The Emergency-Free Home - Poisonous or harmful substances

Each year, more than 100,000 children under the age of five become victims of accidental ingestion of poisonous or harmful substances. These include medicines and such flammable liquids as gasoline, but they also include a vast range of liquids, solids, and gases that find their ways into the home.

Substances that require special precautions range from carbon monoxide to spoiled food, cleaning fluids, detergents, and pesticides. Some general guidelines are as follows:

  1. • Bring such substances into your home only if necessary, and then in the smallest possible quantity.
  2. • Keep all products in their original containers, never in containers customarily used for food or drinks.
  3. • If a product comes in a child-resistant container, never transfer it to a container that has no such protection.
  4. • Carefully separate foods from potentially harmful products.
  5. • After using a product that comes in a child-resistant container, re-secure the cap or other closure.
  6. • Make sure that all products that entail any risk or hazard are properly labeled, and turn on lights before using such products.
  7. • Store potentially hazardous products in a separate area from other household products, preferably in a locked cabinet.

Because not all the harmful substances that enter your home have warnings on their containers, you should make it your business to learn whether hazards exist.

Contamination from Pets

Pets can contribute greatly to the happiness and well-being of a household, but under certain circumstances they can transmit diseases to their owners. Most adults who are in good health can easily resist or recover from these diseases. However, households that include children, the elderly, or immunocompromised people—those whose immune systems are weakened because of disease—should be aware of the risks and exercise caution and good hygiene. Disease can spread through animal bites and scratches or other contact—for example, if a pet licks a wound or sore that a person may have, or if a person comes into contact with a pet's feces.

Small pets like birds, fish, and reptiles often carry diseases that can infect humans. Reptiles carry salmonella, a bacterium that can infect the human gastrointestinal tract. Salmonella infection can be quite serious. Birds may be infected with psittacosis (parrot fever), a bacterial disease that can be spread through contact with bird feces or dust that accumulates in bird cages. A fungus present in bird droppings can cause the disease cryptococcosis in humans if inhaled. The disease can cause encephalitis and pneumonia.

Pet rodents, such as hamsters, can spread cestodiasis, an infection mainly affecting children. Hamsters and mice can also transmit a virus that causes lymphocytic choriomeningitis. Pregnant women should be especially careful around these animals, because the infection can be passed on to the fetus.

Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted through contact with a cat's feces, which can easily occur while a person is cleaning the litter box. Pregnant women should avoid contact with the litter box, because toxoplasmosis can result in miscarriage or premature birth, or cause the baby to be born blind.

Dogs and cats can transport disease-carrying ticks. Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are transmitted by bites from such ticks.

It is often difficult or undesirable for people—even people at risk—to give up their beloved pets. Common sense and simple precautions can go far in helping people to avoid infection. Children should not be given reptiles, venomous snakes or spiders, or tropical fish as pets. Animals should be examined by a veterinarian before joining the family and should receive regular medical care. People who handle a pet or clean up after it should wash their hands often. Pets should be kept away from areas where food is prepared, and small animals like reptiles, rodents, and birds should be kept in confined areas.

Lead Poisoning

Lead is a metallic element that has many uses in industry and manufacturing. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, its use was strictly curtailed because of the dangerous effects lead has on the human body. Nevertheless, significant amounts of lead still exist in the environment, both outdoors and in the home, and lead poisoning continues to be a public health concern.

Lead can be ingested, such as by consuming contaminated water, food, or paint chips, or by inhaling fumes that contain lead. It can also be absorbed through the skin. Although some lead is excreted, much of it remains in the body and accumulates, concentrating in the bone marrow, nerve tissue (including the brain), and the kidneys.

The symptoms of lead poisoning may be difficult to recognize or may not even be present. People with high levels of lead may be irritable and have diminished appetite and energy. Children may lose recently acquired developmental skills. There may be abdominal cramping.

The effects of long-term lead poisoning include anemia, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and damage to the reproductive organs in adults. Very high levels may cause diseases of the brain; symptoms of acute lead poisoning include vomiting, headache, staggering gait, seizures, and coma.

Children are particularly susceptible to the dangers of lead. They absorb a higher percentage of the lead to which they are exposed. It has been estimated that one in 11 children in the United States has dangerous levels of lead in the bloodstream. With prolonged or repeated exposure, the amount of lead in a child's body can accumulate and cause neurological damage. Lead poisoning has been associated, though not definitively, with mental retardation and lowered IQ in children.

Exposure to lead comes from various sources. Lead-based paint was often used in housing built before 1978, and this paint may still be on the walls. Small children become poisoned when they eat chips of the paint as it deteriorates. Old lead-based paint also disintegrates into dust that both children and adults can breathe in or consume accidentally. Older homes may have pipes that were soldered with lead, and such pipes can leach lead into drinking water. Lead can leach into food and drink from pewter dinnerware, from ceramic din-nerware coated with a lead-containing glaze, and from lead-crystal glasses and decanters. The inhalation of lead emissions is the major source of lead exposure for people working in factories and smelters that use lead. Such emissions also pose a threat to the general population, since airborne lead emissions not only pollute the air people breathe but also are eventually deposited in the soil.

