Category Archives for "Air Quality"

Are you using a humidifier? Take these precautions against bacteria, mold and fine particulates (PM2.5)

Are you using a humidifier?  Take these precautions against bacteria, mold and fine particulates (PM2.5)

We at HypoAir are big proponents of getting the humidity in your house or office to a good range (40-60%) and for those with a dry air problem, have recommended humidifiers.  We wanted to make you aware of a few problems that can occur if they are not regularly cleaned or the wrong water is used. 

As I discussed in other posts, the concentration of water vapor present in the air is called humidity.  Too little water vapor is low humidity, which can cause dryness in the respiratory system, sinuses, and ability for viruses to survive and infect for longer in the air.  Injecting the air with water vapor raises the humidity to the proper level (40-60%).  Humidifiers essentially create water vapor and eject it into the air. 

There are several types of humidifiers out there.  Consumer Reports lists four types of portable humidifiers: Cool Mist Evaporative, Cool Mist Ultrasonic, Warm Mist Humidifiers (also known as steam vaporizers), and Dual Mist.  They are all subject to microbial growth (bacteria/fungus) if they are not cleaned regularly, which can lead to serious respiratory infections like humidifier lung (only one humidifier did not emit bacteria into the air: the evaporative or wick humidifier).  If you don’t have the manufacturer’s instructions, humidifiers should be cleaned at least once a week.  Many websites will recommend a bleach solution, but there’s no good reason to release these harmful vapors in your home when there are safer options:

  • Empty out the tank and disassemble the parts that normally come apart.  To clean, here is our suggestion: 
    • Clean from microbes: Use Total Clean or Force of Nature to clean all parts of the tank and base, using a soft toothbrush to get into hard to reach places. Rinse with water.
    • Clean from scale buildup: Use 1 cup white vinegar plus 1 cup water in the tank and the base and let it soak for 20 minutes to loosen any mineral scale buildup, then scrub with the toothbrush, rinse thoroughly and let them air dry. 
    • Note: cleaning with vinegar alone does not kill all bacteria and fungus (see our post on non-toxic cleaners).   
  • With evaporative humidifiers, remove and rinse the filter/wick, and let it thoroughly air dry.  

That’s it–no mysteries here!  You have a clean humidifier, ready for use to add that satisfying mist of clean moisture to your air, right?  Well, yes, but here is the caution: despite having become very popular because of their quiet, efficient operation, ultrasonic humidifiers can transfer whatever minerals and particles are present in your water, into the air. That mist may not be just water vapor, but also calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other dissolved solids.   Normally these minerals are not harmful on their own to our bodies, but we were not meant to breathe in such particles.  In one study at the University of Alberta, operating an ultrasonic humidifier with tap water resulted in particulate matter concentration equivalent to a polluted city (!).  In the study, the humidifier was placed in an upper-story bedroom, but fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was distributed throughout the house via central air circulation. “These particles are so small that they can evade our filtration system in the upper airway and penetrate deep into our respiratory tract,” explained Chester Lau, lead author of the paper. “Upon doing so, they also send chemical species associated with them into our bodies. Using dirty or contaminated water could cause further detrimental health impacts.”

Of course, the best solution would be to use distilled water purchased from the grocery store, or filtered water from a filter that removes Total Dissolved Solids, such as ZeroWater, in ultrasonic humidifiers.  Not all water filters remove minerals and other dissolved solids, so you’ll need to be careful what type of filtered water you use.  Also, you should consider the cost of using distilled or highly filtered water in your humidifier, because it can add up.  

Here's the bottom line: humidity is great in the proper doses, just make sure that it’s not carrying bacteria, mold or fine particulates with it!

Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

Window AC units need (Deep) Spring Cleaning too!

Window AC units need (Deep) Spring Cleaning too!

We still have cool evenings in the eastern US as I’m writing this (late April), but the days are heating up quickly.  My parents and I have central air conditioning in our homes, but their workshop has a window unit.  It’s an older unit, still very good at cooling the room, but we turned it on recently and immediately had to turn it off.  The mold smell was overwhelming!  Even cleaning the air filter did not clear up the smell.  I knew what I had to do–a deep cleaning to get the mold out!

My father’s hobby of decoy carving makes a LOT of dust.  He has a carving cabinet with dedicated vacuum (the 220v motor pulls the dusty air into a collection unit outside), but even so, there is dust on EVERYTHING.  I had a theory that the thin intake filter was not stopping the dust from being trapped in the tiny fins, where condensation provides moisture and voila!  The window AC unit became a petri dish for mold.  It wasn’t my parents’ fault; these window unit filters are just not designed for dusty workshops (more on that later). 

If you have the same experience of turning on your window unit and smelling mold, STOP!  Don’t let it run any longer without taking the following steps, or you run the risk of blowing mold spores all over your space. Here’s the deal: you can check, but mold is usually not growing on the intake filter in the front.  It’s growing INSIDE the air conditioner, where there’s more moisture from condensation.  You can do the following check, but 9 times out of 10, it won’t be enough to eliminate the mold smell.  

  • Remove the front plastic grille (it usually pulls out from the sides, and lifts out from the top or bottom).  

  • Remove the intake filter.  If it has a light coat of dust, you can vacuum it off, or use dish soap and water, a soft sponge, and rinse clean and let it dry. 

  • Replace the filter and turn the AC back on. (You don’t have to replace the plastic grille just yet).  Do you smell mold?

    • No mold smell: you are blessed and can replace the plastic grille and enjoy the cool air.

    • Mold smell: STOP!  It’s time for deep cleaning. 

I didn’t know that deep cleaning the fins of the unit was possible until I saw this video. The unit shown is a GE air conditioner, but many units are very similar.  Here is a diagram that shows the major components of every older air conditioner (from howstuffworks.com):

The machine sucks in air through the front grille (lower rectangular part) and pulls it through the evaporator coil by the blower.  This is where the warm air from the room is made cooler by the refrigerant that circulates through the evaporator coil.  The air, which is now cool and hopefully drier, is expelled through the louvers at the top of the front grille, which you can direct at different angles into the room.  Unless there is a “fresh air intake” from the back of the air conditioner (which is hanging outside the room), no outside air is coming into your space, so the mold problem likely lies in the evaporator coil and areas around it, like the blower.  

There are “easier” ways of cleaning your air conditioner, like just vacuuming off the coils, or using an ozone method like this one to disinfect all the inner parts without touching them.  The only problem is that dead mold is not safe mold, either.  “Dead mold is just as bad as live mold. When mold dies, its cell wall dessicates and it gets dry and it will break apart into little fragments. And the fragments have toxins on them. This is a disease of toxins. When you inhale those toxins, they are in you.  If you don’t recognize them as being foreign, you have a difficult time getting them out of your body.” (Scott McMahon, M.D., moldymovie.com) 

 It’s not easy, but removing the parts in order to clean all the way through the coils is the best way to get rid of hidden mold.  The unit in the video had a metal cover that lifts off to expose the inner parts of the machine.  Mine (and many others) actually pull out of a cover/cage by means of a handle in the front.  Get help to do this as they can be very heavy!  You’ll also want to wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid cuts on sharp metal (from experience 🙁 …) and avoid gripping or pinching the fins on the evaporator and condenser coils, as they are super thin and fragile.  The cooling capacity of the machine actually depends on these being undamaged!  There are many videos online to show how various machines come apart. 

