Monthly Archives: March 2022

HVAC filter changes are vital to your indoor air quality!

HVAC filter changes are vital to your indoor air quality!

It can be a little confusing.  Some people call them furnace filters, some call them AC filters, but they are the same!  Your HVAC system uses one filter, and it was originally designed to protect the working parts of the HVAC from damage and reduced efficiency.  A dirty filter can cause your HVAC unit to work harder and make it prone to more breakdowns. Thus, it’s found in the intake (suction or “return” side) of the system, to filter out dust before it goes into the air handler.  There is one exception: if your system has a “fresh air intake”, then it usually has its own filter (located close to the air handler) so that air coming in from the outside is properly filtered. 

With increased importance placed on indoor air quality, we know that what goes into the system, gets blown out the other side, plus some!  Here’s what can happen:

  • Dust that goes into the HVAC system can feed mold when it comes into contact with moisture on the coils or in the drip pan, which can quickly grow and produce mold spores that are distributed through the home.
  • Pet allergens, bacteria, viruses and VOCs that start out in one room of the home can be distributed throughout the home by the HVAC system (ie. onto the towels you use to dry off and the pillows and bedding you sleep on!)

So, it’s important to change out the filter on time.  What’s “on time”?  The time of change used to be dependent on whether the filter was flat or pleated,  which gave the filter less or more surface area.  In general, flat filters have less surface area and are less expensive, but they clog more quickly, requiring more frequent changes (change every month).  Pleated filters have more surface area, allowing them to filter more allergens and have less frequent changes (up to 3 months).  Surface area is just one measurement of a filter’s efficiency, however.

MERV ratings: MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value, developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 1987.    The range is from 1 to 20, and designates with what efficiency the filter removes small particles between 0.3 and 10 micrometers in diameter.  (If you’ve read our FAQ on HEPA ratings, then you know that HEPA filters are rated on their ability to remove particles 0.3 micrometers and smaller.  Furnace filters cannot use standard HEPA filters because they are too dense and cause too large of a pressure drop in the system, however, the good news is that “Experiments indicate that less obstructive, medium-efficiency filters of MERV 7 to 13 are almost as effective as true HEPA filters at removing allergens within residential air handling units.” (wikipedia).   Flat filters including the fiberglass ones usually fall in the MERV 1-4 range, filtering out the largest particles like pollen, dust mites, and carpet and textile fibers.  The best residential filters are higher up the scale at MERV 9-12, which can capture legionella bacteria, humidifier droplets, and lead dust.  We always recommend purchasing the best filter you can afford, with the following rules in mind:

  • Check your furnace manual for the maximum MERV rating.  This is very important because you don’t want to cause the system to overwork or be damaged by drawing air through a filter that is too “tight” and causes too great of a pressure drop.  Think of it like this: which is more difficult to suck liquid through: a small straw or a large straw?  The small straw, of course, because of the small diameter.  It’s the same relative to the smaller “holes” or passages in a higher-rated MERV filter. 
  • MERV filters in the range of 9-12 may need to be changed more frequently than a lower-rated filter, during periods where a lot of contaminants are entering the house.  For example, if there is a wildfire near your home, or renovation is going on inside the home, or you house-sit a shedding pet that is not usually in your home, these situations all call for more frequent changes, because the filter density is capturing almost everything in the air.  
  • Filter life and efficiency depends not only on the time the furnace system is used, but also the fan speed.  Many times a filter performs better when the fan speed is on high, according to this Consumer Reports review, but this also causes the filter life to be the shortest. 

There are other filter ratings scales out there, too.  This page has a good chart which combines all three and their efficiency with common household contaminants. 

  • “FPR” is the Filter Performance Rating devised by The Home Depot.  It uses a number system from 4-10, with filters rated good at 4-5, and 10 being their premium filters.  This creates an easy rating system for filters sold at Home Depot, but does not apply to any other filters.
  • “MPR” is Microparticle Performance Rating, created by 3M/Filtrete for its own filters.  The scale of 300 to 2800 refers to the filter’s ability to trap particles smaller than 1 micron, with 300 being basic and 2800 being premium.  As with FPR, this scale is exclusive because only 3M/Filtrete products are rated on it. 

But wait…there’s more!  You can get other features in your filter:

  • Take all the guesswork out of when to change your filter by purchasing a smart filter and downloading the app on your phone or tablet.  Filtrete’s Smart Air Filters “track air filter life by detecting changes in air pressure over time. Filtrete then determines your filter life based on air flow and usage, not just time…” 
  • Filters with carbon reduce odors and VOCs.  If you are moving into a new build apartment or house, this is a great option to reduce the VOCs and odors coming from new paint, flooring (especially carpets), fixtures and furniture.  
  • Enviroklenz makes patented filters that use high surface area metal oxide materials like Magnesium Oxide, Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide (no carbon), to capture and neutralize contaminants through a process called adsorptive neutralization. They are tested to remove particulates equivalent to a MERV 8, which is a mid-range level of filtration.  However, they also remove VOCs, mold, bacteria and viruses, making them unique in HVAC filters.
  • Colorfil manufactures filters that are especially helpful to pet owners, who deal with ammonia smells and related chemicals in urine.  The filter material turns from a magenta pink when clean, to a dull yellow when dirty, due to citric acid compounds that react with contaminants.  The company began to create innovative filter systems for NASA spacesuits in 2016 and moved on cabin air filters for vehicles and HVAC filters.
  • Electrostatic filters create static electricity as the air flows through the filter, causing larger particles like dander and pollen to stick to the filter.  They come in 2 types: disposable and reusable.  The disposable filters have high ratings (#1 in this review) but the reusable filters need to be washed and allowed to dry once a month and generally are not as effective on smaller particles such as mold spores, bacteria and viruses.and they must be maintained (cleaned) once per month   or the dirty filter can actually release pollutants back into the HVAC system.
  • Professionally installed filter boxes may include custom filters that have larger surface area (with deeper pleats) or electrically-charged plates.  Both of these have more upfront cost, but less frequent cleaning or replacement schedules.  Check out the end of this video to see examples.

It’s the Season…to stand strong against allergens!

It's the Season...to stand strong against allergens!

