…from mold, mites and more

Jeffrey May solves home, school and office air-quality and allergen problems for a living. He’s also a lifelong allergy sufferer himself, as are his now-grown children. Bottom Line Personal asked May what he uses to improve the air quality in his own home…

High-quality vacuum. Most vacuums—even some expensive ones with high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filters—leak air while in use. Rather than collect dust and other allergens, these leaky vacuums actually churn up allergens and recirculate them throughout the home, reducing indoor air quality. Miele’s HEPA Sealed System vacuums use high-quality filters and gaskets to dramatically reduce this problem. Cost: $450 to $1,250, depending on the model. 800-843-7231, Miele.com.

Dust mite covers. Dust mites are microscopic organisms that thrive in warm, humid environments, such as bedding. A proper dust mite cover prevents mites from taking hold in your mattress—and kills dust mites that are already there by cutting off moisture. There are several varieties of covers on the market—the cotton-only or polyester-only type does not stop the moisture. The type I use, and the only type that works reliably, is a soft, polyurethane-lined-fabric mattress cover. My choice is Allergy Control Products’ BedCare Classic Allergen Mattress Covers. Cost: $29.99 to $129.99 depending on mattress size. I also use a standard-size polyurethane-lined Classic Allergen Pillow Cover, which costs $16.99. 800-ALLERGY (255-3749), AllergyControl.com.

If you don’t like the feeling of sleeping on the mattress cover, place a mattress pad over the dust mite encasing. Wash and thoroughly dry this mattress pad every month to kill new dust mites. We also wash our blankets and quilts monthly and run them through the dryer on the regular setting every two weeks. Twenty minutes of drying should kill any dust mites living inside.

Leather couches and chairs. Dust mites can infest fabric-covered upholstered couches and chairs, but they can’t penetrate leather. All the chairs and couches in our home that we use regularly are leather. In less frequently used rooms, we have futon-style fabric couches, but we have encased the mattress portion of the futons in polyurethane-lined dust mite covers, with the fabric futon covers over the encasing.

We also change our clothes immediately upon returning from places where we might have been exposed to pet dander, pollen or other allergens so that we don’t contaminate our couches, chairs or beds.

There is talk about a mystical “aura” that people have, but the only significant real aura people have is a “dust aura” from their hair and clothing containing all the allergens from their home environment. After folks with allergenic dust auras visit, we HEPA vacuum everything!

Hot-water systems rather than a forced-air duct system. When you have a forced-air heating and cooling system, there’s no way to know what’s inside your ducts. Mold could be growing and spreading throughout the home whenever the system is used. Even professional duct cleaning is no guarantee that all allergens will be removed.

The only air-quality challenge presented by hot-water heat is dust building up on and behind radiators and/or baseboard units. We use a vacuum attachment called a flat crevice tool to remove dust from tight spots, such as behind radiators and refrigerators. Mid America Vacuum’s 36-inch Exten-Vac Crevice Tool fits most vacuums. Cost: $21.95, plus shipping. 800-649-7996, VacuumStore.com.

If you are moving into a previously occupied home, remove the covers from the baseboard convectors, HEPA vacuum all surfaces and then blast the fin tubing with steam from a steam-vapor machine (place rags under the tubing to collect the grime). The Durpay HOME steam cleaner is reasonably priced ($289.99) and effective.

If you live in a home with a duct system, have the ducts cleaned at least once every five years. (Make sure that the person you hire to do this cleans your blower and air-conditioning coil as well as the ducts and that that the cleaner uses brushes, not just “air whips” for the ducts.) Use high-quality air-conditioner and furnace filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) no lower than eight. If you have serious allergy issues, use filters rated at least 11.

In the summer, we use portable air conditioners, which we dismantle outdoors and clean with a solution of one-third bleach and two-thirds water yearly. Since the screenlike filters that come with most window air conditioners are inadequate, we use supplemental electrostatic filters from Web Products (WebProducts.com). The Electrostatic Filter for Room Air Conditioners ($12) that can be cut to size. No filter material should ever touch the cooling coil, so if the filter cannot be placed behind the intake grille, tape it at the edges over the front of the grille.

Hardwood floors. Carpets collect dust and other allergens, and not even the best vacuum can remove them all. For people like me who suffer from severe allergies, switching from carpets to wood or tile floors can be like flipping a switch from chronic bad health to good. That’s particularly true in the winter, when we spend more time inside with the windows closed.

We do have a few small rugs in our home. They are synthetic, not wool, and I subjected each of them to a sniff test at the store before I brought them into my home. I put my face close to the carpet and inhaled deeply. If I didn’t experience any allergic reaction, I purchased the rug.

Dehumidifier in the basement. The relative humidity in our basement was above 50%, creating the risk for mold and mildew growth. I measured the humidity with a thermo-hygrometer. Extech (877-239-8324, Extech.com) makes good ones, ranging from $30 to $60. Don’t buy a cheap one—it won’t be reliable. I then purchased a Therma-Stor Santa Fe dehumidifier, and we keep it set to lower our basement’s relative humidity level below 50%. Therma-Stor makes the most powerful and reliable dehumidifiers on the residential market. Cost: $1,119 to $2,500, depending on the model. 800-533-7533, ThermaStor.com.

I attached the dehumidifier to a condensate pump, a device available in hardware and home-goods stores for around $50. The condensate pump automatically transfers water collected by my dehumidifier to a sink in the basement (but it can pump the water to the outdoors).

Face mask when I travel. I carry a face mask with me so that when I start to feel allergy symptoms, I can put it on. I use an N95 mask made by 3M, available in hardware stores and online. Cost: About $20 for a box of 20.

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