Cleaning up indoor allergens

Ted Kreiter

Do you sneeze a lot, have a constant runny nose, sinus troubles, or suffer from itchy, flaky skin? If so, you may be nursing an allergy, possibly to something right in your own home.

Outside allergens such as ragweed pollen or grass may take their toll in sneezing and watery eyes at certain times of the year, but indoor allergens cause symptoms and allergy-related diseases–including rhinitis, sinusitis, asthma and allergic dermatitis–the year around.

About one in five Americans will suffer from an allergy-related illness sometime in his or her life. Although allergists can now identify many of the allergen sources, the problem of disease related to allergy is increasing. In the last ten years, for example, the asthma mortality rate has climbed by one third.

One reason for this increase may be that our comfortable homes invite allergen infestation. Humidifiers, steam vacuuming, wall-to-wall carpeting, and super insulation have helped transform the home place into the ideal place for allergens to live and multiply.

Bugs in the Rug

The most troublesome household allergen is the dust mite. This Lilliputian member of the spider family (subclass Acari, species D. pteronyssinus), too small to be seen except under a microscope, is actually harmless to humans, unless one happens to be allergic–and then watch out! Dust mites are to blame for a variety of allergy problems, but their main contribution to human suffering is asthma.

“Actually, it’s the dust mites’ excrement that people are sensitive to,” says Dr. Kenneth Newman, director of the University of Cincinnati Asthma Center.

Many experts consider dust mites to be the single most important allergen associated with asthma, a disease that causes some 4,000 deaths a year in the United States. Some 60 to 70 percent of American asthmatics are believed to have the dust mite allergy; in the United Kingdom, approximately 80 percent of asthmatic children are sensitive to the dust mite.

Dust mites are true homebodies. They thrive in humid environments. Mites are especially prevalent in the Gulf States and Pacific Northwest, and are less likely to be found in dry or mountainous regions because they die when humidity drops below 35 percent. Because their food source includes shed human skin cells, dust mites accumulate rapidly in bedding, but also thrive in carpets, furniture, draperies, and stuffed toys.

Scientists have known about dust mites since 1964, when a Dutch researcher linked them directly to asthma. Since then, the mites have been a main focus of eradication, especially in severe asthma cases.

Two micrograms of mite allergen per gram of dust is considered a risk factor for asthma in susceptible individuals. Ten micrograms per gram of dust can trigger acute asthma. To reduce dust mite populations, allergists focus on the bedroom, recommending allergenic covers on all bedding, including mattresses and box springs. Bedding and curtains should be washed weekly in water hotter than 120[degrees] F. Carpeting should be removed. If this isn’t possible, vacuums with special dust mite filters or a water trap system are available. Tannic acid sprays such as Allersearch[TM] can neutralize dust mite allergens, making them nonallergenic, and acaricide (mite-killing) shampoos such as Acarosan[R] or Capture[R] can be effective. Special filters may be fitted on the furnace to help remove allergens from the circulating air. Dust covers for registers are also a barrier for dust mites.

Mysterious Molds

Molds may be the second most important household allergens next to dust mites, but they pose a greater problem for allergists.

“There are 100,000 types of molds,” says Dr. Newman, “and I’m not sure we’re smart enough to figure out which one is causing the biggest problem.”

Recently, allergists discovered a new group of fungal allergens, called basidiospores, that come from a class of fungi that includes mushrooms and puffballs. The spores have been implicated as a cause of asthma. Although first thought to be prevalent only in humid areas such as New Orleans, scientists have now found them in significant concentrations as far north as Minnesota. Mold spores are in the air all year round.

“When you leave bread out and find mold on it, those are just molds that happened to be floating around in the air and landed there,” says Dr. David Kahn, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. “It’s appropriate to evaluate your home to find out what kinds of molds are growing in there.” Indoors, molds thrive in basements and bathrooms. Frequent scrubbing with agents that are toxic to molds (such as bleach) is the best way to keep mold allergens at bay. Anything that stops or kills mildew, such as Tilex and X-14[R], will work. Some molds, however, may be growing in out-of-the-way places.

“Many homes have carpets laid on a concrete slab,” says Dr. Kahn. “That’s just terrible because of the humidity that builds up, harboring tons of mold growth.”

Dogs and Cats

Some 28 percent of U.S. homes have an indoor pet. Cats, dogs, hamsters, mice–all can release proteins that may lead to allergic reactions. The simple solution, if someone in your family is sensitive, is to give the pet away or at least keep it outside.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’d rather die than get rid of my cat,'” says Dr. Newman. He notes that there are other ways of treating the problem. One is to use a tannic acid spray that tends to decrease the amount of allergy particles. Another method, he says (“which the cats really love”), is to wash the cat every week. This may sound rather adventurous, but Dr. Newman allows, “The cats sort of get used to it after a few washings.”


1 When you clean, move all furniture to the center of the room so you can reach the corners and, with a damp cloth, wipe moldings, light fixtures, shelves, and door and window tops.

2 The bedroom, in particular, where people spend at least one-third or more of each 24 hours, should be kept scrupulously clean with frequent washing of floors, walls, ceilings, and bedsprings. If the sufferer is a child, send him out to play before throwing open the window and sending the dust you raise on its merry way.

3 Encase pillows, mattresses, and box springs (which don’t need washing) in zippered vinyl covers that are machine washable in hot water.

4 Install room air filters, which can circulate and clean up to 300 cubic feet of air per minute and effectively remove airborne dust particles. Inexpensive tabletop models generally prove ineffective.

5 Clean wood or linoleum floors daily with a specially treated dust cloth and mop cover.

6 Spray an allergy-control solution on carpets and upholstered furniture to deactivate the allergy-causing excreta produced by dust mites, changing it to a form that no longer causes allergy.

7 Use a disposable 3M Dust Mask for preventing the inhalation of these dust particles while removing them from the home.

8 Cover hot-air vents with filters, or close the vents and heat with electric radiators.

9 Try leaving an electric blanket turned on high during the day to dry the humidity and kill the dust mites in the mattress.

10 With a humidity gauge, monitor your home environment for the low humidity necessary to inhibit dust-mite growth.

11 Use window shades and venetian blinds in place of heavy curtains. If curtains are used, launder them frequently.

12 Use plain wood or leather instead of upholstered furniture.

13 Wash blankets in hot water every two weeks. Avoid blankets made of wool or down.

14 Don’t use dusters, mops, or brooms–these utensils merely rearrange the dust. And conventional air bag-equipped vacuum cleaners work against you. They vent dust out the exhaust hatch and into the air again, and their storage bags provide a breeding ground for additional allergen growth.

For More Information

If you suspect you have an allergy to something in your home, visit an allergist or the nearest asthma clinic. Skin or blood tests may be able to pinpoint a specific cause.

To test for dust-mite levels, ALK Laboratories of Milford, Connecticut (1-800-325-7354), offers a mitesampling kit with a specially designed dust-collection device that attaches to your vacuum cleaner. The sample is returned by mail for analysis for major mite and cat allergens. The analysis identifies specific mite species, information that may be helpful in treating the allergy problem.

Information about the Rainbow Cleaning System that traps dust in water can be obtained at Rexair, Inc., 3221 W. Big Beaver, Troy, MI 48084. (1-800-995-1529)

COPYRIGHT 1995 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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