Just like the song (and the Bible verses that inspired it): For everything, there is a season.  In this case, there is a perfect time in nature to send out pollen, make flowers, plants and fruit, send more rain, make mold, dry out the ground (make dust), and send colder temps to give it all a rest.  If only our bodies reacted as well as our natural surroundings to the seasons!

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (aafa.org), there are seven types of allergies, which are drug, food, insect, latex, mold, pet and pollen.  We discussed allergies in the post “Oh (BLANK), It’s Allergy Season again!” and how you can combat allergens inside your home.  In this post, I’ll go more in depth about the different allergy seasons for pollen, mold, insects and pets (the ones that can be tied to seasons)  and why they seem to get worse every year. 

Pollen

According to this graph given in a video on Vox, ragweed pollen production is directly related to CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Why?  Plants take in carbon dioxide like we breathe in oxygen, and they use it to grow and propagate.  More CO2 = more pollen.  

Then, there is another effect of more CO2 in the atmosphere: warmer temperatures.  More warmer days extend the time that plants like ragweed have to send out pollen.  The graph below shows that over the last 50 years, the US on average has gained about 10 days to the typical growing season.  While this is good for farmers, it is not good for allergy sufferers. 

So, we aren’t just imagining it: pollen does increase in intensity and duration, year over year!

Pollen affects some people because their bodies deem it to be an intruder and produce antibodies, which bind to specific kinds of white cells, called mast cells.  Upon recognizing pollen, the mast cells break open, releasing histamines that cause inflammation and increased blood flow to fight the “infection”.  Itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose and sneezing are all results of increased histamines in your system.  

This is the body’s response to most allergens, including dust, mold, and pet dander, etc.  First, we’ll look at the different plant allergens. 

The morning weather report may not tell you which particular plant pollen is peaking when it broadcasts a “high pollen count”, and it’s usually not the pretty flowers we notice.  For example, pollen season in Mississippi usually starts around the time azaleas are blooming (February to early March), but it’s not the azaleas that are the culprit! 

To know what kind of invisible pollen grains are doing you wrong, go to Pollen.com.  Zoom in on the national map, then select a blue pin near you.  This will give you the pollen count, what plants are currently high, and even a 5-day forecast!  For example, on this day in early March 2022 in Mississippi, we have a score of 10.2 due to juniper, ash and oak trees.  At the time of writing this, I don’t even know what juniper and ash trees look like, but it’s likely they are causing my stuffy head and itchy eyes.  Pollen.com even has an app that you can install to access this information quickly.  Pollen counts are the average number of pollen grains in a cubic meter of air.  They are certainly tied to the weather, because rainy days provide relief (rain knocks pollen out of the atmosphere), and sunny, breezy days are worse because the pollen is able to dry out and blow off the tree (sometimes in visible clouds!).  This website has other tools and info that are super-helpful to those of us who want to know the why (?!).  Because there are so many types of plants that produce pollen and different blooming seasons, different pollens peak at different times of the year.  This map groups them into 3 main categories: Ragweed, Grass, and Tree. Ragweed is notorious because it is a small plant that is part of the daisy family, producing little green flowers that can produce up to 1 billion grains (!) of pollen per plant.  Particularly, the reaction is known as hay fever!  Peak ragweed season is August and September in the US.  Grass may be constant throughout the growing season, and trees typically peak in the early to mid springtime.  

Mold: Mold grows throughout the year, but it can definitely increase outdoors after periods of rain, warmer temperatures and increased humidity (late spring through early fall).  Mold is a beneficial part of nature, because it helps to decompose plant material, creating rich soil and nutrients for plants.  However, it propagates by sending out spores that cause our bodies to react in ways similar to, and sometimes worse than, pollen.

Our bodies detect mold spores as intruders, and send out histamines to fight them.  The difference between these spores and pollen, however, is that some mold spores produce mycotoxins, which are toxic chemicals.  Therefore, depending on your sensitivity and the type of mold, breathing in mold spores can cause “just” typical allergy symptoms, or a more serious illness that mimics flu or viral infections.  Check out our post on mycotoxins and how to avoid them. 

Leaf molds are a typical source of mold allergy, which can be particularly high in the fall season. Leaves fall from trees and rains saturate the ground, creating the perfect environment for mold.  According to Dr. Dean Mitchell of the Mitchell Medical Group in NY, “Usually, once the ground frosts over, mold dies off and the symptoms subside.”

Indoor mold can definitely be higher during the warmer, humid summer months too.  When the humidity climbs outdoors, it does the same indoors, and this is when you’ll want to check your humidity sensor often to make sure your home stays below 60%.  Stay vigilant that rooms like bathrooms, basements and laundry rooms are free of standing water (like water in the shower) and soft materials that can allow molds to take root easily.  During the winter, be sure to clean any humidifiers regularly, so that mold doesn’t grow in them.  Check out our Indoor Moisture Inventory to help keep moisture down in all areas of the house!

Insects: According to the AAFA, “Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants are the most common stinging insects that cause an allergic reaction. Non-stinging insects can also cause allergic reactions. The most common are cockroaches and the insect-like dust mite. Allergies to these two insects may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma.”

Stinging and biting insects certainly have seasons: summer to early fall.  This is when they are building nests, foraging for food, and generally annoying the heck out of those of us who enjoy the outdoors!  They can even be more aggressive in the late summer and early fall, because the colonies have grown and they know to prepare: winter is coming.  Surprisingly, wasps and yellowjackets are carnivores!  They are not looking to eat us, but will go after smaller insects and any dead, rotting flesh (think: barbeque left-overs in the grill).  The way we opt to control stinging and biting insects (besides swatting them) is very important to our families’ health, so it’s best to check out our post on outdoor pesticides (Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone). 

Dust mites are the new “no-see-um”.  Unlike bed bugs, which are visible and leave visible bites and droppings, dust mites operate invisibly because of their size.  At one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter, they are just too small to see with the naked eye.  What’s more, they are related to spiders (cringe).  That’s all I need to know: millions of tiny spiders in my bed, year-round!  Check out our post on Bedding for Better Sleep to find out how to keep the dust mites and their allergic reactions to a minimum. 

