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Guarding Against Formaldehyde and Mold

Many modern composite building materials, including plywood, particleboard, oriented-strand board (OSB), and medium-density fiberboard (MDF), are made using resins that contain formaldehyde. These products are used to make cabinets, to cover subfloors and exterior walls and roofs, and to serve many other common purposes in home construction. Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) is no longer made, but was used to build many homes. Cloth that is used for draperies, carpet, and furniture also may contain formaldehyde.

So for most of us, formaldehyde is a fact of life; there’s no way to completely eliminate it from the air. However, newer or recently remodeled homes generally have more formaldehyde; levels tend to degrade significantly as the years go by. About 10 percent of the population is sensitive to formaldehyde exposure. For this group, formaldehyde can produce symptoms such as runny nose, difficulty breathing, coughing, headache, skin rash, and dizziness.

An environmental testing company can test your home for formaldehyde. Ask your building department for recommendations. If you do have high levels of formaldehyde, it may not be a problem unless a family member is sensitive to it. To relieve symptoms of such sensitivity, improve ventilation in the home, and use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to keep the home drier.

Lately, there have been reports of homes with severe cases of mold. This typically propagates inside walls, ceilings, and floors, and becomes visible only when the problem is out of control. These problems typically occur in newer homes that are tightly caulked and weatherstripped, but that lack adequate ventilation due to poor construction methods. Homes built correctly according to code will not have these problems. Be aware that this super-mold problem, though very real, is quite rare. If you find mold or mildew on a wall or ceiling, simply wash it with a bleach solution. Then correct whatever is causing the area to remain moist for long periods.

Dealing with Hazardous Materials

We deal with some type of hazardous wastes almost daily. The chart below lists common waste products and how to dispose of them safely and responsibly. Some items need special attention. For example, rags soaked in a flammable substance such as mineral spirits can burst into flames spontaneously if they’re left in a bundle. That’s why it’s important to spread them out outdoors until all the solvent has evaporated.

Some of the substances cited below are best treated by rinsing with water until they are heavily diluted. Once diluted, flush them through a lower-floor toilet, which empties out quickly into the main drain. Pour, flush, wait for the tank to fill, and flush again. For more difficult disposal problems, consult with your building department. In some locales, a special disposal truck visits your home for hazardous material pickup several times a year. Or there may be an annual hazardous waste dropoff day, or a designated site where you can deliver the materials anytime.

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