Dear Lisa: Sick house syndrome refers to much more than just allergies and can be a serious problem in today's newer airtight homes. The indoor air can actually be more polluted than outdoor air and some of these indoor chemicals can cause or exacerbate existing allergies.
Some materials, such as ones which are made with adhesives using formaldehyde, may off-gas formaldehyde into your home for up to several years after your house is built. This depends on many factors such as the indoor humidity and temperature, how well the material was made, etc. If something has that "new" smell, it is more likely it is giving off some chemical gases.
To minimize the problems from chemicals being emitted from new building materials, use as many natural products as possible. For example, select cabinets made of real wood without particleboard (contains adhesives). You may even want to select unfinished cabinets and finish them yourself with environmentally-friendly finishes.
Solid surface kitchen countertops are also a good idea to install because they are natural and are not laminated with adhesives. These include slate, granite, marble, etc. These surfaces are very durable and attractive, but they are somewhat more expensive than standard countertop materials.
Install a heating system which uses outdoor combustion air with a sealed combustion chamber. This minimizes the possibility of getting fumes into the house. It also reduces the chance of creating a slight negative pressure inside your home which can draw in pollutants and allergens from outdoors.
Select paint with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOC). Most major paint suppliers offer them. Short-term exposure to VOC's may cause symptoms such as irritated eyes and nose, headaches and nausea.
Check with your local health department about whether radon gas is a problem in your area. If it is, you should take radon abatement steps during the design and construction of your home. These can include sealing all cracks and gaps in the basement or slab, providing fresh air or pressurization.
Some excellent sources for more detailed information on creating a healthy house are: American Lung Association, (800) 788-5864, www.healthhouse.org; and the Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov - "A Guide to Indoor Air Quality" booklet.
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