Dear Ms. Household Environmentalist: We live in a 70-year-old bungalow. Since moving in two years ago, we've had the window frames tested for lead paint and the fire pot in the furnace tested for asbestos. We can see without testing that the furnace ducts are covered with asbestos insulation. The windows tested positive for lead and the fire pot was negative for asbestos.
My 4-year-old daughter has frequent ear infections which, although quite typical in children, have been attributed by our doctor to the presence of dust in our house. Since I have tested some of the likely materials in the house for toxins but don't know all of the likely culprits, I'm wondering if anyone has outlined a possible screen for the most likely toxins to be found in home air. My problem is, I find individual sources of toxins and have them tested but still don't have an answer to the bottom-line question: What's in our dust?
Dear Reader: I'm afraid there's some confusion here. An allergy is a reaction to something that is not necessarily toxic to the general population. Lead dust, which is hazardous and can make you sick if you eat it, does not cause allergies. Asbestos, which can cause cancer if you inhale it, does not cause allergies, either.
If you have lead and asbestos in your dust, you will want to protect your daughter from them, but these hazardous materials are not causing the allergies your doctor believes are leading to your child's ear infections.
Dust allergies are triggered by dust mites -- microscopic animals that live in house dust. Their fecal matter is light enough to become airborne and small enough to be inhaled when it is airborne. The fecal matter is neither hazardous nor toxic in the strictest sense. However, many people are very allergic to the stuff. When they breathe it in, their nasal membranes may swell. Their eyes may sting and itch, their noses and eyes may run. The swelling and irritation in the sinuses can, in some cases, eventually lead to sinus and ear infections.
You don't say how your doctor determined that your child's ear infections are caused by dust allergies. But, if you are satisfied that your doctor is right, you'll want to reduce your daughter's exposure to dust mites. This involves covering her mattress and pillow with dust-mite-proof covers, washing her bedding in very hot water and vacuuming thoroughly at least once a week with a high-efficiency vacuum cleaner while she is out of the house.
If her allergies are severe, you should also keep your house free of fleecy rugs, cloth curtains and other dust-mite havens. For more information about mattress covers call Allergy Control Products, at (800) 422-DUST. The covers are rather expensive, but I'm told they are one of the best things you can to do combat dust mites.
If you are not sure that your doctor is right, call your county medical referral society for the name of a board-certified allergy-immunology specialist.
Or ask a friend whose judgment you trust for a recommendation. Then take your daughter in for some allergy tests. A helpful book on the subject of childhood allergies is "The Complete Book of Children's Allergies: A Guide for Parents," by B.R. Feldman, Random House Inc.
For help with locating hazardous material in the house, write the EPA, Washington, D.C. 20540, and ask for a copy of their excellent guide to indoor air problems, "The Inside Story." This booklet will help you figure out for yourself what problems you are likely to have, and tell you how to go about addressing them.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, WA 98112.)