9 Ordinary Things in Your Home That Can Damage Your Lungs

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021

From frustrating irritation to life-threatening cancer, these items could cause lung problems you won’t want to deal with.

lung organ 3d medical illustration
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Items at home that mess with your lungs

Home should ideally be as safe and comfortable as possible. But you might be using or storing some products in your house that can hurt your lungs or making you sick. Here’s what to do to avoid irritation and how to use these items safely, according to experts.

bleach cleaning products
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Heavy-duty disinfectants like bleach, chlorine, and ammonia can be irritants to people with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it could also cause asthma in people who never had it before. In most cases, you can probably substitute these harsh cleaning products for simple soap and water, says George Friedman-Jimenez, MD, DrPH, assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine. “People usually assume germs around the house need to be disinfected, but in reality, soap and water, or even just water, remove a great majority of bacteria and viruses,” he says. If you are trying to kill a specific infection, like if a family member has the flu, make sure to dilute your cleaning solution so that it’s somewhere between one part bleach to ten or 100 parts water—most people use too strong of a solution, Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says.

close up of carpet in home
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Carpets and rugs trap way more dust than hard flooring does. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dust mites are one of the most common indoor asthma triggers. “If you’re walking, the particles that get in there stir up and settle back down,” says Janice Nolen, former Assistant Vice President of National Policy for the American Lung Association. Unless your lungs are extra sensitive from asthma or COPD, you probably won’t start coughing from one experience with a dusty carpet, she says. But if you have kids who like playing on the floor, the accumulated dust could start to bother their lungs. That’s why it’s important to know how to get rid of the dust in your house.

vacuum cleaner in living room
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Be careful when you’re cleaning those dust-heavy floors—vacuuming and sweeping could raise up even more dust. While the dust is airborne, people with nasal allergies (about 50 million Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America) could experience symptoms, Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says. “It’s not a severe medical problem, but it is annoying and can be disabling,” he says. To kick up less dust, he recommends damp mopping floors rather than dry sweeping and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which is a fine filter that reduces dust.

home basement
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Your basement

The rock and soil under your home could contain radon, an odorless, radioactive natural gas. If radon enters your home through joints and flooring and breaks down, you could be inhaling toxic, radioactive compounds. Radon exposure is the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Test your home for radon, then get the gas out for good. “Fans aren’t solutions. When you shut your windows, it would build back up again,” Nolen says. Your safest bet is to invest in a ventilation system that you can keep going through any weather. And consider adding some nature to your house and cleaning the air with these plants.

bathroom sink
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Your bathroom sink

Mold growing in your home could trigger symptoms in people with allergy or asthma, or cause new cases in people who didn’t have them before. It’s especially common in spots with excessive moisture, like under the sink, around bathroom windows and walls, and carpet that’s been exposed to flooding, Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says. “We recommend to number one, find and fix the source of moisture, and number two, identify areas where mold has contaminated,” he says. To keep mold from growing back, you might have to fully replace the material, which could involve major repairs, he says. Don’t miss the other ways doctors allergy-proof their home.

spraying pesticides for bugs in home
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Sprays designed to control cockroaches or bedbugs could cause lung problems if you don’t follow the instructions properly. The directions on the container will probably prevent any issues from inhaling the product, but it’s never a bad idea to make sure the room is well ventilated. “How much you need, whether it’s to open all the windows or just one window is a matter of judgment,” Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says. “Ventilation doesn’t hurt, and in some cases could avoid a problem.”

overhead shot of open paint bucket with paintbrush
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If you’re renovating a room or a piece of furniture, make sure to let fresh air circulate. Paints often emit potentially harmful chemicals called VOCs when you open the paint can or as the color is drying. “They range from simply irritating things to things that can be recognized as carcinogens, like formaldehyde,” Nolen says. She suggests putting a fan in the window to pull air out while paint is drying, and take any furniture that you’re refinishing outside.

wood burning stove in living room of home
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Wood-burning stove

“We think of wood-burning stoves as a wonderfully warm thing, but it’s also a course of pollution,” Nolen says. The fire can emit chemicals like nitrogen oxides and formaldehyde that affect the rest of the community when the stovepipe lets out smoke, she says. Newer models are getting progressively cleaner, she says, and natural gas is an even cleaner option. Especially avoid pressure-treated wood, which has been treated to protect against rotting and insects, and is more toxic than untreated timber, Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says. If you enjoy making fires, don’t burn the treated lumber from old fences, swing sets, or stairs, which could lead you to breathe in high levels of the toxin chromated copper arsenate, he says. (Here are 12 other things that pollute the air inside your home.)

home insulation
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Older homes might contain asbestos. Before the product was banned for indoor use in 1973 because it can cause pulmonary fibrosis and mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissue lining the lungs and other organs, the material was commonly used for insulation. If it’s in good condition or totally covered by thick paint, it won’t cause a problem, but be cautious if old insulation is damaged. “If it’s in poor condition or you see pieces flaking off or it’s broken or there are chips on the floor, it should be tested for asbestos,” Dr. Friedman-Jimenez says. Next, check out the surprising ways to cut down indoor air pollution.