Is your home a winter health hazard? Here’s what to do

Winter is here and with it comes a few health hazards – especially around the home. Here’s how to minimise the risks for you and your family.

While cosying up at home during winter is great, there are some safety issues that go hand in hand with the onset of cooler weather.

Here are a few winter home hazards to watch for.

Mould and condensation build up

Condensation, which can cause damp, mould and rot, occurs when humid air meets a cooler surface.

Warm, moist air is able to hold more water vapour than cooler air, and since our homes are generally warmer in winter, the risk of mould growing is higher.

Prolonged exposure to mould is particularly problematic for those with mould allergies says respiratory and sleep specialist Dr Andrew Bradbeer.

“It can lead to chronic airway inflammation and breathing problems,” Dr Bradbeer says.

“It can also exacerbate underlying asthma or nasal problems and allergies as well.”

Daily human living can increase the risk of mould growing in your home, according to Victoria University architectural scientist Dr Tim Law.

“Human activities — such as cooking, showering, laundering and even breathing — all add vapour into the indoor environment,” Dr Law says.

He recommends using a dehumidifier to reduce the moisture in your home.

“If we do not ventilate (the vapour) away or remove that by some form of mechanical dehumidification then we end up with condensation,” Dr Law says.

You can also invest in a hygro-thermometer which measures temperature and humidity.

“If the humidity gets beyond 70 per cent, start ventilating the room (by opening a door or window) or switching on a dehumidifier,” Dr Law says.

Heating hazards

A crackling fire is a much-beloved source of heating in a lot of homes, but they can increase respiratory issues – particularly for asthma sufferers.

“The burning of wood creates the release of particulate matter and gases that are toxic to both the environment and to humans,” Asthma Australia senior research and evaluation manager Anthony Flynn says.

“We’re really concerned about the welfare of people with asthma who can be affected by breathing in the particulate matter that’s released from wood heaters, as well as the gases that are released in burning of wood.

“They can experience asthma flare-ups which can sometimes be severe and life-threatening.”

Asthma Australia has called for the phasing out of wood heaters.

Dr Bradbeer also has concerns about wood fires in the home.

“Household exposure of smoke can be a really significant issue,” he says.

“If you have a wood fire heater that leaks the smoke into the house, then that’s something that can cause chronic lung disease and potentially shorten your lifespan.”

While gas heaters are seen as an efficient source of warmth in the home, they too can be problematic.

“We’ve known for some time that gas combustion causes the release of toxic gases, the main one being nitrogen dioxide which is an irritant for people with respiratory conditions, especially people with asthma,” Anthony says.

Gas heaters also have the potential to release carbon monoxide in the air, which is poisonous and potentially deadly.

As any gas heater can become faulty, it is recommended having them serviced at least once every two years.

If possible, consider alternative heating options such as air conditioning, heat pumps, hydronic heating or electric.

Cold stress

Allowing it to get too cold in your home can also be a problem, as the body can experience physical stress from getting too cold every day.

Dr Bradbeer suggests trying to keep your house between 15 and 18 degrees overnight and 18 and 22 degrees during the day.

“We know that it’s actually better for your respiratory health and your health generally if you can maintain the temperature inside at a reasonably constant level so that it gets a little bit cooler overnight but not cold,” he says.

Fire hazards

Winter is also peak time for house fires, according to NSW Fire and Rescue.

If you use an electric or gas heater, inspect power cords to make sure they’re not frayed and if you suspect a fault, have it checked out by a qualified repairer or replace it.

Also ensure everything in the home is kept at least one metre away from a heater.

Is your home fire safe? Download a fire safety checklist.

Written by Tania Gomez.