Obviously you’ll want to be doing this job outside, not only because of the dirt, mold and water involved, but also if you choose to use a stronger coil cleaner.  The coil cleaner shown in the video contains sodium hydroxide, which is also known as lye or caustic soda.  She’s right that it can cause severe burns or even damage the coils if it’s left on them too long.  Rinsing off these types of cleaners puts them into the environment.  There are safer ingredients.  “No Rinse” on a label means just that; the product actually rinses itself off when condensation on the coils appears during normal use.  After letting them sit and work on the coils for 5-10 minutes, you can rinse them off, however, if you’re doing the deep cleaning we’re suggesting and get the dirt out of the unit.

Remember, vacuum first to get the loose dirt out, then use liquids!

  • Concrobium Mold Control Spray is a great product that is no-rinse.  To use it outside, first vacuum off loose dust, spray it on and work it into the coils with a soft brush in the direction of the fins.  Let it sit and rinse it through the coils; repeat as necessary.  Finally when the coil is clean, spray on and don’t rinse; let it dry as this will protect against future mold growth.

Homemade Coil Cleaners: You’ll want at least one ingredient in the mix that kills mold. Some websites advise to add cornstarch to the mix, however mold can grow on cornstarch, so I would advise against this!

  • One part vinegar, one part rubbing alcohol, and baking soda:  This combination will kill mold because of the alcohol.  Use a soft brush to work it into the front of the coils, let it sit for a few minutes, then use a garden hose to spray it deeper and through the coils. Repeat as necessary til you can see light through the coils.

  • Straight (3-5%) hydrogen peroxide with baking soda: This combination will kill mold because of the hydrogen peroxide.  It’s extremely fizzy!  Use the same way as the vinegar solution above (do not mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide!)

Other equipment you need or may find useful:

  • Safety goggles or face shield to keep the spray away from your eyes

  • Heavy-duty gloves to protect your hands

  • A fin comb helps straighten out those dents and dings in the coils.

It’s going to be time worth spending. You’ll breathe easier not only with fresh air, but also knowing that it’s mold-free!

What’s the difference between Relative Humidity and Absolute Humidity?

What’s the difference between Relative Humidity and Absolute Humidity?

If you’ve been reading our website or posts for any length of time, you will see that we really focus on attaining the correct humidity in your home or office as a staple condition for good air quality.  Recently a customer asked us to clarify the difference between Relative Humidity and Absolute Humidity, and which one should we be monitoring.  This is a great question!

Water is a very interesting substance because it can exist as a solid, liquid or gas.  When it’s in gaseous state, it’s called water vapor, or moisture. Let’s talk about the presence of water vapor in the air.  If you want to measure the amount of water vapor in the air, you can express it in grams of water per cubic meter volume of air, and you would have absolute humidity.  (weather.gov) Absolute humidity does not depend on any specific temperature; it is just a physical amount of water in a given volume of air.   

Relative humidity has an additional variable thrown in–temperature.  Whenever relative humidity is discussed, it takes into account temperature, because temperature has a big effect on how much water the air can theoretically hold.  As temperature increases, the same volume of air can hold more water, just as hot water can hold more dissolved sugar or salt than cold water.  Relative humidity is always measured in percent.  If you have 50% relative humidity, the air is holding 50% of the water vapor it could theoretically contain at that temperature.  The theoretical maximum is that point where any increase in the water vapor at that temperature would cause it to fall out of the air (rain).   What’s the takeaway of relative humidity?  A certain relative humidity–say fifty percent– should “feel” the same whether it is 60 degrees or 70 degrees in your house, but 70 degree air at 50% relative humidity actually contains more volume of water vapor than 60 degree air at 50% relative humidity.  

As you may note, relative humidity is what we normally reference in all of our discussions, because we like to keep our homes at different temperatures throughout the day and throughout the year, but the target relative humidity (40-60%) should remain the same for good respiratory health, and low bacterial/viral transmission and mold growth.  Check out our portable, economical humidity sensors so that you can easily monitor the relative humidity in different areas of your home!

Carpet Care: How to get a Non-Toxic Refresh

Carpet Care: How to get a Non-Toxic Refresh

This is not a fear campaign, I promise!   I just want to give some facts on carpeting before we get down to how to keep it in your house.  The first three facts of the following  are from forceofnature.com, a trusted non-toxic cleaning product we recommend. 

Carpeting is known to emit VOCs and retain allergens–so why keep it?

Carpet under our toes is just plain comfy.  It’s low-impact (great for playing on the floor), super quiet (great for sleeping), warm to the touch and doesn’t show mild dirt and dust like hard flooring (great appearance)!  These are all reasons for choosing carpet for flooring in your home.  

Sometimes bare floors or area rugs don’t give the warmth and comfort of nice carpet under your feet, and sometimes budget doesn’t allow you to replace carpet.  So, carpet it is–but let’s make it clean carpet!  Here’s some non-toxic ways to clean and maintain your wall-to-wall carpet.

Professional Carpet Cleaners:  Carpet cleaning companies have made their fortunes for decades on “deep-cleaning” and images of families and pets rolling around on pristine carpets.  Actually, mold experts recommend leaving carpet cleaning to the professionals, because of the dangers of incomplete water extraction.  Here are our tips for getting the safest, most effective professional carpet cleaning.  

  • Be aware of the traditional chemicals used by professional cleaning companies.  Just like dry cleaners, preferred chemicals dissolve dirt without soap and water, but these chemicals can give off toxic VOCs that linger on the carpet and in the air, causing headaches and sickness (sfgate.com).   The chemicals they use, as well as the ones in over-the-counter carpet cleaning products, are not required to be tested for toxicity by the EPA, unless the agency can prove that they pose a safety risk.  The EPA just does not have the resources to test all cleaning chemicals for toxicity, so most applications for a new product are approved within a matter of weeks (today.com).   
  • Be aware of the equipment used: if steam or water is used, truck-mounted equipment is generally more powerful and able to remove most of the steam and water injected into the carpets during cleaning.  With portable equipment, significant water can remain after 48 hours and allow mold to grow.
  • Be aware of added fragrances.  In fact, it’s not just the ingredients that clean the fibers that are toxic; the fragrances that make it smell good and market the product are most likely phthalates, which are possible carcinogens and definitely hormone-disrupting. 

Now that you know what to avoid, there are many methods out there, however the safest carpet cleaning service is called “dry steam” or “steam vapor”.  It does not soak the carpet with water, which will encourage mold growth, it should not use toxic chemicals, and it is the best way to reduce dust and allergens in the carpet, actually killing dust mites in the process. (moldsafesolutions.com–this article is great reading on all methods of carpet cleaning).  Dry steam begins with a thorough vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum, then a non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning solution is added and the carpet is scrubbed with a rotary floor machine to loosen dirt stuck in the fibers.  Finally, the dirt and solution are removed using a high-powered HEPA vacuum.

For heavily soiled carpets, there is also a dry method called green encapsulation carpet cleaning.  Encapsulation cleaning has been around for several decades, but now companies are offering non-toxic chemicals to get the job done.  “...Encapsulation chemicals surround each particle of dirt and crystallize it, so it repels other soil. The dirt particles, then rise to the surface of the carpet and are easily removed with normal vacuuming. This process helps carpets stay cleaner because it does not leave behind a layer of sticky residue. Encapsulation carpet cleaners also incorporate acid dye resistors, surface tension modifiers, and polymers, which eliminate the need for rinsing.” (cleaning.lovetoknow.com)

What if I can’t afford a safe carpet cleaning service? Should I rent a machine from the local hardware store and do it myself?