There are two overlapping allergens common to Insects and Pets, which are fleas and ticks.  Having owned many dogs and a few cats, I know that fleas tend to “bloom” in numbers after it rains, and according to this site, are a problem in the fall months especially because animals will get their thicker coats and moisture outside still allows the fleas to live on the ground.  Flea bites are super-irritating to animals and their humans, even causing death if the animal is depleted of too much blood.  Ticks are also very dangerous because of the diseases they can carry: Lymes’ Disease can affect animals and humans in debilitating ways.  Check out our post on “Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone” to learn what products and strategies can keep you and your pets healthy outdoors.

Pets: Lots of pets love to be outside, and they tend to bring the allergens from outside, inside!  For example, even dogs that don’t shed fur like Labradoodles and Yorkshire Terriers love to run around outside and roll in the grass, gathering allergens like pollen and mold in their fur, which they will promptly bring inside and shake into the air or roll on the bed!  It’s our job as wise humans to mitigate the allergens they bring in, as well as the ones that they create all year long (dander, saliva, urine and feces).   In our post “How to Improve Indoor Air Quality with Pets” I discussed what causes pet allergies, and the tips and products that can make a difference in our quality of life together.  Dander can definitely be worse during the wintertime, when pets and humans stay inside more, and the drier climate can exacerbate dry, flaky skin. Minute particles of dead skin can float in the air and also provide food for more dust mites!   I also recommend reading our FAQ on What is HEPA, and the post on HVAC filter changes. 

All in all, it seems there is not a season free from allergens.  The traditional route of medicine is to medicate, medicate, medicate…but we can do a lot to protect ourselves from the allergens through education and prevention (hence the other posts I mentioned).  For those who continue to suffer from allergies after preventative steps, you may consider:

  • Saline sinus rinses with a drop of either TeaTree oil or Oregano Oil really help remove the pollen from your sinuses and disinfect against any mold or fungus that has lodged there.  This page has information on which essential oils have antimicrobial properties and how to use them.  I have successfully used 1 drop of teatree oil in 1 cup of warm saline water, used in a neti pot, to combat severe allergies this year (2022)!

  • Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) can help your body alter its immune response.  This type of therapy is safe, doesn’t require painful shots, and with it many holistic doctors have enabled their patients to greatly reduce their allergies.  

At the time of writing (2022) articles and interest in our “gut microbiome” (the bacteria that live in our digestive system) is very high, along with interest in pre- and pro-biotics and other ways of altering the gut biome.  Not too surprisingly, studies have shown that our sinuses have their own microbiome, and it is affected by the gut microbiome.  Oral probiotic use has been of benefit in treating chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) in two studies (German study, Texas study) which is an ailment of many allergy sufferers.  It’s a case for making our whole body stronger, not just treating symptoms!

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Indoor Pesticides–why you should get rid of Raid!

Indoor Pesticides–why you should get rid of Raid!

Confession: I carried the rascals in!  While preparing to move from my last home, I looked at the price of cardboard boxes and said to myself, this is a big city.  Someone else just moved here, so why not ask for their boxes?  Craigslist had several postings a day for free boxes.  Unfortunately, free boxes have free roaches, and one or two roaches can quickly turn into dozens which took up residence in my kitchen.  Short of calling an exterminator, I did my best with over-the-counter pesticides to get rid of them, but on moving day my kitchen still had an infestation.  It was depressing, because I thought that only “dirty” homes got roaches but no matter how much I cleaned, they persisted (more on this later).  In hindsight I think they liked the consistent heat of the pilot light and some crumbs and drippings in my antique gas stove.  It was not my intention to leave a problem like this to the new homeowners (sorry)… but I got my reward. The bugs hitched a ride to my new house and although I tried more commercial and home remedies, they would not budge.  I even tore out the toekicks under my cabinets, thinking they had set up house there.  To my disappointment (because of my affinity for most things German), I even learned that they were called German cockroaches.  A week before Thanksgiving I broke down and called a pro, who required that I empty all my kitchen cabinets so that my cooking and storage containers would not be sprayed (he also cautioned me to wash anything that came in contact with the spray residue).  To my relief, the critters all died or left the house.  But now I wonder, what was in all the pesticides I tried, what did he use, and since I haven’t had a pest problem for about 4 years, how are these chemicals affecting me? 

Whether you or the professionals tackle the insect or pest problem, it’s important to consider the effect of pesticides on your air quality.  According to the EPA,  80 percent of most people's exposure to pesticides occurs indoors and that measurable levels of up to a dozen pesticides have been found in the air inside homes.  Whoa!  The exposure to airborne chemicals when spraying pesticides is obvious, however, there is also accidental ingestion and absorption to consider.  All in all, it’s a desperate and dangerous conundrum for those who are aware of toxins in pesticides…do I have to live with the pests or live with the poison? 

First, what kinds of pests are we talking about?  According to the EPA, there are 5 different types of pests and therefore 5 different types of pesticides:

  • insects (insecticides)

  • termites (termiticides)

  • rodents (rodenticides)

  • fungi (fungicides)

  • microbes (disinfectants)

What’s in these different types of pesticides?  If there’s a label on the bottle, then you can use this informative page to decode what each ingredient is and its risks to you. 

According to nontoxicforhealth.com, “Most indoor insecticides, including those you use on your pets, contain some type of Pyrethroids. These are amped up synthetic versions of natural chemicals found in chrysanthemums (the natural chemicals breakdown quickly in sunlight so they are less effective).”  These are possible carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, nervous and respiratory system toxins.  

