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Living Space: Monitor your home for increased fire, air quality risks

By Kathryn Weber
Feb. 21, 2013 at midnight
Updated Feb. 20, 2013 at 8:21 p.m.

"A generation ago, it took 29 minutes for a living room to become fully engulfed in flames," says building materials expert Hasbrook. "Today, it only takes three to four minutes."

As consumers, we've become accustomed to looking for labels that certify a product as organic, environmentally sound or grown without pesticides or hormones. Yet rarely do we think about the safety of a product labeled "green" or "environmentally friendly," because those terms promise safety. This is false, and in fact, home safety risks are rising.

Taking a few simple steps can help ensure that our homes look good and are genuinely safe and environmentally friendly.

Indoor air quality

According to the Greenguard Environmental Institute (, dedicated to improving indoor air quality and reducing chemical exposure, Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time inside, and indoor air can often be 10 times more polluted than outside air. From the gases given off by carpeting and fabric to cleaning chemicals circulating indoors, the air in our homes can be hazardous to our health.

Homeowners looking for products they can safely use in the home around children, or that won't harm indoor air quality, can check the Greenguard site, which features a directory of products that meet the institute's indoor air quality standards. This is especially helpful if you're buying new furniture, renovating after a storm, remodeling or building a new home because you'll be able to select products you can count on.

Fire hazards

In addition to indoor pollution, today's consumers have another serious concern: fire.

"Since the 1970s, fires have been cut in half, but the number of fire deaths hasn't gone down," says Chris Hasbrook, vice president of building materials, fire and life safety for Underwriters Laboratories ( According to Hasbrook, today's homeowners have an increased risk of dying in a fire despite widespread use of smoke alarms. He attributes this to the increased number of synthetic and petroleum based building and furnishing products over the past 20-plus years - the same products often implicated in reduced indoor air quality.

"A generation ago, it took 29 minutes for a living room to become fully engulfed in flames," says Hasbrook. "Today, it only takes three to four minutes." Simply put, we have significantly less time to get to safety in the event of a fire, and if there is a fire in the home, we're at greater risk of dying as a result.

"No one thinks a fire can happen to them," says Hasbrook, "until it happens to them."

This is why checking on the safety of the products used in the home is so important; it could save your life and that of your family.

Improving home safety

Hasbrook points to a number of factors that can help your home withstand a fire. A fast way to improve home fire safety? Finish the basement.

"A basement with engineered wooden I-beams that catches fire can cause a house to collapse in six minutes, as opposed to 16 minutes with traditional lumber," says Hasbrook. For that reason, he recommends putting sheetrock around any exposed beams, especially if they're made of engineered wood, which burns faster and hotter than standard wood.

Kathryn Weber is a home and decorating columnist and publishes the Red Lotus Letter feng shui ezine. For more information, contact Weber through her website,



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