Uh, no.  It turns out (see 1st and 2nd bullet above) that these machines recommend use of their brand-name detergents, which often have disclosed and undisclosed toxins, and although they look powerful, are not powerful enough to remove enough water to prevent mold from growing in your carpet.  The Rug Doctor site says “When used correctly, it should take no longer than 2 hours for your carpet to dry after deep cleaning with a Rug Doctor Deep Cleaner.” Okay…. We all want to use equipment correctly, but let me tell you, it’s super-easy to over-wet the carpet!  The same goes for purchasing a home-grade hot-water cleaner like Bissell or other brands.  They simply do not have the power to remove all the water they put into the carpet.

What we do recommend: in this case, and for the rest of your flooring care needs, a good HEPA vacuum cleaner will help remove dust mites and allergens.   In fact, this is the first step in the dry steam process mentioned above: to use a good HEPA vacuum to remove surface dust and allergens. Next, use a non-toxic cleaner to remove stains on the surface of the carpet.  Our two top picks:

  • Total Clean i2: as the first product in our Natural Home Collection, Total Clean i2 is a very versatile weapon in your home cleaning arsenal.  Not only useful for solid surfaces like counter tops and showers, Total Clean i2 is non-toxic and removes most stains from carpet as well as brand-name cleaners.  This is the power of iodine.  To use on carpet, test first in an inconspicuous area to determine color-fastness.  Then lightly spray the stain with Total Clean i2, let it dry thoroughly, and vacuum with a HEPA cleaner.  Because Total Clean i2 contains iodine, any leftover liquid that seeps into carpet that does not dry right away, will not harbor mold–it will actually kill mold because (tincture) of iodine has “very high antimicrobial activity against microorganisms including Aspergillus spores.” (2019 study)
  • Force of Nature: Like Total Clean i2, Force of Nature is a multi-surface cleaner.  Force of Nature has been tested by an independent laboratory (Toxic Use Reduction Institute, the University of Massachusetts) to show that it is not only non-toxic, it cleans as well the most popular branded carpet cleaner, Resolve.  For carpet, follow the website recommendations: “On spills and stains, treat the problem as quickly as possible like you would with any other stain remover. Always first test in an inconspicuous spot to ensure the dyes used are truly colorfast and wait until the tested area is dry before proceeding. This is because there is a wide variety in the types of dyes, fibers, and processes for making fabrics and rugs colorfast. Blot the spill, spray Force of Nature, then wipe (repeat if necessary). It cleans as well as Resolve and won’t remove color like bleach does on colorfast rugs and upholstery.”

As many pet owners know, fleas can totally make themselves at home in carpet.  Flea eggs that fall off the pet onto carpet can hide there, hatch there, and jump right back onto the pet (or us!) to start another lifecycle.  In this case, we recommend Wondercide Indoor Pest Control for Home, which is made with essential oils.  To use on carpet, “Test a small area prior to full application on surfaces. Use warm water and cloth or mop to remove excess spray. Use this flea spray for home and furniture on carpets, bedding and anywhere your pets hang out. Kills fleas in the house and will eliminate the entire flea life cycle.” 

We still recommend removal of carpet for those most sensitive to allergens, dust and mold, but for the rest of us, it’s possible to keep these contaminants at bay with regular HEPA vacuuming and non-toxic cleaners–a good thing for bare feet and healthy play areas!

Photo by Katja Rooke on Unsplash

Taking our Homes Back from Mold

Taking our Homes Back from Mold

Why is it that our grandparents rarely had issues with mold toxicity?  Our homes became more toxic after 1973 (oil embargo and energy crisis), due to building regulations aimed at saving energy.  Reducing outside air exchanges with our home saves energy, but it seals toxins in and also increases mold growth due to moisture and humidity problems.  In other words, energy-efficiency has caused many health issues!  Also, according to Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, in 1969 fungicides began to be added to paints.  These fungicides “created mutations in fungi such that the fungi that lived beyond the fungicide created toxins that made us sick, and the ones that were from non-mutants did not make us sick. We put the fungicide into the paint, we’re paying a price.” (moldymovie.com)

Our grandparents also did not have wireless technology, which exacerbates mold levels.  Mold is a fungus that throws off spores into the air, particularly whenever it is about to die or is stressed and ‘thinks’ it’s going to die.  Amazingly, mold can detect electromagnetic fields (EMF)–radiation from the frequencies emitted by WiFi, cell phones, and smart appliances– and it registers them as “unnatural”, throwing off more spores and mycotoxins in reaction to EMF!  Here are two ways EMF affects mold (jillcarnahan.com):

  1. Inducing mold growth: Studies have found that mold growing in homes or buildings can actually be amplified by EMFs – causing mold to grow more rapidly and spread further.
  2. Stimulating the release of mycotoxins: EMFs may also trigger the mold spores floating around in your house or body to release more mycotoxins. (jillcarnahan.com)  According to Dr. Klinghardt of the Sophia Institute in Seattle, when mold cultures were exposed to radio frequencies from a nearby cell tower, the mold increased its mycotoxin production by more than six hundred times. (shieldyourbody.com)

If you suspect a mold problem in your home, the best thing is to find the mold and remove it, but you may also consider limiting EMF exposure in your home to prevent mold from colonizing again.

The best way to find the mold is via the services of a professional mold inspector, and preferably one who uses forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR).  FLIR is a type of thermographic camera that detects infrared radiation, and while it is used in military and spy applications(!), it is also extremely useful in locating areas behind walls where water intrusion may be present, making a hospitable area for mold.

Jeff Bookout is an environmental mold specialist and one of the top home inspectors in the US.  He does in-person (in western US) and virtual home inspections to help homeowners find mold in their homes and workplaces.  He describes his 3-step process for remediating a home after mold (mastcell360.com):  “One is stopping moisture. Two is finding mold- damaged materials and making sure they’re removed or proper corrections made. Then number three treating the air. You miss one of those three steps, you have missed a big part of the equation and that’s any part of it, the humidity, the removing the damaged materials, or treating. All three must go hand in hand. If you do not remove and replace those damaged materials or make proper corrections mold will come back.”

Then, Jeff recommends a five step process to maintain a low-mold environment: “Dry fog (using HavenFog) once a year, that’s number one. Number two is using the HavenMist (maintenance program) once a month. Number three is using MERV rating 11 filters in my HVAC system. Number four is strategically using Austin Air air purifiers throughout the house. I’m not trying to cover my whole square footage, but I want to have them in the main areas that we’re spending the most time. Then I would say number five is good air change in the house.  Depending on where you live, that would be an HRV or an ERV system, something to give you proper air exchange because … since 1973, the Arab oil embargo, we’ve energy efficiented everything. Well, dilution is the solution. If we can get good air exchange inside of our house, we’re going to help dilute those toxins. Those are the five things that I like to do to be able to safely maintain the property.”

Because mold often lurks behind walls and spews only a few spores into the air, inspecting with an experienced professional is our recommended way of finding mold.  If you can’t hire a professional due to financial restraints, testing kits like those at gotmold.com are a good way of testing and interpretation by (remote) mold experts.  Immunolytics.com has a agar plate (petri dish) method that is a good way of testing your pet’s fur for mold (called a tap test); this type of plate can also be used to test your home and vehicle. 

