Improving our Homes for Eczema Children – Minimizing Indoor Allergens (House Dust Mites, Mold, Cockroach)

Celia Imrey is an architect and co-founder of SpaceKit; she graduated from Yale University (Masters of Architecture) and Brown University (Bachelor of Art and Semiotics, Magna Cum Laude). She is an Associate at the American Institute of Architects and is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional) Accredited Professional. She has taught architecture and art courses at Yale, Brown, Columbia/Barnard and NYU.

This was originally a two-part series combined into one informative post.

For parents with eczema children, it is very likely you’ve ‘scanned’ your homes looking for possible triggers of eczema flare-ups (I know I did!). Whilst most of us think about our bed sheets, our laundry and carpets, we may not think about the layout and materials of our homes.

MarcieMom: Hi Celia, it’s so good to have you share with us on improving our homes. It’s also the first time I’ve an architect as featured guest, so I’m excited for the fresh perspective your interview will give to readers of this blog.

Common Indoor Allergens

The common indoor allergens are dust mites, mold, pet dander and cockroaches (droppings). We will consider how we can improve our home environment to minimize indoor allergen. Let’s start with the dreaded, all pervasive dust mites!

Dust Mites – Eczema Trigger for Children

Dust mite is a very common trigger of eczema for children, and more of it can be read in this post. They thrive in room temperature, humid environment and feeds on our dead skin. There are different allergens within the dust mite dropping, and they vary in particle size which renders some airborne while others tend to stay on surfaces. It may trigger different allergic conditions and symptoms for different ones in your family, depending in part, whether their airways or their skin is sensitized to the allergen.

Measures to reduce house dust mites are listed here, and they include removing carpets and stuff toys, washing in above 60 degC water and getting dust mite covers.

MarcieMom: Let’s suppose we are not changing where we live, but able to change our room layout and materials we use (ie major renovation):

Reducing Dust Mite through Home Design

Do the materials which we use for our floor, and for our walls, make a difference?

For instance, will certain wall materials or paint or finishing increase the surfaces for dust mites to live while others make it more difficult for them to thrive?

Celia: At Space Kit, we recommend using natural materials where possible, especially for carpets. Dust mites take refuge in carpets but can’t live on hard surfaces like wood floors or plastic. Wherever you have carpets or rugs, use wool. The natural lanolin in wool repels dust mites.  Paint does not affect dust mites that we know.

The natural lanolin in wool repels dust mites. 

How Home Design Affect Humidity & Dust Mite Growth

Is there a way to manage the humidity of our home?

Both in the overall sense, meaning to reduce trapping moisture in our home; and also particular to the child’s bedroom, should it be say further away from the bathroom or have windows positioned a certain area (or if windows can’t be moved, for the bed to be positioned differently)?

Celia: Proper natural and mechanical ventilation are essential for healthy living, especially in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry areas. A well designed home takes air circulation (and thus temperature and humidity) into account; there is directionality to air circulation, and Mechanical Spaces (where air handling equipment are) are designed in relation to the spaces they serve in order to maximize air circulation and minimize dead air pockets. Humid conditions can be countered using air conditioning and ensuring that windows are fully sealed when closed. Furniture placement near humid areas will encourage mites.

Humid conditions can be countered using air conditioning and ensuring that windows are fully sealed when closed.

Designing a Home to be Cool without Drying Child’s Skin

MarcieMom: For a child with eczema, like mine, needs to be kept cool and so sleeps in air-conditioned room. As the air-con dries the air, I actually have a humidifier on. The risk of a humidifier is of course it promotes the growth of dust mites and mold.

Do you have a solution to keeping the room cool, without making it dry or too moist?

Celia: You could cool the air before having your child sleep in the room. This will minimize the amount of time the child sleeps in dry air.  You could use the smaller, directional humidifiers to provide humid air only to the pillow area and then remove and treat the linens each day. It’s a lot of changing sheets but very hot water kills mites immediately, so regular laundering should be part of your solution if you use a humidifier.

Sunlight and Ventilation in Child’s Room Design

MarcieMom: Sunning and ventilation helps to remove dust mites.

What factors should we consider so that our bedroom can have sufficient sunlight and ventilation?

Celia: We love sunning and ventilation at Space Kit too! Light materials and paint colors help bounce light around. For bedrooms, use window treatment that provides sufficient privacy when open.  If you like sleeping in a dark space but have a privacy issue, you will need two kinds of window treatment, one for darkening the room and one for providing privacy while letting light (and some air) in.  Quality window treatment that is easy to use is critical.  You need to be able to operate it or pull back the curtains with a simple hook or tie.  Ease of use encourages you to use your windows to live in a healthier manner.

Mold, Another Common Eczema Trigger

Mold is another common indoor allergen and more of it can be read from CDC. Like house dust mite, they thrive in room temperature and humid environment. Their feeds include materials like wood, leather, dead skin and cotton and wool fibres. Mold spores are airborne and trigger symptoms and conditions such as watery eyes, sore throat, respiratory issues, nasal congestion, eczema and even asthma. Minimizing mold growth can be via control of temperature, control of humidity and reducing their food.

