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FEATURE ARTICLE - JAN/FEB 2006
The Allergen-Free Bedroom
Improve air quality in your bedroom by combatting dust mites, mold, dander, and more.
We spend an average of 33 percent of our time (eight hours per day) in our bedrooms. And, experts say the bedroom is often the room with the highest allergen content in the entire house.
If you or a family member have allergies or asthma, you might experience a noticeable difference in your symptoms after removing as many allergens as you can from this one room. Here are our best tips for creating an allergen-free bedroom.
What Lurks Under Your Bed
There are five main types of allergens that lurk in the bedroom:
• Dust mites: These ugly little microscopic creatures feed on sloughed-off skin cells and congregate mainly in bedding, pillows, stuffed animals, curtains, upholstery, carpets, and storage boxes. It’s actually dust mite waste that triggers our allergies, not the mites themselves.
• Mold: Anything damp—from pet bedding to carpets to walls and window moldings—can become a haven for mold.
• Animal dander: If you allow your cat or dog to sleep in your room, allergy-inducing proteins from your furry friend’s skin, saliva, and urine—also called animal dander—may be sticking to any available surface. Animal dander also remains airborne for several hours, so it can float into your bedroom from other areas of the house.
• Pollen: Pollen is often carried indoors on clothing or on pets. It can also float inside from windows or your central air system.
• Cockroaches: The cast-off skins and droppings of these pests are what trigger allergies. Now that you know what allergens could be making you sneeze, it’s time to focus on getting rid of them as much as possible. If you’d like to pinpoint exactly which allergens trigger your symptoms, consider asking your doctor for a referral to an allergist, who can figure out what you’re allergic to through a simple skin test.
Simplify Your Bedroom
Simplifying your life isn’t just good for your pocketbook—it can be good for your health, too. The more storage boxes, books, upholstered furniture, pillows and bedding, and other items in your bedroom, the more places allergens have to hide.
Keep your bedroom as simple as possible. Clear out clutter, and see if you can sell or donate it instead of letting it sit around and collect allergens. Put items you can’t part with in other rooms.
Remove drapes, feather pillows, upholstered furniture, non-washable comforters, and other non washable soft items, if possible.
For children, minimize stuffed animals and other soft toys in the bedroom—they become havens for dust mites. Look for machine washable stuffed toys. Clean those that can’t be washed with a damp cloth, then put in the dryer on a high setting to kill dust mites.
Carpets: A Haven for Allergens
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) recommends replacing carpets with hard flooring, since carpets are notorious for trapping allergens and exacerbating symptoms.
To find environmentally (and allergy-) friendly flooring options, consult our Real Money July 2003 article, “Eco-Flooring Options,” or check the “Flooring” category of our National Green Pages™ for sellers of cork, sustainable hardwood, and bamboo flooring.
If replacing carpeting isn’t an option, vacuum floors at least weekly with a machine that has a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. (Standard or water-filtered vacuums just stir up allergens.) Vacuum furniture and curtains as well.
Several green companies offer nontoxic allergen-reducing sprays, detergents, and cleaners for
carpeting, upholstery, and more. (See below.)
Steps to Reduce Allergens
Use the following suggestions to expunge each of the five main types of allergens from your bedroom:
To dispel dust mites:
• Encase mattresses, box springs, comforters, and pillows in airtight, zippered plastic or special allergen-proof fabric covers. These are widely available at national and specialty stores, as well as from the socially and environmentally responsible businesses listed in the resource box on this page.
• Avoid down pillows and comforters, if possible, as they attract dust mites. If you choose to use them, encase them in allergen-proof covers.
• Wash sheets and pillow cases weekly in hot water to kill dust mites—the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) says temperatures lower than 130°F will not kill mites. (You can still save energy by rinsing in cold water, and by washing your other items in cold water.)
• Vacuum weekly with a HEPA vacuum cleaner. Dust weekly with a damp or electro-static cloth to pick up dust, rather than dispel it. Wear a dust mask while cleaning to minimize symptoms.