In addition to the active (toxic) ingredients, manufacturers are not required to list all the inert (carrier and amplifying) ingredients, which can be even more harmful on their own.  Inert ingredients are called adjuvants, and they increase the effectiveness of the active ingredients by helping them spread out, stick to pests or weeds, and penetrate their outer layers.  “Among these are carcinogens like coal tar, naphthalene, hexane and xylene. And endocrine disruptors like dibutyl phthalate, plus hydrochloric and nitric acid and many petroleum distillates and fuel oils.” (nontoxicforhealth.com)  These inert ingredients do the same when they encounter your skin or clothing; they help the pesticide or herbicide stick to and penetrate so the active chemical can enter your body. Once inside, the inert ingredients alone are quite harmful. “...a 2016 study found that two inert ingredients, APG (alkyl polyglucosides) and POEA (polyethoxylated tallowamine) were 15–18 times and 1200–2000 times more toxic to cells than the active ingredient glyphosate, respectively.  And the inert/active ingredient glyphosate combo doesn’t just kill more body cells. They also disrupt your endocrine system at much lower levels than glyphosate alone.”  (nontoxicforhealth.com)  

One of the most common insecticides is Raid.  What happens when one sees an unwanted guest like a spider or roach?  They reach for the can of Raid under the sink, spray it, then wait to see if there are any other intruders!   I went to the official website (whatsinsideSCJohnson.com) to check on one version, “Raid Spray Multi-Insect Killer”.  The active ingredients are d-Phenothrin and Prallethrin. Both of these chemicals are Pyrethroids.  Then, there are the inactive ingredients (99+% of the product), the first three of which are Propane, Butane and Petroleum Distillate.  These 3 are VOCs, and the 5th, fragrances, contains many VOCs.  Here’s the problem: the product label recommends “Do not allow people or pets to enter treated area until vapors, mists and aerosols have dispersed, and the treated area has been thoroughly ventilated. Wait two hours after application, then open windows, vents and doors for two hours. “  I doubt that many people leave the area (especially an open-concept home) for 2 hours and then open the windows for 2 more hours, so consumers are breathing in the VOCs of the “other ingredients”, which carry the active ingredients to their intended destination, the insects, but also float through the air for 4 or more hours!

In order to clear the air, you’ll need to get rid of the VOCs.  Be proactive and get started with some pest prevention

  • Cut them off!  No, not with a knife, but with caulk, door sweeps, foam sealant, screening, etc.  There are many videos out there on how to seal out pests: make sure doors, windows, and ventilation openings have screens, install door sweeps and weatherstripping on doors and gaps around AC units, and fill cracks with silicone or latex caulk. 

  • Repair leaky piping to limit water sources for pests.

  • Install wire mesh (hardware cloth) on attic openings, roof, chimney and crawlspace vents.  

  • Use airtight containers for food storage. 

  • Clean up after meals and try not to leave any crumbs!  I left this one for last  because even clean homes can get roaches (they can live for a month without food and a week without water).   Do your best not to sustain them by limiting food sources, so the occasional foraging pest will not have reason to stick around.  Food sources even include non-food items: newspaper, cardboard (hence my moving box problem), “book bindings, leather, wallpaper paste, grease, soap, toothpaste, feces, and even human hair.” (resteasypestcontrol.com)  Gross!

Now here’s where you can take control with natural pest control solutions (source: nontoxicforhealth.com):

  • Wondercide is an essential oil-based natural pesticide that comes in flea and tick, mosquito, indoor and outdoor formulations. 

  • Food-grade diatomaceous earth is a fine white powder made from the fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms.  When sprinkled over surfaces where pests crawl, the earth sticks to their legs and makes small cuts in them and dries out their bodies.  It can also be sprinkled into the fur of dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. to kill fleas, as the earth is non-toxic if they decide to lick themselves.  The fleas start dying within hours!  I used this on my pet rabbit with success, because he liked to hop around the backyard during the day where fleas also roam.  Sprinkle it into carpets for fleas or ants as well.  Just be sure to use a mask when applying it, because the dust is harmful to your lungs (don’t use if you have lung problems).   Also, although many people claim it is safe for humans to eat, I have seen several articles about its danger to our intestines (may block absorption of nutrients).  

  • A hand vacuum will get pests where you can reach, and it’s so satisfying to suck them up!  You can catch-and-release outside, or drown them by emptying the contents of the bin into a bucket of soapy water.  There are lots of hand vacuums available and if you are buying one or replacing yours, be sure to get one with a HEPA filter so that dust and microbes are not expelled into the air while you’re getting that spider!  This one comes with several suction heads and 2 washable HEPA filters.  

Educate yourself–there are no excuses now that we have the internet at our fingertips!  Integrative Pest Management (IPM) is long-term prevention of pests or their damage by managing the ecosystem (University of California).  Basically the following are the four methods of IPM:

  • Biological control: use enemies of the pests to keep them under control!  For example, cats kill rodents.  Many people keep outdoor cats, and never see mice.  Spiders kill insects and mosquitoes.  By allowing small non-poisonous spiders to live around your home, you will have less insects.  Chickens will search and destroy insects too–and roaches are one of their favorite snacks!  The popularity of keeping backyard chickens has grown greatly.

  • Cultural controls: this mostly applies to how food is grown and cultivated, but if you are keeping plants inside, be aware that mold can grow if you overwater the plant and the soil stays too moist.

  • Mechanical and physical controls: keep the pests out by using the methods discussed under pest prevention, and if you need to, use mechanical or chemical traps in safe places so that children and pets aren’t harmed.

  • Chemical control: pesticides are a last resort, and only those that will be safe for the user and the environment. 

Here are two more posts that will be of interest to homeowners: Termiticides: safe for indoor use? (more personal experience here) and De-bugging Your Yard…because we love the fresh air but not the creepy-crawly things!

Photo by hybridnighthawk on Unsplash

Termiticides: Safe for Indoor Use?

Termiticides: Safe for Indoor Use?

Termites are tough buggers.  Having lived in New Orleans for 10+years, it is hard to understand how any wooden structures are still standing, considering that the city is the perfect climate for termites: hot and humid!  I learned without any formal research that the Formosan species of termites does not need any ground contact (so much for termite barriers) to survive; it actually does well in a moist section of your attic or roofing, destroying the wood that holds up your roof!  I renovated a house after Hurricane Katrina and wanting to seal the home well with insulation, I went with a spray foam made from sugar cane.  In hindsight I think spray foam in general was a big mistake!  When I purchased the home in 2009, it had very few signs of termite damage, as all the walls and ceilings were open, and I knew the home (having been built in 1952) just had traditional fiberglass insulation before.  After 7 years of living in it, I had to call the exterminator several times a year for different colonies that invaded parts of the attic, one of which made their way down a wall and into a wood floor!  I think the insulation contained just enough moisture to help them live, and provided great shelter as they munched through the house.  I didn’t notice them at all until I saw a few droppings emerging through the foam, and could actually hear a slight “crinkling” sound in the insulation near the infestation, if the house was completely quiet. 