Removing the moldy materials in walls, cabinets and furniture is one thing, but there are lots of other surfaces where mold can grow for years, until you take action!

  • HVAC ductwork combines the perfect recipe for mold: moisture on or below the evaporator coils, dust in the air, and moderate temperatures.  Check out our post on finding and eliminating mold in the HVAC system.  Although pricey, HavenFog is a non-toxic citrus-based intensive treatment for such areas.
  • Clothing: Front-loading washing machines are infamous for harboring mold around the door seal.  This can transfer to clothing too.  Beth O’Hara at mastcell360.com advises (for anyone with mold toxicity issues) replacing a front-loading machine with a top-loading one, and using a non-toxic mold killer like EC3 Laundry Additive to kill mold in clothing.
  • Furniture and carpets: If you simply don’t want to get rid of your carpet (see our post on carpets and carpet care!), HavenClean is a non-toxic water-based treatment for carpet cleaners that will vastly reduce mold in your carpets and soft furniture.
  • Pets:  Dogs and cats love to lay outside in the sunshine, but when they come back indoors, they often carry mold spores with them in their fur.  You don’t have to get rid of the pet, to get rid of the mold.  CitriSafe shampoo is non-toxic to pets and humans and safely eliminates mold in pet fur.  Their Mold Treatment Spray can even be used to lightly mist pet fur, to keep the mold down between washings!

We hope these recommendations give you positive ways to take control if you smell or see mold in your home, or are plagued by a mysterious illness.  It’s vital for you and your family’s health (see our related post, Mold is on 90% of our customers’ minds!  Is it on yours?)

Mold is on 90% of our customers’ minds! Is it on yours?

Mold is on 90% of our customers’ minds!  Is it on yours?

The fact is that everyone’s home and workplace has mold.  The million dollar question is, is the mold in your space growing and making you sick?  I want to explore this in-depth so that our customers and many others can have peace of mind or look for solutions. 

What is mold?  Mold is a type of fungi that grows in multicellular structures called hyphae. Hyphae are long tubular structures resembling garden hoses. They have rigid cell walls that may be reinforced by perforated cross-walls called septa (singular: septum).(How Fungi are Constructed).  Here is a picture of septated hyphae (chegg.com):

When the mold grows enough to be visible, the colony is called a mycelium.  The mold can continue to grow by adding hyphae to the mycelium, and it can start another colony by sending out small particles called spores.  The spores can be carried by the wind, animal fur, or clothing and our shoes.  When the spores fall into a suitable environment, they will start to grow another colony. 

In general, molds need the following to grow:

  • Moisture: even moisture from the air, when it is above 80% humidity, can be enough to sustain mold.

  • Warmer temperatures: most molds cannot grow below 40 deg F, which is why refrigerators are kept at 39 deg F and below. 40 -100 deg F sustains mold.

  • Organic (carbon-based) materials to digest.  Mold can even grow on glass, metal and other inhospitable environments, if it has dirt or synthetic material to feed on.

  • Protection (shade) from UV rays: ultraviolet light kills most mold, so you won’t see it growing in direct sunlight!

  • Oxygen: mold needs very little oxygen to survive, so it’s difficult to control mold by depriving it of oxygen.

How we interact with mold:

If we simply kill mold, are we safe?  Unfortunately, no.  “Dead mold is just as bad as live mold. When mold dies, its cell wall dessicates and it gets dry and it will break apart into little fragments. And the fragments have toxins on them. This is a disease of toxins. When you inhale those toxins, they are in you.  If you don’t recognize them as being foreign, you have a difficult time getting them out of your body. (Scott McMahon, M.D., moldymovie.com)

How does mold make us sick?  Illness can come from ingesting or inhaling mold spores, or the mycotoxins they produce.  According to buildingscience.com, mold produces mycotoxins, which are naturally occurring toxins that are thought to decrease the growth of other molds and bacteria (it’s a defense mechanism for the mold). Penicillin is one of these, which as most people know, is a powerful antibiotic.  Mycotoxins can be present on mold spores, presenting danger from inhalation, or on the surface of the mold itself, which is transmitted in infected food like grains, nuts, coffee, or hay (as in the case of animals eating the hay and transferring the mycotoxin through milk).  

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), several hundred mycotoxins have been identified, but several major groups of these toxins cause the most damage to our health.  The danger from these toxins mainly comes from consumption of contaminated food, not inhalation:

  • Aflatoxins are among the most dangerous mycotoxins because of their effects: they can be life-threatening through damage to the liver, and may cause liver cancer.  They are produced by the Aspergillus molds, which grow in soil and rotting grains.  The food mainly affected is corn, sorghum, wheat and rice, soybean, peanut, sunflower and cotton seeds, spices and tree nuts.  

  • Ochratoxin A is also a common food-contaminating mycotoxin found in cereals and cereal products, coffee beans, dry vine fruits, wine and grape juice, spices and liquorice. This mycotoxin causes kidney problems and possibly kidney cancer.

  • Patulin is found in rotting fruits such as apples, and generally causes acute gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.

  • Fusarium fungi are found in the soil and cause symptoms such as skin irritation, diarrhea, and even esophageal cancer.

Why is it so difficult to link inhaled mold with illness?

We just listed some dangers of ingesting mycotoxins orally, but what about just spending time in a moldy space and inhaling them?  Some incorrect information from the early 2000’s still persists on government websites.  These studies, based on air sampling and animal testing, concluded that there was no proven link between inhaling mycotoxins and illness.  The following points are taken from dhs.wisconsin.gov:   

  • “The toxic effects of mold following ingestion are well-understood, but the toxic effects of inhaled mold particles are not well documented.”

  • Black mold, or Stachybotrys chartarum, has received more attention than any other mold.  The presence of black mold has been coincident with illness in infested buildings, but “S. chartarum is not usually detected in indoor air samples, even when detected in bulk samples from solid substrates. This begs the question, “is the exposure pathway incomplete, or has there been a failure to detect S. chartarum in air. There is evidence that S. chartarum spores and mycelia do not readily form bioaerosols. There is also evidence (Burge & Ammann, 1999) that S. chartarum spores are short-lived and difficult to detect in culture.” 

  • “Molds release volatiles (MVOCs) that damage textiles with unpleasant odors. Indoor microbial volatiles from molds may also have health implications.” However, there is not sufficient evidence that MVOCs enhance mycotoxic and allergenic effects to produce illness.

The puzzle was this: what is the cause of the low levels of mycotoxins encountered in the air of even severely mold-infested spaces?  Even the EPA states that mold can be a source of sick building syndrome (SDS–see our post on this!), so what is causing SDS?  The first clue may be in the fact that some individuals living in the same space can become severely sick and debilitated, while others have no symptoms at all.  “We now understand that there is genetic variability among those who have been exposed to mycotoxins. Some people are genetically capable of clearing low levels of these toxins through the liver detox process and never suffer consequences. Others do not have the ability to clear them and get severely ill” (as in the case of a teen patient at Kaplan Clinic). “About 25-28% of the entire population of America have a genetic predisposition to have problems with water-damaged buildings…that’s 75 million people in the United States….Somehwere around 50% of the buildings in the United states have water damage….these (25-28% of genetically predisposed people) can go on to develop multi-system, multi-symptom illness that can be debilitating.”  (Scott McMahon, M.D., moldymovie.com)

Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker’s research article “Newer Molecular Methods Bring New Insights into Human- And BuildingHealth Risk Assessments from Water-Damaged Buildings: Defining Exposure and Reactivity, the Two Sides of Causation of CIRS-WDB Illness “ also presents several other reasons why the links between mold inhalation and mold illness were not previously made: 

  1. The air sampling techniques used for early studies are simply inadequate, even though these techniques remain in use today.  Dr. Shoemaker states: “Specifically, air sampling will only permit the assessment of particulates larger than 3 microns found in the air during the 5 to 10 minutes for the test. Sampling is usually performed in the middle of a room and misses important boundary areas and settled particles. Air sampling of particulates this size does not permit separation of Penicillium species from Aspergillus; does not permit the identification of Wallemia; and because Stachybotrys (black mold) spores are sticky and heavy, rarely show Stachybotrys.”

