Keep Your Home Healthy This Winter

PHOTO: Boy looks out of widow at snow

If the belching smokestack near your home worries you and you never leave the house without checking the air-quality index, here's an eye-opener: There may be two to five times more air pollution inside your home than outside. And that's with some of the windows open. Shut them tight during winter and contaminants get trapped, making your air quality potentially 100 times worse than that of the outside air. Here's what top experts suggest you do to fight air pollution from the inside.

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Check Your Detection Devices

Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors should be installed in a central hallway on each level of your home as well as in the basement, and a smoke detector should also be installed in each bedroom. (Check your local building codes for exact placement.) If your detectors aren't integrated into a burglar alarm system, think about upgrading to wirelessly linked units so that if one detector gets triggered, they'll all ring and wake up the whole family. First Alert's OneLink Series SCO500 ($64;, for example, provides both smoke and carbon monoxide detection, and a voice alert indicates where the alarm originated.

Test For Radon

Radon is an odorless and invisible radioactive gas that's carcinogenic over the long term--it's the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States--and has been found to be present in homes across the country. Radon gas is produced as a result of the natural breakdown of uranium in soil. The gas rises from the ground and seeps into your house through foundation cracks. Fortunately it's easy to detect. You can buy a test kit at a hardware store for about $14, including lab fees and a postage-paid mailer. If results reveal gas levels above the EPA-recommended 4 picocuries per liter, hire a remediation company to install a system for venting the gas away from your house (about $1,200).

Service Your Heating System

Homes with heating and air-conditioning systems rely on ductwork to deliver the warmed or cooled air, and because out of sight can mean out of mind, it's easy to forget about maintaining them. But these ducts should be cleaned every 5 to 10 years to remove dust, pet dander, pollen, and mold that can collect in the system and spread throughout the house whenever the heat kicks on, says Jeffrey May, a Tyngsborough, Mass. indoor air quality inspector, an organic chemist, and the author of My House Is Killing Me! This is not a do-it-yourself job. You'll need to hire a professional, but be savvy about which company you choose.

"Pick someone who uses brushes instead of only vacuums or chemicals and cleans the blower unit--and the air-conditioner coil if you have central air," May says. You'll pay about $500 or more if you have central air and need the blower and coil cleaned. You should also have your heating system serviced annually to ensure that it's burning cleanly and not causing exhaust to reenter the house as back draft.

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