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Posted January 13, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Indoor dangers: Staying out of frightful winter weather can pose health risks, too

Dr. Jeffrey Lessar
Dr. Jeffrey Lessar, a pulmonologist, examines lung X-rays at his office in Winchester. Dennis Grundman/Daily


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By Alex Bridges -- Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER -- That long, winter's nap can make a person sicker than the cold air outside, warn doctors and environmental health experts.

As homeowners lock down storm windows and bring out the space heaters and fire logs, they also set themselves up to possibly get sick.

"The problem with the indoors ... the air supply is limited and it sort of recirculates and so anything that kind of gets inside stays inside unless you can get rid of it, i.e. secondhand smoke is probably the big one," said Dr. Jeffrey Lessar, a pulmonologist in Winchester. "That's why ... New York, D.C., they've all banned inside smoking."

Doctors also have identified thirdhand smoke as a problem. As Lessar explained, thirdhand smoke comes about when a person smokes or is near smokers and it clings to their clothes or hair. Then, when they hold or are near someone such as a child, that person inhales the smoke from the clothes or hair.

"The problem with cigarettes is we don't understand why one person can smoke three packs a day for 40 years and have no problems and one person can smoke a half pack a day for five years and have severe problems," Lessar said. "We don't understand that and that's why secondhand smoke is so dangerous -- how much is safe?"

Going outside a home or office to smoke usually is more advisable since it allows the smoke to filter away.

Indoor air quality can also affect people with asthma, Lessar said. Allergens such as dust mites and dander from cockroaches and pets can become stuck in carpeting, couches or bedspreads and then brought back into the air unless the surfaces are cleaned or replaced. Lessar noted that in some cases carpeting needs to be removed in favor of hardwood floors, which are easier to clean.

"Some people almost have to live in a bubble," he said. "They have to get plastic sheets, plastic coverings over their couches, over their bedspreads, just so they can wipe stuff off to keep it clean."

Winter months bring other dangers.

"This time of year it's gonna be viruses that sort of hang around so, within reason, it's good when there are relatively nice days, you know, try to get the windows open," Lessar said. "Air out the house a little bit. Get some of the fresh air in."

The doctor also recommends washing hands to reduce the amount of germs spread by touching items such as doors, telephone receivers and other surfaces.

But staying inside, alone, doesn't necessarily present health hazards.

"I don't think if you put yourself in a bubble and live by yourself in your home, it's unlikely that you're gonna get something," Lessar said. "But what we do see is, because everybody's indoors, the germs tend to pass more freely, more quickly."

As in Winchester and across the Northern Shenandoah Valley, many homes date back decades. A home's construction plays a significant role in an occupant's health.

"Most of the time the older homes, if you leave stuff where it is, you don't tend to have a lot of problems," Lessar said. "What we do see is a lot of people who go in and try to rehab the older homes, they're breaking down walls, they're going into attics, and they will see dust and mold exposure and that can basically cause asthma.

"Usually it will get better over time in avoidance of the exposure, but it can take up to 18 months to two years to get over," Lessar added.

Cleveland-based Environmental Health Watch offers tips on how to prevent problems related to staying indoors -- such as poisoning from lead paint and triggers of asthma.

Tobacco smoke, mold, dust mites, cockroaches and mouse urine can trigger asthma symptoms such as wheezing. Candles, incense or other items in the house also can cause asthma symptoms to start, according to Stuart Greenberg, the group's executive director.

"Any time you burn anything in the house, you create particles and gases which can be lung irritants," he said.

Those who stay inside much of the time in the colder months also should remain cautious when using unvented space heaters, Greenberg advised.

"So kerosene, natural gas heaters can be very dangerous and so we recommend against them because they can emit noxious gases and particles, and if you read the instructions, they say, well, 'open a window six inches or eight inches,' but people use 'em when they're cold so they're not going to open the windows," Greenberg said.

Lessar noted dangers in using wood stoves if they are not properly vented. Also, devices such as baseboard or space heaters give off a dry warmth, which can affect a person's breathing. Lessar suggested people either use a humidifier or boil water on a stove. However, humidifiers need monitoring and if air becomes too moist inside, it can help spawn mold.

"Most of the time we all have a healthy enough immune system that we can fight something like [mold] off without much of a problem," Lessar said.

Seemingly helpful products also may pose dangers to those staying in from the cold.

"All kinds of household products have what are called volatile organic compounds -- basically things that you can smell, anything with a strong odor can be an irritant for somebody with a respiratory condition, whether it's asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," Greenberg said. "So it could be perfumes ... particularly a problem are solvents, paints, those kinds of things.

"Things that are called air fresheners -- they don't really freshen the air, all they do is add another chemical [to the air]," Greenberg said.

The newer the home, the more likely a person may suffer the effects of indoor air pollution if the building lacks proper ventilation.

"The rule is make it tight but ventilate right is what they say," Greenberg said. "In other words, you wanna tighten the house but you want to combine that with good, mechanical ventilation so that you are getting fresh air, that the stale air is going out and the fresh air is coming in, but you're able to do that in a controlled way in a properly built home."

While many people work from home, or telecommute, doing so doesn't necessarily put someone more at risk for experiencing problems related to indoor pollution. As Greenberg noted, some office buildings lack proper ventilation and may also contain pollutants and irritants found in the home.

He recommended homeowners use an air-to-air heat exchanger that uses the heat from the exhaust to warm the air drawn into the building.

As for health concerns, lead paint appears more of a problem especially in places with older homes and buildings, he said.

"If you have somebody in the house with asthma or COPD, then exposure to the allergens and the irritants in the home can be a major health concern," he said.

"There are a number of pollutants that we worry about in the outdoor air that can be found in much higher concentrations in indoor air," he noted. "So I don't think it's something that people need to panic about or get hysterical about but it's prudent to look around and there are a lot of different checklists around and make an assessment of what indoor health hazards may have and try and reduce those."

Visit www.ehw.org and click on Healthy House for more information.

* Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com

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