  2. Bacteria in the role of WDB illness was not assessed in earlier studies.  Newer research (2019) on actinobacteria, a microbe that also exists in WDB alongside mold, shows that it produces MVOCs such as trimethylamine, which is harmful to humans, besides making the environment inhospitable to other microbes. Streptomyces is an actinobacteria that produces trimethylamine prolifically.  What mVOCs are we missing in air testing and how are they causing illness?  Also, endotoxin is present inside a bacterial cell and is released when the cell disintegrates.  How are endotoxins causing illness?  Finally, “occupants in damp buildings are simultaneously exposed to multiple microbial agents from both bacteria and fungi. This mixed exposure is likely to result in interactive effects among various microbial agents and produces more complicated health outcomes.”

Exposure to Water-Damaged buildings (WDB) is one cause of CIRS (Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome).  Dr. Shoemaker goes on to describe the ability of three new technologies to document the physiologic basis for adverse human health effects as part of CIRS: HERTSMI-2 (a modified ERMI air test for the WDB environment), GENIE (Gene Expression, Inflammation Explained, a gene test for affected individuals), and NeuroQuant (an advanced volumetric brain MRI for affected individuals).  “We can now show specific exposures from WDB that result in specific immunologic reactivity”, including “at least 15 objective biomarkers found in CIRS cases but statistically found far less commonly in age- and gender-matched controls…”   Let’s break that down:  Biomarkers are “A biological molecule found in blood, other body fluids, or tissues that is a sign of a normal or abnormal process, or of a condition or disease.” (cancer.gov)  That means that those who have CIRS due to WDB have distinctive clusters of symptoms not found in other patients, such as abnormal molecular protein levels and volumetric changes in the brain found by NeuroQuant. These changes in brain volume in CIRS due to exposure to WDB were unique and different compared to those of Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and even CIRS due to Lyme’s disease.

Putting the Pieces Together

The combined facts that: 1) mold often hides unseen behind walls, ceilings and floors, 2) mold toxins can affect one person in a household but not others due to genetic predisposition, and 3) many doctors have not been trained on the health effects or symptoms of mold toxicity, causes frustration and misunderstanding galore.  “Probably at least 50% of my patients have been told that they were crazy, or that they were making things up or they needed to see a psychiatrist or that there was something wrong with them, but it wasn’t physical.” (Scott McMahon, M.D., moldymovie.com) “Most physicians would simply not believe that asthma, chronic sinusitis, even some cases of bronchitis, and some cases of cancer are intimately linked with mold and their poisonous byproducts.  This is documented in the scientific literature. So there’s this chasm that exists between what we’re hearing and talking to our private physician about, and what he is prescribing for us.” (Doug Kaufmann, host of Know The Cause, moldymovie.com)

Besides CIRS, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) is another illness caused by exposure to WDB.  Mast cells are a type of white blood cell found in many organs of the body that play a large role in our immune system, releasing over 200 chemicals in response to different environmental triggers.  Sometimes they become oversensitive/overactive, and all sorts of health issues arise.  This is MCAS.  According to Beth O’Hara, Functional Naturopath and Functional Genetic Analyst and founder of MastCell360.com, the number one common root cause of MCAS is mold toxicity.    

Mold produces toxins that weaken the immune system, so it can lead to overgrowth of other species of fungus, like Candida, and it can also lead to MCAS and cancer, because mycotoxins can penetrate cell walls and attach to DNA, causing destructive mutations.

“Some of the reasons why mycotoxins are a trigger for Mast Cell Activation Syndrome include their tendency to cause:

  • Immune Dysregulation

  • Mast Cell Activation

  • Parasympathetic and Vagus Nerve Disruptions

  • Methylation Dysregulation

  • Hormone Dysregulation

  • Low immunity – Inability to fight off infections

  • Gut Disruptions

This happens due to mold triggering something called the Cell Danger Response. This metabolic response in your body happens in order to protect your cells and you from harm.” (mastcell360.com)

Unfortunately, mold can grow in your body!  If you spend some extended time in a mold-infested area, you can breathe in the microscopic mold spores.  The mucus in your respiratory tract can carry the spores to the following areas, where it can colonize (especially species like aspergillus and fusarium):

  • The sinuses

  • The ear canals

  • The lungs (such as in pulmonary aspergillosis)

  • Other organs, such as kidneys, liver, skin or brain, when the mold passes from the lungs into the bloodstream (such as in invasive aspergillosis) (source: my.clevelandclinic.org)

  •  Swallowed mucus (post-nasal drip) can make its way to the intestines, causing Small Intestine Fungal Overgrowth, or SIFO.  (mastcell360.com)

Recovery is Possible

Treatment centers for mold-related illnesses can at a minimum recommend blood tests and urine tests.  Blood tests can show what mold-related antibodies are present in your blood, and urine tests can show the levels of mold toxins being excreted by your body. (mastcell360.com)  It can be the case, however, that very sick people find that the urine test is negative, because the body cannot excrete the toxins effectively.

After finding out which types of mold are present, the practitioner can prescribe a detox regimen to remove the mold and toxins. The detox will typically be slow, from 3 months to over a year, to avoid MCAS flare-ups and other complications, but there is hope!

According to Mark Hyman, M.D. (moldymovie.com), “If you think you have mold illness, there’s a way out. And it might be a long way out, but there’s a way out. And there is hope, but you have to find a practitioner who could help you deal systematically with the mold illness. One, you have to get rid of it in your environment and two, you have to get it out of your body, and three you have to repair the damage that’s been done.  So those are the three steps to healing from mold illness. If you follow those steps and are focused and you work with an experienced practitioner, you can get better. “

That’s a way forward to remediate your body–but what about your house?  Check out our related post, Taking our Homes Back from Mold.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Low-E window films: The “fixer-upper” for old(er) windows!

Low-E Window Films: the "fixer-upper" for old(er) windows!

As a former resident of New Orleans and renovation show connoisseur, I appreciate old windows.  Before there were vinyl windows and double-glazing, there were wood frames with lead weights integrated into the walls to counterbalance the heavy weight of the window, to keep them positioned while open.  Brilliant!

What’s not so brilliant, however, is the chill of a draft coming through or around the window on colder days, or condensation rolling down the window anytime the temperature of the window and humidity surpass the dewpoint of the room.  I like modern air conditioning and heat, and condensation and mold resulting from condensation is not definitely not brilliant!

Can we have our single-glazed windows and enjoy climate control too?  YES!  Check out “Low-E” window films.  Low-E stands for low emissivity, which denotes the ability of radiant energy to pass through a substance.  You want your nice air conditioning or heat to stay inside, and the summer heat or winter cold to stay outside, yet let the light shine through?   That’s what low-e coatings do: they are a transparent “blanket” for your windows!