To combat pet dander:
• If your pet allergies are significantly reducing your quality of life, or have become life-threatening, the only way to truly get rid of dander is to find your pet another loving home with someone who is not allergic to it. The AAAAI says that even keeping your pet outdoors exclusively isn’t a complete solution, since homes with an outdoor pet have been found to have a higher concentration of pet dander inside than homes without a pet.
• If you choose to keep your beloved pet, the best way to minimize allergens is to keep your pet outside in an environment that meets its health and social needs. If your pet isn’t the outdoor sort, at least keep it out of your bedroom at all times.
• Replace bedding and carpeting that has animal dander on it. “It can take weeks or months for fabrics to come clean of allergens, and animal allergens may persist for a year or more,” says the AAAAI.
• Bathe your pet weekly—studies have shown that weekly baths can minimize dander.
• Vacuuming does little to reduce pet dander, since vacuums don’t clean the very bottom levels of the carpet where dander collects. A HEPA vacuum may help somewhat. As with dust mites, the best solution is to install hard flooring, if possible.
To minimize mold:
• To keep mold out of your home, keep dampness out. Repair and seal any leaks, and keep humidity levels below 50 percent (see the next section, “For All Allergens,” for more information).
• If you discover mold, clean it promptly with a solution of water and a non-ammonia soap or detergent. Remove any carpeting or wallpaper contaminated with mold.
• If the soap or detergent doesn’t eliminate the mold, and you can’t remove the contaminated materials, some green companies, such as Sneeze.com, offer nontoxic mold removers. As a last resort, a solution of water and five percent chlorine bleach may kill stubborn mold. Keep in mind, however, that chlorine bleach may react with organic compounds in drinking water to produce carcinogens and other toxins, according to the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition.
• Keep houseplants out of your bedroom.
• If you don’t have pollen allergies, open doors and windows periodically and use fans to increase air movement.
To reduce pollen:
• Bathe before going to bed to wash pollen off your skin and hair. Leave the clothes you wore all day in a hamper outside your bedroom.
• Avoid line-drying your clothes outside, as they will collect pollen. Instead, invest in a folding drying rack and dry your clothes indoors to save energy.
To control cockroaches:
• Block areas where roaches could enter the home, including cracks, windows, and outside doors and drains.
• Keep your home meticulously clean, especially the kitchen. Store food in airtight containers, clean counters and sweep the floor after meals, and put away pet food after your pet eats. Vacuum frequently, and take out trash and recycling daily.
• If you think you need to call an exterminator, first try employing the less-toxic roach control methods such as: "The Pesticator" (an ultrasonic device that is supposed repel mice and roaches, available from www.global-instruments.com), borax for carpets and cracks (use caution around pets and children), products from the "Pest Control" section of our National Green Pages™, and pest-control companies that use less-toxic methods (for a list of questions to ask such companies, click here).
For All Allergens
These steps will help reduce all five allergens:
• Filter your air: Though no studies have proven that indoor air filters help clear out allergens, many people with allergies attest to their effectiveness. The NIAID recommends talking to your allergist about the best type of air filter to use. Having your air ducts cleaned has not been proven effective against allergies, says the AAAAI.
• Bring in plants: Indoor plants are great air filters, so unless you have mold allergies, putting plants in your home can reduce allergens.
• Keep humidity levels low: All five allergens thrive in humidity, so keep humidity levels below 50 percent by repairing leaks and using a dehumidifier. If you live in a very humid climate, you may need to turn on your air conditioner to reduce humidity and, therefore, your symptoms.
• Clean your house: In addition, keeping your home, especially your bedroom, as clean as possible will go a long way toward keeping allergens at bay. Use nontoxic cleaning products, which can be found at your local health food store or in the National Green Pages™, to avoid chemical irritants.
• Avoid toxins: “Those with allergies and asthma should avoid airborne irritants, including tobacco smoke, aerosols, paint, perfumes, cleaning products, or other strong odors or fumes,” says the AAAAI.
Of course, none of the advice we’ve given is intended to replace evaluation of your symptoms by a physician. If you have concerns about your health, please consult your doctor.
--Tracy Fernandez Rysavy