Keep Your Home Healthy This Winter

Clear the Air

If you have forced-air heating, replacing the furnace filter four times a year will not only make your system more efficient but will go a long way toward filtering dust, mold spores, and other contaminants. But instead of using the standard flat fiberglass filters, choose pleated products (they look like accordion-folded paper) with a MERV-8 rating, and seal any gaps around the filter-access opening with duct tape. Pleated filters are more effective than fiberglass at trapping the smaller particles you're likely to inhale. If a family member has allergies or chronic respiratory ailments, hire a contractor to upgrade your system with a media filter such as the Aprilaire Whole-House Air Cleaner, which turns the heating system into an air purifier. The project can cost around $1,000, and you'll have to replace the $50 filter annually. Also, if you don't have one already, add a humidifier to your furnace.

"Dry winter air dehydrates the nasal and lung linings, making people more susceptible to asthma, congestion, and viral infection," says Dr. Jay Portnoy, chief of the allergy and asthma department at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO.

Clean The Chimney

Every 5 years or so, you should hire a chimney sweep to clean and inspect your flues. But if your fireplace is used on a regular basis, have it done every year. A clogged flue can cause a potentially deadly exhaust backup and become a fire hazard if too much flammable soot builds up inside.

Find And Fix Leaks

Watch for wet areas inside your house, especially under plumbing fixtures, in the attic eaves, and in the basement. Mold will grow on any organic material (such as wood, wallboard, or even dust) that's wet for more than 72 hours. When that mold releases its spores (which are like invisible airborne seeds), they can trigger allergies, asthma, and respiratory illnesses. If you find moisture, fix the problem immediately, and then eradicate any mold you can see.

"Mold does die when it dries out, but the allergens will continue to cause reactions in people with a sensitivity to them--and may even trigger allergies in people who don't already have them," says Dr. Jordan Fink, professor of medicine and pediatrics in the Allergy-Immunology Program of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

If you have a large mold infestation, hire a remediation company to remove it. Otherwise, don an N-95 respirator, rubber gloves that extend up your forearms, and safety goggles without ventilation holes; open all the windows; and scrub away the mold using a cleaner that contains bleach, such as Tilex, or a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

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