Many professional exterminators use Termidor, which is a formulation of Fipronil.   Fipronil is used in dog and cat flea medications (Frontline), and used in some outdoor pest applications.  Termidor is labelled as “safe for indoor use”, however, low concentrations are deadly to fish, shrimp, crawfish, honeybees and lizards.  It kills insects by affecting their nervous system, and in other animals, it causes nausea, dizziness, aggression, and interrupts hormones and reproduction.  Fipronil breaks down in sunlight to a chemical that is ten times more toxic, which is fipronil-desulfinyl.  This chemical is more easily absorbed into the skin, as well. (pesticide.org)  Fipronil is also the active ingredient in another termite treatment, Taurus SC.  There is likely gallons of Fipronil in the one house I lived in! 

There are other popular termiticides that are used outdoors, to prevent termites from getting to the precious wood in your home:

  • Imidacloprid is an insecticide that is popular in many other countries besides the US.  It is a sort of synthetic nicotine modeled after natural extracts of the tobacco plant.   It is quite toxic to fish, which is important for homes in areas that runoff to streams, lakes, etc.  It is very persistent in soil, meaning it does not deactivate quickly.  It’s also toxic to some birds, acutely toxic to earthworms, bees, and toxic to some plants.   Imidacloprid is the active ingredient in the flea and tick medication Advantage used for cats, however it is toxic to some cats.  Although it is of low toxicity to humans, why poison our surroundings with something so toxic to nature?  Fuse, Premise and Dominion are products that use imidacloprid to control termites.

  • Chlorfenapyr is a newer insecticide in the class of pyrroles that affect insects’ ability to produce energy.  It works on insects that have become resistant to pyrethroids.  It is supposedly only “moderately” toxic to humans; however, severe poisoning and death have been reported by ingestion, inhalation and exposure to skin.  Spectre 2 SC and Phantom are two products that use chlorfenapyr. 

  • Why put yourself into close contact with a chemical, just to avoid termites or insects?

Fine then–how do I keep termites at bay without using toxic chemicals? Here are some more natural tips:

  • Keep roofs and gutters in good repair, in order to minimize water sources for termites

  • Don’t use mulch next to your foundation; instead, keep it 6-12” away.  This allows air to circulate and doesn't encourage termites to enter the house under cover of mulch. 

  • Stack firewood at least 20 feet away from the house, and raise it off the ground about 8” or more.  This allows air circulation and visual inspection for termite tunnels. 

  • Keep trees and shrubs trimmed so that branches don’t touch your house; also don’t allow dead branches to accumulate on the ground.  Keep large plants away from the foundation, because they can block inspection.   Remember: sunlight and heat are the worst natural enemies of termites and they can’t stay in a hot dry area for very long!

  • For homes that are built above ground on pilings, make sure that termite guards are properly installed on each piling. 

  • Declutter the inside of your house!  I know a landlord whose tenant had stacked newspapers in piles all over the living room floor, which are a favorite termite food.  Now she has to replace the subfloor and some of the joists, which will cost thousands!  Look for telltale piles of sawdust under furniture that has a wooden structure like sofas and beds, and don’t store cardboard boxes or newspapers in your home.  

  • For areas that are prone to underground termites, there is now a stainless steel mesh that can be installed around foundations and underground pipes.  It’s marine grade stainless steel warrantied for 10+ years, called Termi-Mesh

  • Application of Bora-Care or other borate products to unpainted wood is a great deterrent to termites, and borate products can be used in baiting systems.  Boron is a non-toxic element that humans and plants need, in low concentrations.  Therefore, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension, “Although boric acid is relatively safe to humans and other mammals, it can be harmful if accidentally ingested and must be kept away from food, children and pets. Care must be taken not to breathe in the dust when you apply it. Like other dust formulations, it should be used in places where it will not move around.”  In addition to termite protection, it does not allow molds and fungus to grow. 

  • If you live in an area that is high risk for termites, you will be familiar with swarming season.  During this time, the “alates” or reproductive termites will leave the colony in a brief flight and look for a mate to start another colony.  Usually in late spring, this is when you see swarms of termites surrounding outdoor lights at dusk and after sunset.  It can be a scary sight to homeowners, but don’t let it frighten you!  Turn off outdoor lights on and near your home during swarming season, close drapes or blinds to block light from windows, and make sure you have window screens and weatherstripping installed to keep them out of the house.  If any termites do enter the house, they will die within the day if they do not find moist areas or leaks, so proper maintenance will make sure they don’t start a new colony in your home.  If you do see them entering through a crack or pinhole in the wall, you can use a vacuum to suck them up, ensuring again that there is no moist wood or drywall to sustain them. 

  • If gardening is one of your interests, you may consider planting some of the following around your home, as they have been studied to repel termites: catnip, vetiver grass, and lemongrass. Marigolds are also a favorite of gardeners to deter pests, but they have not been scientifically shown to deter termites.

  • Newer insecticides like Chlorantraniliprole are of very low toxicity to humans, bees and fish, while they cause death to termites by paralysis. 

  • Baiting stations are environmentally safer than pouring chemicals into the ground around your house, because the poison within them is only carried by the worker termites out of the station and into the nest.  However, they can be slow to work and must be checked several times a year, if not monthly, by an exterminator.   If a termite inspection reveals that you have no active infestations in your home, then this may be a good preventative measure.  

Alaska may be the only state that is free from termites, but with some vigilance, they don’t have to take over your home!

Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO-FLY zone

Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO-FLY zone 

When summer gets going, the high-pitched “hummm” of mosquitoes in the yard or nearby woods is all we need to hurry inside when dusk comes.  But this is YOUR property, right?  There are many ways to take it back…some healthy and some not so healthy.  On the latter side, I know the smell of Malathion by heart, even though my mother told my sister and I to get inside immediately when we heard the drone of the fogging truck coming up our wooded lane.  Later I heard stories from baby boomers who as children went out to play behind the truck in the fog as it buzzed down the streets of New Orleans.  With the advent of west Nile and Zika viruses in the US, mosquitoes are still quite a serious concern, but knowing that Malathion can cause mutated genes in blood cells, breast cancer, abnormalities in sperm, and increased Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma among farmers that use it, among other effects, Malathion might be the greater danger! 

