Word on Health

Word On Toxic Home Syndrome

We are grateful to Professor Peter Howarth, Professor of Allergy and Respiratory Medicine at Southampton University for his input to our radio report which you can hear again further down this page. 

Results from a recent exclusive Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) home study suggests UK households are at risk of experiencing aggravated health problems due to poor air quality inside the home. 

The independent study tested the air quality in British homes; analysing the level of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) present in the air. Out of the 122 homes tested in the UK, only 9% were considered in the normal category of recommended level of pollutant concentration, with the remaining 91% of homes above the recommended level (2) 

It's claimed that at the normal level, non-chemically sensitive individuals should not experience health issues from VOCs. As the TVOC level increases into the moderate, elevated or severe levels, individuals may experience aggravated health problems, and therefore, the need to address VOC issues becomes more critical.

Mould is one of the key factors of poor indoor air quality and health risk. According to a YouGov consumer survey, 58% of respondents have experienced mould or condensation in their home; with 19% of those have already suffered from a respiratory or dermatological condition while the remaining 81% could be at risk (3). 

With winter upon us, condensation and mould become more prominent as we close windows and make our homes more airtight. Moulds release allergens, irritants and toxic substances. Other pollutants released by items around the home – such as fireplaces, candles, air fresheners, textiles, furniture, cleaning products paint and detergents - add to this, creating  a potent ‘pollutant soup’ in the home. 

Professor Peter Howarth told us, “There is a lot of noise about how outdoor air pollution affects your health, but we should look closer to home as this is where we spend most of our time. Indoor air can be more hazardous than outdoor air, particularly in young children and the elderly and where air quality is poorest. ‘Toxic home syndrome’ occurs when families are exposed to a potent mix of airborne pollutants arising from poor home ventilation, causing respiratory and skin diseases to occur more frequently.”  

If you have damp and mould, NHS Choices tell us that you're more likely to have respiratory problems, respiratory infections, allergies or asthma. Damp and mould can also affect the immune system.

Who's affected? Some people are more sensitive than others, including:

  • babies and children 
  • elderly people 
  • those with existing skin problems, such as eczema 
  • those with respiratory problems, such as allergies and asthma
  • those with a weakened immune system 
  • These people should stay away from damp and mould. 

How does it affect your health?  Moulds produce allergens (substances that can cause an allergic reaction), irritants and, sometimes, toxic substances. Inhaling or touching mould spores may cause an allergic reaction, such as sneezing, a runny nose, red eyes and skin rash. Moulds can also cause asthma attacks. 

Causes of damp and mould  Mould and damp are caused by excess moisture. Moisture in buildings can be caused by leaking pipes, rising damp in basements or ground floors, or rain seeping in because of damage to the roof or around window frames.

A newly-built home may be damp if the water used when building it is still drying out – for example, in the plaster on the walls. Excess moisture indoors can also be caused by condensation. 

If you have mould or damp it's important to find out why you have excess moisture in your home. When you know what's causing the damp, you can make sure your home is repaired or take steps to limit the moisture in the air. You may need to get a professional to remove mould for you, but if it's only a small amount you may be able to remove it yourself. 

Condensation Excess moisture indoors can also be caused by condensation. Condensation forms when the air indoors can't hold any more moisture. Cooking, showering, drying clothes indoors and breathing without adequate ventilation can all cause excess moisture. Droplets can form on indoor surfaces such as mirrors, windowsills and on walls, particularly when they're cold.

You can help prevent the build-up of condensation by:

  • putting lids on saucepans, drying washing outside and avoiding using paraffin or bottled gas heaters 
  • opening the bedroom window for 15 minutes each morning 
  • making sure your home is well insulated 
  • heating your home a little more 
  • ventilating rooms regularly and leaving doors open to allow air to circulate, unless you're cooking or showering 
  • if you're cooking, showering or bathing – opening the window, putting the fan on and closing the door of the room you're in 

Repairs may be needed to get rid of any leaks or to improve ventilation. Once your home has been repaired, or if your home is damp because it's newly built, it may take weeks of heating and ventilating it to dry it out.

How to remove mould  Once you've identified and fixed the source of moisture in your home you can get rid of any mould. You may be able to remove mould yourself, or you may need to get a professional to remove it. 

Only remove mould yourself if it's caused by condensation and covers an area less than one metre squared (1x1 metre or 3x3 feet). Don’t try to remove the mould yourself if it’s caused by sewage or other contaminated water. 

Protect yourself from mould spores by wearing goggles, long rubber gloves and a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Open the windows but keep doors closed to prevent spores spreading to other areas of the house.

Have a plastic bag ready to take away any soft furnishings, clothes and soft toys that are mouldy. Soft furnishings should be shampooed and clothes professionally dry cleaned. 

Fill a bucket with water and some mild detergent, such as washing up liquid or a soap used for hand-washing clothes. 

Use a rag dipped in the soapy water to carefully wipe the mould off the wall. Be careful not to brush it, as this can release mould spores. 

When you've finished, use a dry rag to remove the moisture from the wall. 

Afterwards, put the rags in a plastic bag and throw them away. 

All the surfaces in the room should be thoroughly cleaned by either wet wiping or vacuuming to remove any spores. 

Top tips for a healthy home

  1. Look into different ventilation options such as household mechanical ventilation systems which provide clean air or extractor fans. The bathroom is the most common place in the home where condensation builds up so it is essential that it is properly ventilated to reduce the risk of mould spores growing.
  2. Use eco friendly cleaning products - some everyday cleaning products contain chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can be dangerous for your respiratory health.
  3. Consider wood flooring - carpets can harbour dust, dirt, dander, bacteria and cleaning products which can be hard to get out and release potentially harmful substances into the air, worsening your indoor air quality.
  4. Dry your washing outside otherwise make sure your windows are open if you have to dry it inside to reduce VOC levels indoors.
  5. Take your shoes off at the door so pollen, dirt, soil etc from outdoors is not spread around your home.


Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.