall carpets.

The Mays went as far as having their house specially built around their requirements: there are hard floors, air filters, no fibreglass insulation and they don’t have a pet. “We don't live in a bubble by any means, but it's not difficult to be careful”, says Connie. “We try to live a chemical-free life.”