This diagram from energyeducation.ca shows how the low-e coating works

Here’s another graphic regarding the difference between “absorbing films” versus “low e films” (gsa.gov)

Aside from retaining the climate inside, while retaining the aesthetics of the old window, there are the financial reasons to consider window film insulation.  Did you know that approximately 30% of a home's heating energy is lost through windows, and in cooling seasons, about 76% of sunlight that falls on standard double-pane windows enters to become heat ? (energy.gov).  If you were to count the dollars floating out your windows, insulating them makes sense.  According to buildings.com, low e films work all year long, and provide an ROI (return on investment) in 2 to 5 years, depending on the climate and type of film selected, and warranties can be between 7 to 15 years (ROI and warranty figures are for professional installation).   Two case studies on  the Hansen Federal Building in Ogden, Utah, and the Cabell Federal Building in Dallas, Texas, along with computer simulations across seven climates showed that application of low e window film averaged 29% HVAC savings on single pane windows in perimeter building zones. (gsa.gov) When you consider the cost of applying the film to decent windows that still function properly versus replacing them with new windows made of low-e glass, the cost savings can be huge: $6-14 per square foot of installed film, vs. $300 to $1000 per replaced window (angi.com)  It’s a savings no-brainer!

Speaking of installation, there are lots of options regarding application (DIY or professional installation), appearance (transparent, shaded, mirrored and everything in-between), and with these options, of course, a range of costs.  Wrangling large sheets of thin plastic is doable, but not easy!  I perceive the “Cadillac” of window coatings to be professional installation with a warranty!  For those who have the budget, here are some options:

  • 3M Thinsulate™ Climate Control Window Film “ improves the insulation value of a typical single pane window close to that of a double pane window and the insulation value of a typical double pane window close to a triple pane window.”  It also keeps blocks up to 99% of the sun’s rays, which prevents fading and deterioration of home decor.  This site will help you find a local dealer to install it.

  • Vista Window Film has a number of products that reflect heat and light; check out their Low Emissivity selection for two options and find dealers who can install for you!

  • Solar Control®'s Ceramic line is very similar to that created for space shuttles as it cancels up to 90% of infrared rays, blocks 99% of UV rays, and prevents 73% of the heat coming through windows.  The small ceramic-based nano-particles are more durable and protective than other films and make windows shatter-resistant. (drwindowtint.com)

What type of low-e window film should I get?  Without professional installation, you’ll want to find a film that fits your climate, and your lighting taste.  The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) should be low for warmer climates, and high for cooler climates.  The visible transmittance rating (VT) is the amount of natural light admitted, so this number will be higher for more light in your room.(spruce.com) Please also note that there are “window insulation kits”, particularly by 3M or FrostKing, that adhere to the window frame and not the window (these stop drafts but do not have low e properties).  Here are some of the best DIY films we’ve reviewed:

  • Snaptint.com offers low e films for your home and for your car, which are (ta-da!) pre-cut.  At $3.15 per square foot, this SolarGard product comes in a light or dark variety for visual preference, and you can add installation tools for $9.99, which seem like a worthwhile add-on when watching the installation video

  • For homes in warmer climates, check out SnapGuard products.  Their ceramic window films come in several different shades, and block out up to 99% of infrared rays, which are those that cause significant heat transfer to the interior.  

  • TintDepot.com has several options of ceramic films with clear or reflective properties.  I like that these product pages have easy-to understand tables with property values like Visible Light Transmittance (VT) and Total Solar Energy Reflectance (TSER).  Their rolls are large, enabling you to do a lot of windows, and come in between $2-$3 per square foot not including shipping and application tools.

  • Be aware that many films claim to be anti-UV and high-heat rejection (such as BDF and Gila products), but do not add any SHGC ratings to their products.

Go on, invest in some new shades for your windows:  you will soon feel the difference!

How to deal with body odor, with a focus on charcoal!

How to deal with body odor, with a focus on charcoal!

True (but embarrassing) story:

One day while renovating a gutted house in post-Katrina New Orleans, I stood in the checkout line at a home-improvement store with only a pipe about 4” long in my hand.  Suddenly I was aware of an odor.  What is that stink?  I slowly (nonchalantly) looked around to see from where (or who) it might be coming.  The guy in front of me looked pretty clean, and the woman behind me was not even that close.  A minute later when I moved forward, it dawned on me: the pipe in my hand was channeling the stink from my workboots up to my nose.  How disgusting!  No wonder that lady wasn’t coming any closer…

We all have odd smells that cause us extra time and effort to remedy or disguise.  A lot of people have bad breath and underarm odor problems.  Some have flatulence issues, and some have stinky feet issues.  Of course it is best to try and remedy the source of the problem medically or holistically, but sometimes it can take years.  In the meantime, we want to help with getting back to normal (or better than normal!) with technology.  We’re not fans of “masking” the odors, as some products do with heavy fragrances.  Let’s get to the odor-causing bacteria and trap them before they make a stink!

Activated charcoal is different from the barbeque grill variety because a treatment of gasses at high temperature is applied to “activate” it, or create extra surface area for adsorption (causing toxins to adhere to the surface of the charcoal).  It has long been used to filter odors from the air, as well as contaminants from water (for more info, check out our post on de-stinking your home with carbon filter media!)  With new technology in fabrics and materials, people are finding more and more ways to use it in and around our bodies.  Here are some of the ones we’ve found.