Similarly, many of the outdoor sprays, including the most popular Permethrin in the US, have active ingredients in the class of pyrethroids.  While pyrethroids are safer to us when dry (up to 2 hours later), they can be absorbed through skin while applying them, or drift into our homes through open windows or crevices (such as when an exhaust fan is being used inside the house, pulling in outside air).  Pyrethroids are a synthetic version of pyrethrins, which are extracts from the chrysanthemum plant.  Pyrethroids are possible carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and nervous and respiratory system toxins. 

Several years ago, I was gifted a newer mosquito “lamp” called the Thermacell.  It works by heating up a small pad saturated in Allethrin (a pyrethroid), that creates a vaporous barrier of about 15x15 feet around you.  It takes a few minutes (10-15) to fully establish the chemical barrier.  Although it works, the product warnings include keeping it away from uncovered food and to avoid directly inhaling the vapors.  Huh?  In order to be effective, you are sitting in the 15x15 area…directly or indirectly inhaling the vapors. (?!)

I hope you enjoyed our post on mosquito repellents where I discussed the products you spray on your body.  In this war on mosquitoes and other pests, there are repellents safer than Malathion and pyrethroids that you can deploy on your yard.  Here are the best of what we found!  

Similar to the way a “wireless fence” works to keep pets in the yard, what if there was a way to keep insect pests out of the yard?  There is!  For those who dream of Star Wars technology in the home, Photonic Fence is an insect-killing laser device that tracks mosquitoes and other potential pests using cameras and computers, then kills them with a “minimum lethal dose” laser.  The “Photonic Fence is capable of finely discriminating between different species of insects, and so can be relied upon to target only harmful insects, rather than beneficial insects.” (photonicsentry.com)  Unfortunately it is only available by inquiry at the moment…

On the more realistic (and safer) side, the first thing to do is make your backyard inhospitable to mosquitoes through these strategies:

  • Get rid of standing water.  If you have a fish pond, make sure there is not algae growing in it, because this is a favorite food for mosquito larvae.  Be aware that container plants need to have adequate drainage, too, otherwise mosquito larvae can grow in water in the pots.  Also, refill bird baths and dog bowls frequently to discourage mosquitoes.  A frequently overlooked spot is the AC unit, which usually has a pan with drain holes under it.  If the drain holes get clogged with leaves and debris, voila! You have a mosquito incubator. 
  • Install fans around your favorite gathering places.  Mosquitoes are slow, weak fliers that can’t stand up against strong breezes.  It also disperses the carbon dioxide we breathe out, which is a way that mosquitoes target us.
  • Install netting or screen around your favorite hangout: a porch, gazebo, or screened tent.
  • Wear light colored clothing, because mosquitoes “see” dark colors more easily.
  • If fleas are your main problem, be aware that fleas breed in backyards before hitching a ride on pets or us.  So, you can unleash a natural predator like beneficial nematodes on them, that will destroy them and their eggs within about 2 weeks.  Here is an excellent article on how to deploy these microscopic worms to demolish fleas in your backyard. 
  • For the science geeks among us, try making a dry ice trap!  These are actually used by scientists to count and examine species of mosquitoes.  You’ll want to use this at the farthest point from any gathering place, because it is a “bait”: mosquitoes are tricked into thinking that the CO2 is from a prey source, so you don’t want it near you!

Now that you’ve done your best to put up a “NO VACANCY” sign, here are the safer outdoor pesticides which can be sprayed manually or automatically around your yard to discourage or kill mosquitoes and other pests.  These stand out by using natural ingredients for great results: 

  • We touted Wondercide in our post about indoor pesticides (Why You Should Get Rid of Raid!) and they have an excellent outdoor pesticide as well.  Wondercide built their business on being friendly to pets and families.  Their outdoor products come in a formulation that repels fleas and ticks (that also work on mosquitoes), or, if you don’t have pets that attract fleas and ticks, a formulation that primarily kills mosquitoes but also works on ants and ticks. 
  • Nature-cide Outdoor Insect Repellent is a great choice with no toxic ingredients.  The active ingredients are cedarwood oil and cinnamon oil, with carriers lecithin, soap and water.  It deters Ants, Bed Bugs, Caterpillars, Cockroaches, Earwigs, Fleas, Flies, Hornets, Mites, Mosquitoes, Moths, Silverfish, Spiders, Stink Bugs, Ticks, and Wasps.  It is available in a 32 oz spray bottle (perfect for small areas) or larger sizes.  
  • Mosquito Barrier by Garlic Research Labs, Inc.  is 99.3% garlic juice, with the remainder citric acid and potassium sorbate.  When it is diluted in water as per instructions, it kills adult mosquitoes, coats plants to deter mosquitoes, and suffocates mosquito larvae in standing water.  It also repels fleas, ticks and ants, a great combination for pet owners. 

The following two treatments have ingredients that are a lot safer than pyrethroids, but one carrier ingredient that can be questionable (sodium laureth sulfate).  Sodium laureth sulfate is a surfactant which helps the treatment spread out and stick to plants.  Depending on how it is manufactured, sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen and a possible carcinogen (davidsuzuki.org).

  • Pyranha® Zero-Bite® Natural Insect Repellent by Bug Armour: according to the label, the ingredients are 6% Geraniol (oil derived from geraniums), Clove oil and Peppermint oil, 7% Sodium Laureth Sulfate, 13% water and glycerin.   
  • Naprovit PRO Plus™ by Natural Misting Solutions “controls mosquitoes, spiders, wasps, hornets, midges (No-see-ums), gnats, and many other types of small flying insects when used in residential and commercial misting systems.”  It contains 8% Sodium Laureth Sulfate, 2% soybean oil and 1% corn oil (the rest is water and soap).  It kills insects on contact, including wasps and hornets; however I could find no information on its effect on honeybees.

There you have it–let us know what other outdoor strategies have helped you enjoy your little slice of heaven!

