Basements were once used solely as utility rooms that housed furnaces, laundry areas, and overflow storage for seasonal items, tools, and sometimes even root vegetables. Today, with the high cost of above-grade living space, many homeowners choose to finish parts of their basements to serve as living areas. While this is a great way to gain more space, if characteristic basement problems aren’t resolved first, occupants of these finished spaces may be exposed to a higher risk of some health problems. Even if you have no intention of using your basement as living space, health hazards that originate there can spread to other parts of your home. It pays to be aware of the risks that dwell in your basement and that could potentially affect your family’s health.
By Glenda Taylor
Basements are damp, which is precisely the environment in which mold thrives. Any kind of mold, not just the deadly black stachybotrys variety, can lead to respiratory problems. Typical health symptoms associated with the inhalation of mold spores include a runny nose, excessive sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, or dry, itchy skin. Those with allergies can suffer broader, more intense respiratory effects, including difficulty breathing and chest tightness. To reduce the risk of mold, use a dehumidifier, seal cracks in the foundation, and replace carpeting with tile, vinyl, or another appropriate hard flooring.
Not every basement laundry area enjoys adequate dryer venting from the basement to the outdoors. Rather than running a vent pipe to the outside of the house, some homeowners opt to outfit the dryer with a device that catches lint and then recirculates warm air from the dryer throughout the basement. Unfortunately, the exhaust from the dryer also includes chemicals from laundry detergents, which are released into the basement air where they can trigger respiratory problems. If you spend any time in your basement, have your dryer vented to the outdoors.
Sewer gases contain not only methane, highly toxic ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, but they also include fumes from solvents and other chemicals that have been introduced into the sewer system. Sewer gases are most likely to enter your home through a dry basement floor drain: When the plumbing trap, which is designed to block gases, dries out, sewer gases will seep into the basement. To prevent health problems that come from exposure to sewage fumes, regularly flush basement floor drains with water.
Fuel-fired furnaces are expected fixtures in basements, but without proper care and maintenance, they can produce a deadly by-product of combustion, carbon monoxide. This gas can then seep into the rest of the house, where it can create health problems and a dangerous risk of fire. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible and may not be noticed until occupants experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, such as headache, dizziness, or loss of judgment. At high concentrations, carbon monoxide can even lead to death. If you have a gas- or oil-fired furnace, have it inspected annually, and use carbon monoxide detectors in the basement and in upstairs rooms.
Basements are a favored storage spot for leftover cans of varnish, paint, and adhesives. Storing half-empty cans of chemical-laden mixtures can, however, introduce toxic substances into the air, because it’s difficult to seal cans completely once opened. Exposure to those chemicals, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can lead to allergies and disorders of the central nervous system, and long-term exposure can result in chronic health problems. Inspect your stored solvents and discard any that appear to have leaked. And, the next time you buy paint or varnish, choose low-VOC products to minimize your exposure to toxins.
Lack of Ventilation:
If you’ve ever noticed a stuffy smell when you’ve entered a basement, that odor is most likely the result of poor ventilation. While stuffy air below-grade won’t affect anyone living upstairs, it can trigger asthma attacks or other respiratory problems in those who spend time in a basement bedroom or rec room. If you’re going to use your basement as a living space, your best bet is to tie it into your home’s central HVAC system and open the basement windows frequently, even on chilly days, to let in fresh air.
Radon gas, which is produced by the radioactive decay of uranium, is present in soil, rocks, and even in the air you breathe. In small quantities, radon doesn’t present a health risk, but when it’s concentrated in a closed environment like your basement, it’s a different story. In high-risk areas, radon has a tendency to seep through basement cracks. Radon can then become trapped in a poorly ventilated basement, where it can threaten the health of occupants and potentially increase their risk of developing lung cancer. Keep track of radon levels in your house by installing a couple of radon detectors. If a detector senses high levels of radon, the EPA suggests that you have your home treated by a radon remediation expert.