  • For those suffering from IBS, Crohn’s Disease, and other gastrointestinal conditions, malodorous flatulence is a terrible problem.  It causes social anxiety and can cause those who have it to lose relationships, jobs, and mobility (not wanting to travel or go outside).  
    • Shreddies is a flatulence-filtering underwear that has carbon-activated cloth sewn into them, which can be washed and reused many times.  They also sell pyjamas, pants, cushions and bedding.  
    • Although not infused with charcoal, I felt I had to say that PooPourri is actually an all-natural product that fills the air with a fresh scent, and forms a protective film on the surface of the toilet water, so that bowel movements are trapped below until you flush.  Tested by the Canadian Gastrointestinal Society, the products were given a good review.  You can make your own “pourri”, too. 
  • For feet, odor normally occurs with excessively sweaty feet, so it’s important to wear the right socks (to minimize moisture) and get those shoes dry quickly after you take them off.  Here are some great products to try:
    • The right socks: socks are not only your feet’s first protection against abrasion, but they also help your feet regulate body temperature and they control moisture.  If you have been reading our website, you’ll know we are big on moisture control as a way of mold control!  Therefore, it’s important that you wear the right type of socks for the activity and shoes, and if you have particularly sweaty feet, keep several pairs of socks on hand to change them throughout the day if necessary.  Here is an excellent article on how to choose the right socks, and another with tips on keeping your feet healthy.  For socks woven with charcoal, visit charcoalhouse.com
    • Aerated shoes:  As with other moisture problems in our homes, the best odor prevention is ventilation!  Here is a list of stylish shoes that provide plenty of ventilation. 
    • Insoles:  The right insoles can fight odor all day long, as moving your feet will naturally cause air to move in and out of your shoe, and carbon in the insole will filter it.  Many positive reviews for Dr. Scholl’s make them the best we’ve found.  
    • Sprays: If you can’t use a full insert in your shoe (for form-fitting high heels, for example, try out this natural spray that uses essential oils for great odor-fighting power.
    • Boot/shoe dryers: This review is a great source to find the right boot dryer for you and your household. 
    • Shoe deodorizers: After drying, keep these inserts in your shoes to keep them smelling fresh. 
    • Homemade/ Economical solution: This tip from VeryWellFit.com is super useful, however instead of baking soda, substitute activated charcoal powder for even more power: pour a bit of activated charcoal (or baking soda) into 2  coffee filters and tie them with a breadbag tie or rubber band, and leave one in each shoe overnight.  This allows the charcoal or baking soda to work its deodorizing magic without building up or staining your shoe.  The charcoal powder has many more uses in your home, too, check out our other post on Activated Charcoal!
  • Underarm odor is actually caused by bacteria on your skin that breaks down protein in your sweat into acids.  So, the odor is not caused by the sweat itself, but the byproducts of the bacterial reaction to it.  Some people suffer from axillary hyperhidrosis, which is overactive nerves which cause them to sweat up to five times more than normal to regulate body temperature.  Traditionally deodorant has been the main solution, and there are others:
    • This review is by a natural deodorant devotee, and she already had her own favorite deodorant before charcoal was introduced.  Given this, she said that the charcoal version by Schmidt’s ties with her favorite regular natural deodorant!  (If you are allergic to magnesium, which can be absorbed through the skin, you will need to do a bit of research because all the deodorants I found used a magnesium formula!)
    • Thompson’s Tee’s  make sweat-proof undershirts, which when paired with a natural deodorant, can vastly improve life for many who over-sweat.  Their tee-shirts are made with Odor Shield™ technology, a natural, non-toxic hydrogen peroxide-based solution. Odor Shield™ eliminates 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria in the fabric and stays put for at least 70 wash cycles.  The articles on SweatHelp.org are super-helpful and discount codes are also provided. 
  • The folks at Lume broke through a barrier with their advertising regarding excessive odor in the groin area, and the obvious embarrassment that can cause.  Their deodorants are not made with completely natural ingredients, nor do they contain charcoal, but they certainly started a trend of awareness and help for odor problems.  
  • Bad breath may have a slight reprieve in these days of mask-wearing, but in close contact without a mask it can still be offensive.  Once again, bacteria is usually the cause of the condition, and it may lurk in the mouth (80%-90% of cases) or elsewhere in the body (10-20%). .  There are medical causes of bad breath such as dry mouth, gum disease, a respiratory infection, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorder, or liver or kidney disorder.  It’s tempting to use the basic alcohol-based mouthwash found in many stores, but this product is non-discriminatory in killing both bad and good bacteria, and can actually make you more susceptible to gum disease and other infections. (scientificamerican.com)  When you’re trying medical treatment for the sources of bad breath, you can also dispel the odor by using activated charcoal:
    • Charcoal toothpaste will bind food particles, a food source for bacteria in your mouth.  It is also inert, meaning it will not change the pH balance in your mouth and make it difficult for good bacteria to live there.  Although mainly sought for its tooth-whitening capabilities, charcoal toothpaste is anti-viral and anti-fungal and can help remove some of the bacteria that cause bad breath through adsorption.  However, it can be more abrasive and if without fluoride, may increase risk of dental disease if used exclusively. (dental source)  Here is a great review of charcoal toothpastes with different characteristics, ie., for fresh breath, for sensitivity, for whitening, etc. 
    • Charcoal mouthwash is safer than toothpaste as far as abrasion goes, and the natural varieties contain less or no alcohol, and no fluoride (depending on where you stand with fluoride, that can be a good or bad thing).  Hello activated charcoal extra freshening mouthwash is a good choice because it’s vegan, gluten free, cruelty free and free from alcohol, dyes, artificial sweeteners/flavors, and SLS/sulfates.
    • Activated charcoal in large doses has long been used as an anti-poison remedy, because it binds toxins in the stomach and helps your body flush them out before they are absorbed.  However, emergency room (ER) doctors normally only give this treatment in certain types of overdose, and then only if it has been a recent ingestion (2 hours or less).  Therefore, the average charcoal supplements, which are actually 100-200 times less potent than the ER treatment, are not clinically proven to  help in “detoxifying” (Consumer Reports), and you should also note that charcoal can absorb healthy nutrients and prescription drugs, just as well as it does toxins!  This one by Bulletproof seems to be used mainly against bloating and overindulgence, but technically it can’t do that if not taken soon after said “overindulgence”.   If you are looking to cure bad breath, charcoal supplements are only shown to help with a rare source of bad breath called trimethylaminuria (study).  For other non-mouth sources of halitosis, the best bet is to take a look at your diet and eliminate sugar and wheat from your diet, which can feed an overgrowth of candida yeast, causing the bad breath or odor in other parts of your body.(Reboot Health).  

What is your favorite way to use the natural “freshening” characteristic of activated charcoal?

What non-toxic multipurpose spray cleaners really work?

What non-toxic multipurpose spray cleaners really work?

If it wasn’t on your mind before 2020, it most likely is now…. is it CLEAN?  Many people wonder before touching surfaces, outside and inside the home.   The solutions for  “concern” over cleanliness are also being absorbed into our skin, drying out our skin, being inhaled into our lungs, and broadcasted into the atmosphere.  So, let’s get to the bottom of it: what cleaners are safe, and of those, what cleaners really CLEAN?  As in, clean up the mess AND disinfect.  Give me some of those!

For true disinfectants, the EPA has developed a list “N” that will even kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus; however, this list is full of products with ingredients that will also harm us.  In response, TURI (Toxics Use Reduction Institute based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell) has produced a list of “Safer Cleaners” that do not have toxic ingredients.  From 431 formulations on the List N that are classified for “Residential Use”, only 15 made the list by TURI for non-toxic ingredients!  That’s only 3.5%!  The reason is that most of the active ingredients classified by the EPA as disinfectants, and some of the “inert ingredients” are also toxic to us.  For example, over half of the products on List N contain quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) as active ingredient.  Quats kill microbes by binding to the negatively-charged surfaces of microbes.  They have been studied to induce asthma in cleaning workers, decreased lung function in farmers, and greater immune reactions and decreased fertility in mice, among other effects. They are very persistent and are difficult to remove from surfaces, so it’s important not to use them on food prep surfaces.  This is the type of info we need!  Unfortunately, I just identified a common quat (Benzalkonium chloride) in one of the anti-bacterial soaps I use at home :(.  Time to get safer! 

I wanted to focus on spraying cleaners, because we’ve all been doing a lot of spraying lately.  Spraying counter tops, spraying doorknobs, spraying toilets, spraying toys, spraying steering wheels…you name it!  If we could spray each other, I’m sure we would.  Back to the task: it would be so much simpler if we could buy one spray for the whole house, right?  Such cleaners do exist… check out our shortlist here!