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Mosquito Repellant: Is DEET the only option? (No, there are safer choices!)

Mosquito Repellant: Is DEET the only option?  (No, there are safer choices!) 

Going on camping trips and just generally living in the woods for most of my life now, I am very familiar with mosquito repellant.  I was told that more DEET = less mosquitoes.  What exactly is DEET ?  

According to pesticides.org, “DEET is a repellent used by almost one-third of the U.S. population every year. It is one of the few pesticides applied directly to skin and clothing.”  It was developed during WWII by the US Army as a repellant and has been in use as a pesticide since 1957.  Just because it’s been used so long, does not mean it’s safe, however!

DEET has scary effects on animals, some children, and the cells and DNA in our bodies.  In lab tests, animals subjected to DEET lost much of their ability to climb, grip, and reproduce in normal ways.  It is debilitating and fatal to fish.  Children may have seizures at even low concentrations (less than 20%), and experiments with our own brain cells show that it kills them.  It’s not something I’ll want to apply again to anyone in my family!  

Permethrin is a different mosquito repellant that is marketed and sold as a fabric treatment for tents, clothing and camping gear like backpacks and used as an outdoor soil treatment for termites; it is a synthetic pyrethroid, which is a class of neurotoxins.  It behaves in insects similarly to the insecticide DDT.  Permethrin does not decay quickly in soil (it is commonly sprayed on the ground and around homes).  Besides being a possible carcinogen, it affects the immune system, hormones, and different organs such as the liver and lungs.  According to laboratory studies on rats, “children may be more sensitive to permethrin than adults,” (pesticide.org).  Why put yourself into close contact with a neurotoxin, just to avoid termites or insects?

I believe there is “kryptonite” for every pest–we just have to discover them.  The following repellent active ingredients work by masking the personal scent that mosquitoes use to target us as prey.  Some are manufactured and some are natural extracts.

  • Picaridin is a synthetic imitation of piperine, an extract from plants used to make black pepper.  It is in the original formulation of Skin So Soft, which was passed around many Girl Scout Troops and made its way onto our family camping and fishing trips too.  According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), Picaridin has had very few allergic reactions, was not shown to cause cancer, and is generally safe.  
  • Due to the anecdotal (not studied) evidence that Skin So Soft repels mosquitoes, Avon produced a Bug Repellant that contains IR3535 as its active ingredient, which is a chemical that is structurally similar to the naturally occurring amino acid B-alanine (ewg.org). It is similar to or slightly less effective than DEET or Picaridin on mosquitoes, but almost twice the mean protection time of these products against deer ticks (which are carriers of Lyme’s Disease).  It can be very irritating to the eyes, but has no other health risks.
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is an extract of a species of Australian eucalyptus tree.  This extract is refined in order to concentrate the chemical that repels bugs, para-menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD.  PMD is used by brand names Repel and Cutter at 30% Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus or 20% PMD.  According to beyondpesticides.org, PMD was tested in Africa against mosquitoes that are known to cause malaria, and it “gave complete protection from biting for between 6 and 7.75 hours”, and it was equally effective as lower concentrations of DEET.  PMD has reportedly few allergic skin reactions but it is an eye irritant.  Because it has not been studied on young animals, it’s not advised to use on children under 3. 
  • Essential oils: Clove or Thyme oil at 50% concentrations were the most effective in this study of 5 oils, however they can be irritating to the skin and not pleasant to every user at these high concentrations.  In this study, clove oil was studied along with citronella, patchouli, and makaen (Zanthoxylum limonella), and clove oil performed the best, with undiluted clove oil giving 2-4 hours of complete repellency.  This study also concluded that full-strength oils perform the best, but adding vanillin increased the time of repellency.  VerywellHealth.com gives a list of more oils and their respective benefits and cautions. 

These are the ACTIVE ingredients.  We note that  there is always a “carrier” (whether it’s called inert or inactive, these are the ingredient(s) that dilute and aid in application of the active ingredient) and not every product discloses the full list of ingredients.  It’s always best to check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a product you are considering.  These are usually found at the bottom of the manufacturer’s home page.  

  • Picaridin products tend to have less disclosure about carrier ingredients: 
    • Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent and Naturapel’s Picaridin Insect Repellent both contain Polyethylene Glycol (PEG).  Despite the wide use of PEG in the cosmetics industry, it can be contaminated with carcinogens and if used on broken skin, a cause for irritation and systemic toxicity (David Suzuki Foundation). 
    • RangerReady Repellents Picaridin 20% contain propylene glycol, which is a penetration enhancer and found to provoke skin irritations in people with eczema and other skin allergies (ewg.org)
    • Earthkind StayAway Mosquitoes is a Picaridin formula made with small parts of ethanol, glycerin (both non-toxic), and mainly water, but 10% undisclosed ingredients (it could be a fragrance or combination of ingredients). 
  • Murphy’s Naturals is a great choice because this company clearly states that the carrier in their Lemon Eucalyptus Oil Insect Repellant Spray is deionized water and corn ethanol (alcohol made from corn). 
  • Wondercide has a range of repellants made with different essential oils (for personal scent preferences, not efficacy).  They are safe for kids and adults, with no artificial dyes or fragrances.
  • Anyone who travels or has young children would appreciate the convenience of Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Repellent Wipes, the ingredients of which are clearly stated on the front of the package.  The main active ingredients are citronella oils and cedarwood oil, with peppermint, lemongrass and geranium.  While cedarwood oil did not fare well alone as a repellent in this study, the combination in Aunt Fannies seems to work as they are blessed in good reviews and sales. 
  • Kinfield’s Golden Hour spray ($22 for 3 oz) is priced at a premium, but its reviews are too good to ignore.  Made of active ingredients citronella oil, lemongrass oil and clove oil, with inactive ingredients isopropyl alcohol, lauric acid, water and vanillin, the scent is light with citrus and vanilla.

Has anyone found any new or different ingredients or products that safely repel mosquitoes?  Let us know!

Photo by Bima Wahyu on Unsplash

Ewww! How can I get rid of that smell?

Ewww! How can I get rid of that smell?

