Home Not-So-Safe Home
by Jonathan Wilson
I love “news you can use” articles, especially when the popular press talks about an issue that is very near and dear to me — healthy homes. I was excited to see that Parade magazine, the highly popular Sunday newspaper insert, ran a cover story on tips for a healthy home this past weekend. It has 26 tips to improve resident health by taking actions in the home, ranging from testing for radon or cleaning your remote control.
But I am also an analyst/skeptic at heart, so when I get advice I often wonder if the source got it right. Some of the advice is so straightforward and simple, I have no concerns adopting the advice myself and telling others to do the same. Take tip 14, “Remove Your Shoes.” There is no question that there is stuff outside you don’t want to track into your home, including lead dust and pesticides. My family already keeps our shoes at the door, and the great news is that it is free. Granted, it’s easy to forget sometimes, and we all have to remind each other from time to time, but there is no downside to doing it.
Then, I got to tip 21, “Protect Your Pillows,” and it made me take a second look. First off, the tip actually directs us to replace pillows regularly. What is regularly? Some sites including Prevention.com advise replacing pillows annually. But with pillows going for $30 to $100-plus, do I really need to replace the 10 pillows in my house every year? And is this something I should be telling folks who have limited incomes?
Pillows (and mattresses) can be habitats for dust mites, a microscopic creature that one in six people are allergic to. It is well proven that dust mites are attracted to pillows and mattresses because humans offer the moisture and food (dead skin cells) that the mites need to survive. It also appears true that the weight of pillows and mattresses can increase in time as skin cells, mites, and their dander accumulate, although reports of mattresses doubling in weight over 10 years makes me scratch my head (where’s the data, WebMD?).
Once you have mites, they can easily travel between mattress and pillows, seeking food and water. So while there is a great “ick” factor thinking of pillows that are 10% dead skin and mites, frequently replacing pillows isn’t a cost-effective (or effective, period) solution to a possible problem. A health reporter for the New York Times came to a similar conclusion earlier this year (Lesley Alderman, “Who Should Worry About Dust Mites (and Who Shouldn’t)” The New York Times, March 4, 2011).
If you have a pillow that is comfortable and gives you a good night’s sleep, hold onto it. Most quality pillows are intended to last two to five years; natural pillows last longer. If you have or suspect you have an allergy to dust mites, a better approach would be to buy a pillow protector ($15) and zip it around the pillow to keep the dust mites out. Then put your pillowcase on top of it. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and wash your pillow a few times a year; wash the pillow protector and pillow case more frequently. Use the savings from those pillows you aren’t buying and put it aside for just in case that radon test (tip 6) comes up high.
Jonathan Wilson, MPP, joined NCHH in 1993 and currently serves as Deputy Director and Chief Financial Officer. Mr. Wilson has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed research manuscripts evaluating assessment tools and interventions for healthy housing hazards. He also served as the NCHH representative to the federal Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention from 2004 to 2010. He came to NCHH with a background in nonprofit housing development and a Master of Public Policy degree.