Houses That Make People Sick


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"If your eyes, nose or throat are irritated, or you have a stuffy nose, headaches or chronic fatigue, you could be living in one. "

IMPROPER USE and storage of solvents, cleaners, paints and fuels are some of the more common and easily identifiable causes of environmental illnesses in Canadian homes.

OTHERS CAN BE MORE DIFFICULT to diagnose. In more than one case, improperly constructed stairwells in attached garages have led to exhaust fumes entering the basement. These fumes can be drawn into a return air duct and distributed throughout the house by the forced-air heating system. In lower concentrations, you may not be able to smell the fumes, but they can lead to headaches, fatigue and nausea.

BURNING LUNGS AND DIZZINESS are among the complaints from residents of homes with new carpeting. Most manufactured products go through a period of off-gassing following production, and the shorter the time between manufacture and installation in your home, the worse the effect. Many people report similar symptoms after only a few minutes in a furniture, carpeting or hardware store.

DURING THE OIL CRISIS in the early 1970's, we started to build houses to be airtight, and recyled indoor air to lower heating and cooling costs. Pollutants can build up and cause sick-building syndrome (SBS), a litany of symptoms including itchy eyes, stuffy nose, fatigue, headaches and inability to concentrate.

THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (WHO) reports that about one in every three new or renovated buildings is “sick". An Ontario Ministry of the Environment study conducted in 1990 concluded “indoor air quality appears to be two to five times worse than outdoor air quality".

WITH BUILDING ENVELOPES SEALED TIGHT, the use of air conditioners has increased, and in some homes as much as 90 percent of the air is recylcled. Hazardous substances build up in the air - cleaning solutions, radon gas from the earth, formaldehyde from manufactured items, hydrocarbons from wood heating, and a list as long as your arm from tobacco smoke. Left unattended, the damp interiors and dirty filters of air conditioners become breeding grounds for fungi and bacteria, which are then distributed throughout the house. In 1976 a bacteria entered the air conditioning system of a hotel in Philadelphia, killing 29 people at a Legion convention (it was labelled Legionaire's Desease).

THE BOTTOM LINE: How do you know if your house is sick? Health experts agree that if more than one person in the family complains of the same symptoms, or if symptoms in even one person disappear when they leave the home - you have a problem. When a house is suspect, you should sniff the air for odors upon entry from outdoors, and look for telltale signs like blocked air ducts,

smudges around supply or return diffusers, mouldy basements or closets, and elevated humidity levels. Ensure an adequate exchange of air - ideally, the entire volume of air in a home should be fully exchanged with outdoor air every two hours. This is difficult to measure, but if your home is tightly sealed and you don't have some sort of mechanical ventilator (HRV, etc. ) you're quite likely breathing stale air.


Environment General Information
Ministry of the Environment
District Office
470 Dundas Street East
Belleville, Ontario


CMHC Publications
Canada Mortage & Housing Corp.
700 Montreal Road,
Kingston, Ontario
K1A 0P7

Kingston CMHC area rep. 1-613-547-0066

Copyright Gil Strachan - All rights reserved.

Gil Strachan is a professional home inspector, representing Electrospec Home Inspection Services in east-central Ontario, Canada since 1994. Visit to learn more about home inspections.

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