  • TotalClean is our new offering that is safe for adults, children and pets, and is fragrance free!  Using an iodine-based formula, it cleans surfaces and removes odors, without adding harsh chemicals like quats or overwhelming fragrance.  Use it anywhere you can use a water-based cleaner: counter tops, toilets, leather, glass, marble, stone, linoleum, tile, stainless steel, painted surfaces, fabrics, carpet, stove tops, appliance exteriors, sinks, floors, cabinets, tubs and walls.
  • Force of Nature is great for those concerned with toxic chemicals and environmental preservation!  In addition to being an EPA-registered disinfectant, it is a safe cleaner using only vinegar, salt and water, and their “bundles” includes the spray bottle and appliance and “capsules” used to make the cleaner.  This avoids lots of packaging waste and all you have to do is add water and electricity (plug in the appliance) to make a refill.  Genius!
  • Lysol with Hydrogen Peroxide Multi-Purpose Cleaner is an EPA-registered disinfectant that dissolves grease and soap scum, and comes in a number of scents (Citrus Sparkle, Fresh, Cool Spring Breeze and Oxygen Splash are the ones I’ve seen). As one of the household names of bleach (most of their cleaners are bleach-based), you need to make sure that the multi-purpose cleaner you buy is “bleach-free” to avoid that chemical.
  • Arm and Hammer Essentials Disinfecting Wipes are a convenient way to disinfect–great for keeping in the car, bathroom, classrooms, etc.  Using citric acid, they are a registered disinfectant by the EPA. 

Can I make them myself?  Yes, but some are better than others.

For example, you’ve probably seen countless recommendations for using vinegar-based home cleaners, which do break down dirt and help remove it.  However, vinegar is not the best disinfectant according to the EPA.  In order to be classified as a disinfectant, the product must kill 99.9% of harmful germs within 5 to 10 minutes, and vinegar only kills some of those germs, including E. Coli and Salmonella (healthline.com).  If you want to make your own disinfectant, look at the ingredients on the Safer Cleaner list.  The first three, citric acid, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and hydrogen peroxide, are cheap and accessible ingredients!  Here are some recipes for cleaners based on these ingredients:

  • Ethanol-based cleaner with white vinegar (I like this recipe because it incorporates eucalyptus oil, which is a powerful antimicrobial essential oil).  
  • Citric acid is quite powerful and the Method brand on the TURI list is 5% citric acid and 95% inert ingredients.  It is not recommended to use on natural stone or marble, wood, delicate surfaces or electronic screens because of its acidic effects. For this reason, and the popularity of natural stone counter tops in the US, I’m not going to post a recipe for homemade citric acid multi-purpose cleaner here, but citric acid is best used in descaling and de-greasing appliances.  Here is how to clean 5 household items using citric acid. 
  • Hydrogen peroxide (3-6%) is safe to spray undiluted on surfaces, meaning you can pour a brown bottle from the drug store straight into your spray bottle. “According to The Ohio State University Extension, cleaning counters with undiluted hydrogen peroxide is effective at killing E. coli and Salmonella bacteria on hard surfaces like counters when it’s allowed to sit on the surface for 10 minutes at room temperature.”  (healthline.com also has 21 other ways to use it).  However, according to this website it is slightly acidic, and can damage natural stone counter tops over time (don't use it every day).  There are various recipes to make cleaners, however hydrogen peroxide should never be mixed with vinegar because it makes peracetic acid, which has dangerous fumes.   Hydrogen peroxide should also be used within 6 months of opening the original bottle, because it decomposes into oxygen and water by being exposed to sunlight and heat, losing its disinfecting properties. 

Air Pollution from Oil Wells is real–and you may not even realize how close they are!

Air Pollution from Oil Wells is real–and you may not even realize how close they are!

I live in a geologically rich state, Mississippi.  Rich for those with mineral rights…and not so rich for those who get to smell their hydrocarbons, sometimes on a weekly basis!  At least several times a month, I wake up to a pungent, rotten egg smell in my house that I recognize immediately from having previously worked in refineries (hydrogen sulfide)…except there are no refineries near me.  One day I decided to find out where the rotten eggs were. 

There are a number of online maps that will show you where active and inactive oil gas wells are.  Some maps give more info than others, and I found that my state has a pretty good one, listing the operators, what type of well (dry hole, oil production, injection or disposal) and data on the well.  I found one dry well less than a mile away.  The field in production closest to me (3 miles away) has 61 wells, 35 of which are in oil production, the remaining mostly dry holes and some disposal. Another one that is 6 miles away has 59 wells, 41 of which are in production, with the remaining as disposals, dry holes and a few injections.  I want to find out which one is throwing the eggs!  It turns out, it may not even be the ones that are in production.  According to Reuters, millions of abandoned (no longer in production) oil wells in the US are leaking methane and other toxic gasses like hydrogen sulfide. Some have been around since the late 1800’s!

SO….it’s not just the rotten eggs that concern me: they seem to go away within several hours.  What about the odorless gasses?  Yes, according to this summary of a study from California, researchers found increased air pollution within 2.5 miles of an oil or gas well, such as PM2.5 (toxic particulate matter), carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  When a new well is being drilled or reaches 100 barrels of oil production per day, PM2.5 increases by approximately 2 micrograms per cubic meter one mile from the site.  This “small” uptick can be significant, however, because oil wells can remain in production for decades, and a different study concluded that even an increase of one microgram of PM2.5 per cubic meter, increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 11 percent.  Air pollution becomes worse and more widespread on windy days, which is how I figure I am smelling hydrocarbons from a well 3 or more miles away.  Thankfully I live upwind most days (the pollutants of wells flow away from me most of the time).  And thankfully, I am not surrounded by wells like the residents of southern Los Angeles or those along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

A study from Harvard released in January 2022 links increased mortality rate for people aged 65 and over to living close to “unconventional oil and gas drilling” operations, or UOGD.  UOGD includes directional (non-vertical) drilling and  “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, which is the injection of high-pressure liquid and materials to fracture shale and stimulate oil and gas production (ipaa.org).  The results point to air pollution from the wells causing the increased mortality, although there are hardly any air quality  monitoring stations near the wells. 

In order to confirm what your nose (or sadly, your overall health) is telling you, you can start monitoring and logging indoor and outdoor quality.  Of course, with indoor measurements you’ll want to note what air purification systems you have running (HEPA filter, air purifier, etc.).  Keep a journal or computer log (the device you use may keep records for you) and also note weather conditions, so that wind, temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc. can be referenced along with the air quality.  You’ll want a sensor that measures VOC and PM2.5 levels, and this unit is a great budget-friendly option to get started!  You can easily travel with it too.

For persistent indoor air quality problems due to oil well emissions, you’ll want to get a HEPA filter for PM2.5.  Depending on the model, the unit may also handle VOCs if it has activated carbon in the filter.  The Air Angel helps in both of these areas because it has polar ionization and AHPCO technology, but pairing it with a stand-alone HEPA filter is recommended.  Check out our post on portable HEPA filters for recommendations!

Who can help us get something done about wellhead emissions?  There are rules of law for well emissions (example), however without the know-how, technical equipment, or access to the well to measure air quality, it’s hard to know whether a well is in violation.  Also, there are many abandoned wellheads, for which it is hard to get anyone to take responsibility in many cases.  So, it’s best to start by trying to contact someone locally, and work your way up.  Start with your city or county representative, as often these officials are aware of problems and resources.  Typically, individual states are responsible for cleaning/managing their own wells, unless there are wells on federal or tribal land, which is managed by the federal government.  Your state may or may not be easy to contact with air quality problems, but give it a try!  For example, Mississippi is not excessively progressive because it only has a couple addresses and fax numbers listed for air quality complaints.  Some states with high drilling activity have started their own “orphaned well” programs, and this 2021 report summarizes the efforts of reporting states to register and close orphan wells.  It has a lot of information about states agencies and websites.  The EPA, also, has an email form you can use.  

Air is one thing that is free, but free doesn’t always mean good.  We urge you to persist in making your indoor and outdoor air as good as it can be!