Treatments, cures on market for sick house syndrome

It's a strange label for such a dangerous situation, but if you are living with lead, asbestos, radon, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, mold and mildew, or other pollutants, you and your family have what is called a "sick house."

The problem tends to be caused by poor ventilation in the home. If fresh air can't enter the house, it gets filled with internal pollutants.

In addition, some types of building materials exude harmful vapors.

And finally, some homes, usually 20 years or older, were constructed with materials now known to be dangerous.

The first step in creating a healthier home is to take stock of your environment. Most of these hazards can be easily detected and removed or at least managed. Here is a list of the most common problems and steps to control them:

Dust mites, molds and VOCs are probably the simplest problems. If you are experiencing headaches, nausea, irritated eyes, throat or nose, you may have been exposed to VOCs, a range of chemicals released into the air. These are found most commonly in carpet, paint and fabric. In carpet, they can be detected by that new smell, for instance.

Also check your air conditioner, humidifier and heat ducts. You may have irritating mold and mildew. Cabinets, countertops, carpet and fabric may be exuding formaldehyde. Having your home closed up during cold or hot weather may allow moisture to collect, creacting an environment in which mold and dust mites breed. Dust mites thrive in bedding, for instance, and dusting and vacuuming won't get rid of them.

You can't rely on your senses alone to tell you what the problem is, so you should spend the $200 or so to have your home professionally tested. If it turns out that your house is being invaded by these pollutants, try these steps recommended by the American Lung Association:

*Change furnace filter monthly.

*Run the bathroom vent fan when showering to discourage mold growth.

*Clean the humidifier and air conditioning drain pans. Fill humidifiers with distilled or demineralized water.

*Don't smoke.

*Air out new carpet, drapes and furniture before bringing them inside.

*Keep gutters clean to avoid moisture from penetrating.

*Regularly clean and tune all fuel-burning appliances and fireplaces.

*Wash bedding materials frequently in hot water to reduce dust mites.

Also consider installing a house energy recovery ventilator system. They provide moisture control, indoor air quality and energy recovery.

Radon is a radioactive gas given off by soil or rock with trace amounts of uranium or radium — elements that decay. The major sources of radon come from the soil surrounding the house. The gas can enter through cracks in the foundation floor and walls, drains, sumps, joints or other openings. It can even be transported through water. Exposure can lead to lung cancer, especially for smokers.

The Environment Protection Agency's recommended "action" level is four picocuries per liter of air and the agency estimates that one out of every 15 homes in the United States has levels above that.

Tests determine if your home has dangerous radon levels. EPA- or state-certified radon detectors can do the job. Check the July 1995 Consumer Reports for recommendations. The other alternative is hiring a state-certified or EPA-certified contractor. If high levels are found, hire a professional to fix the problem.

There was a time when roofing and floor materials, wall and pipe insulation, heating equipment and acoustic insulation all commonly used asbestos — a group of microscopic mineral fibers. However, researchers discovered that the fibers are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs and can scar lung tissue, cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a fairly uncommon cancer of the lining of the lung or abdominal cavity.

Schools have been spending large amounts of money to remove asbestos from classrooms. The risks of being exposed are slim as long as the materials using it are not deteriorating.

If you have household materials made with asbestos, inspect them. If the materials are damaged or exposed, or you plan to do some renovations, call in an asbestos removal professional.

Lead can be found in paint and in water. It can cause severe anemia, permanent brain damage and other problems. It is more than a a problem of the urban poor. Ninety percent of houses built before 1940 contain lead paint.

It was banned completely in 1978, so only the newest homes can be assumed to be lead-free. If you live in or are planning to buy a house built before 1978, have an inspector check it.

Testing involves taking dirt samples from outside the foundation, examining paint surfaces with a portable X-ray fluorescence device and taking dust samples from floors and windowsills to be analyzed in a laboratory. You can also send paint chips to a lab listed by the EPA or use a test-at-home kit.

If you discover lead in your home, consider covering over even paint in good shape with wallpaper, paneling or a thick coat of new paint. Be careful about preparing the surface, however, Scraping off loose chips or sanding can stir up the lead dust. Don't dry-vacuum lead dust — it will just stir it up. Use an HEPA vacuum cleaner, which has an ultrafine filter that traps tiny dust particles. Better yet, bring in a professional.