Choice of Home Materials on Mold

MarcieMom: As I’m preparing for this, I’m surprised to learn that many building materials are food sources for mold, including wallpaper glue, greases, paper, textiles and wood. 

Do you have suggested common materials to use for our walls and floors, and in our bathroom, so that there is less food for the mold?

Celia: Solutions that resist mold are a fundamental part of Space Kit’s designs. There are many design considerations to make with regard to moisture. Good designs don’t leak, cause condensation, or trap moisture. Some options include using good quality door seals and gaskets for shower doors. Usage of moisture and mold resistant backer boards and vapour barriers.

Are there other areas in our home that traps moisture easily and what can we do about them (both during renovation and on maintenance basis)? 

I’ve read that certain paints, leaks, damp basements, poor drainage or plumping traps moisture, and also condensation on cool surfaces can increase mold.

Celia: Basically mold feeds on untreated, natural surfaces. Space Kit promotes the use of natural materials, like stone, ceramics, plaster and wood and we advocate finishing them properly. For example, wood is a beautiful home material, especially for floors, but it needs to be finished properly, so use varnishes, stains, paints, and fill all the cracks. In using any natural material, make sure all the surfaces are coated and maintained.  Wool carpets are dyed and the dye is bound with a sealer. If you keep carpets clean and off any floors that have moisture issues like concrete floors in a basement, they should not feed mold. Space Kit’s window treatments use materials that hinder mold, like synthetic materials. For bathrooms, we recommend tiling the full walls.

Note: be vigilant about spotting mold: undersides of tables, on ceilings, etc. and treat immediately before it spreads.

What about the selection of cabinets, walls, wall coverings, bookshelves and also the positioning of furniture? Do these affect mold growth?

Celia: None of these affect mold growth if there if proper air circulation.

Bathroom Design on Mold Growth

MarcieMom: My guess on the common area in our homes where mold thrive is the bathroom where it is often damp. 

What are your recommendations to minimize mold in bathroom?

Celia: Our designs are intended to minimize moisture retention, for example, we like glass shower doors (with systematic wipe-down after showering) instead of curtains. Proper ventilation for bathrooms and dryers is critical.

Cockroach – The Yucky Eczema Trigger

Cockroach, more precisely the allergens found in their droppings, saliva and bodies, is another common indoor allergen. From the AAFA website, it is mentioned that When one roach is seen in the basement or kitchen, it is safe to assume that at least 800 roaches are hidden under the kitchen sink, in closets and the like’.

Cockroaches thrive in warm and humid environment, and they feed on our food (thrash, scraps, starch) and water. The particle sizes of cockroach allergen are large and tend to settle on surfaces. They not only worsen allergic conditions, but carry bacteria.  Symptoms or conditions of allergy to cockroach may be itchy eyes, itchy skin, eczema rashes, nasal congestion, asthma and allergic rhinitis. Minimizing the growth of cockroach can be done by observing hygiene and minimizing their food source, water and shelter.

Prevalence of Cockroach Allergen in Dust

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, of the children in the study, “36.8 percent were allergic to cockroach allergen, 34.9 percent to dust-mite allergen, and 22.7 percent to cat allergen. Among the children’s bedrooms, 50.2 percent had high levels of cockroach allergen in dust, 9.7 percent had high levels of dust-mite allergen, and 12.6 percent had high levels of cat allergen”.

I understand that cockroaches hide outside the home, what are the possible areas in our home to ‘seal off’ cockroaches?

Celia: Sealing the hole around the steam pipe and sealing the hole around all plumbing and electrical pipes. Also, you can utilize drain covers to prevent critters from entering up into your home through showers and sinks.

MarcieMom: Chemicals may trigger irritation either in airway or skin for young children. It is best, therefore, to use cockroach trap. This may sound strange, but is there a need to plan ahead where cockroach traps should be placed?

Celia: If proper preventive measures are appropriately taken such as sealing of holes and cracks, then there is no need to plan for precautions.

Safe Chemicals at Home for Children

MarcieMom: While we’re on the topic of chemicals, which are the materials you would commonly recommend that are safe for young children, and for how long would ‘airing’ be required before the family moves into the home?

Celia: Materials with zero or low VOC content are recommended for children and adults. It is best to move in after all the fumes from the paint have disappeared (i.e. that are no off gassing smells) and the home is dust free.

MarcieMom: Thank you so much Celia for helping us improve our homes and minimize the indoor allergens, right from the renovation stage!

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  1. There is an inexpensive friendly solution that continuously improves indoor air quality and removes offensive odors. Air-ReNu is a blend of natural earth minerals made of a variety of elements, aluminum, iron, magnesium, sodium, potassium and lithium. These minerals are finely ground then mixed with paint, when applied to a wall of a home. Air-ReNu works 24/7/365 cleansing the air of impurities one treatment lasts 10-12 years.