Hopefully you’ve read our first post about smell, “Why does that smell make me happy? Or sad”  because it gives some background about how our sense of smell affects the rest of our body.  I mentioned some good smells like peppermint and eucalyptus oil, but of course there are smells that really turn us off, and that’s what I want to discuss here.  Maybe they are not even coming from your space, but from a neighbor!  In that case you can also reference our post “How do I improve air quality in my home when the people around me don’t care?”

It’s okay to admit that our spaces just sometimes stink.  Our cars, our homes, our office… it happens.  I still kick myself for forgetting that grocery bag of raw chicken in the car for three days!  Sometimes I visit friends with babies and there is the lingering smell of sour milk. And then there are pets, teen’s rooms, and stinky habits of others we can’t control. 

Of course, you can buy an aerosol can of deodorizer or Febreeze to mask or “neutralize” the scent.  Spray and voila!, your space smells like vanilla or fresh linen or coconuts.  Although Febreze.com actually has a page listing the ingredients and claiming the safety of their products, it does not list all of the ingredients, especially the potentially hazardous ones like phthalates (hormone interruption especially for children), 1,4- Dichlorobenzene (deadens sense of smell).  The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to testing consumer products and educating consumers to make more informed choices about healthy living, tested the “Linen and Sky” version of this freshener two times, once in 2012 and once in 2017, for its two different versions.  The first version rated a grade of “D” on a scale of A-F; the second version in 2012 rated a score of “C”.  The same scent (second version) in the Fabric Refresher product also rated a “C”, however within that rating several ingredients are rated “D”, causing skin allergies, respiratory and endocrine effects, among others.  Now, the reason Febreze Air Effects could have an overall rating of “C” yet have more dangerous “D” chemicals in it, is due to the fact that it does have a few good, harmless ingredients like water, nitrogen, ethanol, sodium citrate and citric acid.  That’s what we need more of.

The EWG recognizes that this type of air freshener only covers up the odors…they are still there, we are still breathing them but they are cocooned in chemicals that don’t benefit us.  Their recommendation on both the Air Effects and Fabric Refresher products: search for a better air freshener/fabric refresher!  And this group delivers: check out their Air Freshener pages for a slew of A and B rated products (Febreze’s Pet Odor Eliminator, surprisingly, was rated a B, as was many Mrs. Meyer’s products). But at the top of the list?  Good old baking soda!  Here is where you can get great effects from a cheaper product (generic baking soda sold at less than $1 per box, is the same as brand name baking soda and still way less expensive than a can of air freshener). 

Many cleaning experts agree–natural products do work!  Remove the source of stink if you can (take out the trash, clean the litter box, ventilate the bathroom, etc.) and then place one of these in your space (with a fan and/or fresh air ventilation from an open window if possible to accelerate the process). All of the following remove the bad scents while adding little to no scent of their own (even vinegar in a corner of the room does not have a lot of smell):

  • Vinegar: placing an open bowl of apple cider or distilled white vinegar in a corner will help trap cooking and cigarette smoke odors.
  • Activated charcoal: Charcoal will not add a scent to the air but it will absorb malodors.
  • Baking soda: Just as baking soda works to absorb odors in your refrigerator, a bowl placed in a room will also absorb odors.  Adding some baking soda to your vacuum bag will also overcome the musty scents that linger there, too.
  • Lemon water: Water absorbs odors and adding slices of fresh lemon will provide a clean citrus scent.
  • Coffee grounds: Fresh coffee grounds add a scent to the air but also absorb odors when placed in an open bowl.

(Source: The Spruce)

We have one more recommendation for a natural deodorizer: HypoAir's new cleaner TotalClean.  Formulated with iodine, this non-toxic product not only cleans many surfaces around the house, you can spray it into the air around stinky places--trashcans, litter boxes and the like--to effectively deodorize!  

If you want to have a more permanent deodorizer with fan, HypoAir has recently introduced charcoal filters for the Germ Defender.  This little plug-in is powerful!  While it is sending out positive and negative ions to kill the source of the stink (moldy surfaces, bacteria, etc.), the charcoal filters are actively filtering and deodorizing the air.  This is a low-maintenance deodorizing and sanitizing unit you can place strategically in the stinkiest areas of your home (bathroom, laundry room, pet areas, teenager’s room, etc.)  

Now that the bad scents are removed, if you want to add good fragrance back in, here are some safe options for those who prefer their home to be lightly scented.  This list is sourced from livesimply.me

  • Beeswax candles: unlike regular scented candles, most of which are made from paraffin wax and give off hydrocarbon byproducts, beeswax candles do not pollute the air.   For a light scent, use beeswax candles scented with essential oils.
  • Diffusers: Did you know that you can get a scent similar to your favorite Yankee Candle (made from paraffin and harmful fragrances), by mixing essential oils in diffuser?  You can hack a “pumpkin spice” scent!  There are seven types of diffusers, some of which add more humidity to your space than others. 
  • Simmer pots will allow you to replicate more of those comfy scents, but with more humidity, since the medium for simmering is water.  If you have a high humidity problem in your home, it’s best to limit simmer pots for dry seasons like winter, and never leave them unattended. 
  • Vodka air fresheners:  Many commercial fresheners use various types of alcohols as “carriers” which emulsify fragrances and dry quickly, leaving only the scent behind.  Vodka is a very pure type of alcohol, and witch hazel is another safe “carrier” (but it does not evaporate as quickly as vodka). Higher proof vodkas mean higher alcohol content, but you’ll want a non-flavored one and cheap brands work just as well as more expensive ones.  Here are some recipes for popular holiday scents. 
  • Vanilla or peppermint extract: Saturate a few cotton balls with cooking extracts and place them on small saucers around the room. They also work great when placed in a vacuum bag or dust cup to add a bit of scent as you clean. (Source: The Spruce
  • This list of brand-name air fresheners from the EWG contains many safe options (grade A or B).  Aura-Cacia and Eco-Me brands have appeared on other expert lists as well.

The downside to essential oils is that they do contain VOCs; it’s what makes them so wonderfully fragrant.  Knowing this, it's smart to increase ventilation and limit the time of use.  However, by adding your own essential oils to any of these appliances, you know what is going into the air and you can control the intensity so that it does not overpower like some commercial air fresheners. Smells naturally delicious to me!