What to look for before you buy asthma- and allergy-friendly products
Even if your asthma or allergies are under control with medication, keeping your home as free of allergens as possible is always a wise move. And given that about 60 million Americans suffer from allergies, asthma, or both, it’s no surprise that many household product manufacturers now market items, from vacuum cleaners to furniture polish to bedding, as "asthma and allergy friendly."
The notion of such products is appealing, as an extensive body of evidence shows that decreasing exposure to indoor allergens can reduce the risk of an asthma or allergy attack. However, only a small number of these products have undergone rigorous scientific research to find out if they actually live up to their asthma- and allergy-friendly claims.
That said, some products might still be worth a try. Here’s how to determine which ones might be right for you.
Finding Asthma- and Allergy-Friendly Products
One way to find out if a product is asthma or allergy friendly is to look for the seal of approval from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). The AAFA is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting asthma and allergies.
Under the AAFA’s recently created Asthma and Allergy Friendly Certification Program, manufacturers can voluntarily submit their products for testing, and those that meet or exceed certain standards (set by government or industry or prevailing medical opinion) are permitted to label those items with the group’s certification mark. For a list of certified products, go to www.asthmaandallergyfriendly.com and click on Certified Products.
To receive the seal of approval, here is what the AAFA looks for:
Pillows, comforters, and other bedding can’t contain chemicals known to be allergenic or irritating—including toluene, pesticides, azo dyes, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs; chemicals emitted as colorless gases from certain solids and liquids). Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are two well-known VOCs.
AAFA-certified fabrics must meet the criteria above. In addition, they must provide an adequate barrier to household allergens, such as mold spores and dust mites and should be able to withstand repeated washing.
You may wonder, Is it really worth the effort to battle the dust mites in your home? After all, a recent review of 54 studies of house dust-mite control measures for asthma found that the number of people with asthma who improved after using some type of dust-mite control measure was nearly identical to the number in the control groups who didn’t mite proof their homes.
In spite of this finding, most experts continue to recommend dust-mite control measures for people with asthma. So if you have asthma and find that it has improved since you’ve taken steps to mite proof your home, don’t stop. And if you haven’t taken steps to control dust mites in your home, it won’t hurt to try, particularly if your asthma is not under control.
Asthma- and allergy-friendly floor coverings do not attract allergens, are easy to clean, do not release airborne allergens during cleaning or installation, and have low levels of VOCs and other irritating chemicals.
To qualify for AAFA certification, washing machines must be able to kill dust mite eggs (wash water must reach at least 131 degrees F), must inactivate or kill 95% of all allergens, and must not emit ozone.
These devices must reduce airborne allergens below certification levels via a filter and not simply redistribute the allergens. Air cleaners must also not emit ozone.
To get the AAFA seal of approval, a vacuum cleaner must remove at least 50% of dust mite and cat allergens from carpeting, even when the vacuum bag is partially full. And it must not generate airborne irritants during bag changing and removal.
Paint products must not release VOCs and, once applied, must dry in under three hours.
All AAFA-certified cleaning products are required to remove dust mite and cat allergens from hard surfaces and must not release airborne chemicals and other VOCs.
Choose Asthma- and Allergy-Friendly Products Wisely
Unfortunately, not every product that claims to be asthma and allergy friendly has been submitted to the AAFA for certification, and you won’t have your own scientific team to determine whether products that aren’t certified meet the AAFA’s standards. So do some research before you buy.
For objective evaluations of products, check Consumer Reports magazine or its website (www.consumerreports.org).
Also, various associations offer advice about selecting asthma- and allergy-friendly products, and some have their own certification programs. For example, the Carpet and Rug Institute has a Green Label certification program. Products that carry the Green Label are certified to be among the lowest VOC-emitting carpets, adhesives, and cushions on the market.
Other products may not need special certification if you know what to look for. For example, many paint manufacturers sell a line of low-VOC paints that meet or exceed federal limits (250 g/L for flat paints and 380 g/L for other types). If you’re buying a portable air cleaner, check the clean air delivery rate (CADR); this is a measure of the rate at which smoke, dust, and pollen are removed from the air. A separate rating is supplied for each of those pollutants. In general, the higher the CADR, the better.
Know Your Asthma and Allergy Triggers
Before you spend a bundle on these products, think about your specific triggers. For example, if animal dander triggers your symptoms, you may benefit from a mattress cover that helps contain or eliminate it. Of course, investing in an asthma- and allergy-friendly appliance, such as a vacuum or washing machine, is a no-lose proposition for most, since these items reduce multiple triggers.
What Else Can You Do to Reduce Asthma and Allergy Symptoms?
Any asthma- and allergy-friendly products will be most effective when used with these tips:
Clean and unclutter surfaces
Bare floors and walls are best (particularly in the bedroom, where you spend one third of your time). Throw rugs that can be washed are preferable to carpet. Dust hard surfaces with a damp cloth.
Vacuum once or twice a week, ideally with a vacuum that has a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, to keep allergens to a minimum. Wear a mask while vacuuming to avoid inhaling allergens, and stay out of the just-vacuumed area for 20 minutes to allow any dust and allergens to settle.
Wash bedding weekly
Wash sheets, pillows, and blankets once a week in hot water (131 degrees F or higher) to kill dust mites. A study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that machine washing bedding removes 60 to 80% of dust mites; when liquid chlorine bleach is added to the wash, only 2% of the dust mites survive. The remaining mites will continue to multiply, so wash bedding regularly to keep them under control. Also encase your bedding in allergen-impermeable covers.
Avoid animal dander
If you have a pet with fur or feathers, ban it from your bedroom.
Close windows and doors
Use air conditioning rather than opening windows to keep pollen at bay. This tactic also helps control dust mites by reducing humidity. Change filters often in window air conditioning units.
Avoid mold spores
Reduce moisture around the bathroom, kitchen, and other areas where it tends to collect. A dehumidifier will help reduce both mold and dust mites. Rid your yard of moldy firewood and piles of leaves and weeds and avoid having too many house plants.
Roaches produce a dander that can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms in some people. Discourage them by keeping food and garbage sealed or covered. Baits, boric acid, and traps are preferable to potentially irritating chemical pesticides for roach control.