A treatment called chelation therapy can remove lead from the body, but it cannot reverse any damage already done by exposure to lead. For this reason, the best treatment is considered to be prevention. Avoid storing acidic foods in ceramic containers. Do not store beverages in lead-crystal decanters. In homes that have pipes soldered with lead, only cold water should be used for drinking and cooking (hot water absorbs more lead), and the water should be run for 30 to 60 seconds before use.

Test kits, available in hardware stores, can detect the presence of lead paint. In older housing having lead-based paint, the best prevention is to move out of the contaminated home. When moving out is not possible, regular, vigorous housecleaning can reduce lead-contaminated dust significantly. If there are certain rooms that have lead-based paint, children should be kept out of those rooms. Children who eat nutritious diets—low in fat and high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C—absorb less lead than those who do not eat well. Children's hands and their toys, pacifiers, and other objects should be washed frequently.

When doing major or minor renovations on a room or a house that has lead-based paint, take precautions to minimize the dangers. Protective equipment and clothing should be used. Lead paint should never be sanded off because it creates a large amount of small particles and dust that cannot be picked up by ordinary household vacuum cleaners. Similarly, using heat guns or torches to make lead paint easier to remove creates lead particlesthatcan be inhaled. Painting over or paneling over lead paint is recommended instead of trying to take off the paint. If large-scale removal of lead contamination is necessary, it should be done by professionals.

The Allergen-Free Environment

Some 35 million Americans suffer from allergies. They may have hay fever, asthma, food intolerances or sensitivities, or adverse skin reactions to the stings of hornets, bees, or wasps. While medical scientists do not completely understand the causes and workings of allergies, great progress is being made in this area.

One result of allergy research is that most people with allergies are able to lead normal lives in spite of diverse symptoms and reactions. For hay fever sufferers, doctors can prescribe drugs to relieve irritating nasal inflammation, or allergic rhinitis. Cromolyn sodium may be prescribed to relieve the symptoms of asthma; the sodium can be inhaled through a spin-haler, nebulizer machine, or metered dose inhaler.

For most allergy victims, the best defense is to avoid the substances or circumstances that bring on attacks or symptoms. If there are allergy sufferers in your family, you may want to establish a home environment that is as allergen-free as possible. Furry pets are a major cause of allergic reactions. Carpeting, unless laid on a cement floor, serves as the perfect incubator for dust mites. Books can also harbor mites. Both feather and foam rubber pillows can be hazards. The best protection is cleanliness.

Radon, A Special Case

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that is almost impossible to detect without instruments. It seeps through the crevices or spaces in the soil or rock on which a home is built. It can enter your home through cracks, drains, and the tiny holes or pores in walls.

Persons exposed to radon face serious health risks, specifically lung cancer. Also, continued exposure to radon increases the risk of illness. Many persons never realize that the gas is invading their homes.

Detection of radon requires special equipment but moderate cost. Two commercially available radon detectors are the charcoal canister and the alpha track detector. The former calls for a test period of three to seven days, and the latter requires two to four weeks. Trained personnel can provide other methods of detection. Reports on measurements of radon gas are made in terms of picocuries per liter (pCi/1).

Readings of above 1.0 WL (working level) or above 200 pCi/1, require immediate follow-up measurements.

Doing it yourself ’to close off the radon entry points in your basement begins with caulking. Using urethane or silicone caulk, seal up the gap (if any) between the basement floor and all walls; fill cracks in the mortar joints between concrete blocks; and lay a thick bead of caulk around the perimeter of sump openings. Treated plywood or a metal sheet can then be used to cover the sump, with more caulk used as a sealant.

Use ready-mix concrete to seal any large openings around pipes, pipe-chase openings, and spaces along the top rows of concrete-block walls. Inject insulation into the top rows of concrete-block walls before sealing them. Foam backing can be applied before the concrete sealing is applied to pipe-chase openings.

Ventilation supplements your efforts to close all gaps and holes in your basement's floors and walls. Without creating uncomfortable drafts, you can ventilate under your basement slab if: (1) you have a continuous slab with no large, unsealed openings to the earth beneath, and (2) there is a sufficiently porous bed under the slab to permit ventilating air to circulate through it. Given both conditions, you can create your own subslab vent system with pipes and a fan; the air intake and exhaust pipes should be located in opposite corners of the basement.

Other methods of ventilating your basement include forced-air systems using fans to maintain a balanced air exchange rate; heat-recovery ventilators that replace radon-tainted air with outside air; and use of a product called Enka-drain, which traps radon in a nylon mesh airspace that is then vented through an exhaust pipe.

Because it is a gas, radon always moves from a higher pressure area (the ground) to a lower-pressure one (your house). That means you have a final alternative to ventilation: pressurize your basement and home by providing outside air supplies for wood stoves, fireplaces, gas dryers, and furnaces.

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