Housing is a necessary component of well-being. There are many types of accommodation: high-rise apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes.
Many homeowners are converting their basements into apartments due to the high cost of living in large cities and elsewhere.
Can you get sick from living in a basement? Yes, you can get sick from living in a basement due to stagnant airflow and the buildup of moisture. The air quality in your typical basements is deficient, which can cause you to become anywhere from slightly to gravely ill. From gas to mold to harmful chemicals, there are numerous ways that something in the basement air can make you sick.
This article contains essential information about indoor air pollution that everyone — homeowners and apartment dwellers — should know to protect their health and the health of their loved ones.
Common Problems with Basement Living
A basement is not always the most pleasant place to live in any case. One reason is that, typically, basements lack direct sunlight.
Sunlight helps combat depression by boosting serotonin levels in the brain, and a lack of sunshine can increase your risk of depression (source).
There are also so-called basement apartments that are cellars cut up into rooms, including a bathroom. You will often see this type of apartment in a city where there are many low-income individuals in need of an inexpensive place to live.
Often, these apartments found in private homes are not legal conversions, and therefore the hazards to one’s health are innumerable.
These living spaces have only one way out and may only have one or two windows. It’s not uncommon for the tenants to use propane tanks for heating and cooking, which cause further problems.
On a more positive note, improvements in building materials, radon remediation, and other techniques to reduce or even eliminate the hazards of underground living can make an otherwise unused space into a very comfortable living space (source).
There are challenges to converting an otherwise unused damp basement into a liveable space. First, you need to prevent dampness in your basement as much as possible, and you may need to have someone install drainage outside around the foundation.
Placing waterproof membranes under flooring and behind walls will also help. You may also want to purchase a dehumidifier, which will help remove excess humidity.
Mold and Mildew
With the low airflow of your typical basement, mold and mildew can become a particular concern since they thrive in damp environments.
Particular trouble areas for mold would be leaks in the windows or pipes, and it can grow on ceiling tiles and wood surfaces.
It can grow in dust, on paint, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery. Mold will have a powerful musty odor in areas not often exposed to outdoor air (source).
One way to combat mold and mildew is to keep the moisture levels in your home between 30 to 50% humidity. Air conditioners and dehumidifiers work well to keep the moisture in your home at low levels during humid weather (source).
If the basement has a bathroom, you must make sure you adequately vent it. Avoid putting carpeting in the basement, even if adequately sealed, since these will collect moisture.
If you have mold and mildew, there are numerous resources available to help you rid your home of it, but for more severe mold problems, you should consult with a professional.
For more information on how you can test for and combat mold, read our article “Does an Air Quality Test Detect Mold?”
Mites are small arthropods found in everyday household dust, and they are linked to allergies and asthma. The more humid your home, the more dust you will have, and basements tend to be very dusty places.
Bacteria and Viruses
Bacteria and viruses also thrive in a moist environment, a key consideration especially during the current COVID-19 crisis.
On top of ensuring proper ventilation, you can use air purifiers, and make sure to change your filters regularly and keep the basement clean.
Living in a basement apartment leaves you open not only to noise from outside, such as traffic, but also the noise of those living above you.
Consistent noise such as shouting, loud music, walking, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, and noisy children can all affect your health and sleep patterns.
In an article published by WebMD entitled “Night Noise Boosts Blood Pressure,” Elisabeth Bergman points out that noise can lead to higher blood pressure, hypertension, an increased risk of stroke, and kidney disease.
There are numerous ways to help soundproof your basement using acoustic foam or insulation, as well as making sure you have a properly-sealed ceiling.
Humans need sunshine and the sight of nature to be happy and healthy. Basements tend to be darker than the rest of the house, even if they have windows.
Sunlight elevates mood while aiding vitamin D production, the production of essential hormones such as melatonin associated with sleep, and serotonin production associated with mood.
If you are living in a dark basement, you may find yourself having trouble sleeping and suffer from irritability.
Adequate sleep allows one to be productive, alert, and mentally ready to take on the day’s challenges (source). If a lack of sunshine in the apartment is a problem, recessed lighting and other lighting techniques can be very effective.
Also of paramount concern in a basement is thermal comfort since basements can be very humid in the summer and especially cold in the winter. It can be a balancing game in a home as well when every person has a different comfort level.
In the winter, basements tend to get colder since hot air rises and cold air sinks. The basement will need to be adequately insulated and sealed, and a ceiling fan may help to keep warm air circulating in the basement.
Ventilation and Air Quality
Proper ventilation in the basement has a direct effect on indoor air quality and is directly related to your health. Without adequate ventilation, you may start to experience frequent headaches, stuffy nose, or even certain aches and pains.
Inadequate ventilation can affect moisture and temperature, as previously discussed, but it also fails to get rid of harmful substances frequently found in basements like asbestos, radon, and lead, as well as combustion contaminants such as carbon dioxide.
Due to its versatility and insulating properties, you can often find asbestos in flooring, ceiling tiles, pipe covers, around boilers, furnaces, and ducts (source).
The primary health concern involving asbestos from housing materials is loose fibers that can cause lung cancer (source).
Asbestos is relatively harmless if left undisturbed. However, once the material becomes damaged, the tiny fibers are released into the air, where anyone can inhale them.
The EPA and CSPC have banned the use of asbestos in many products, and manufacturers have reduced their use of asbestos.
Never remove the materials yourself; hire a company that is knowledgeable and has a good reputation for asbestos removal. It is always better to err on the side of caution.
Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, radioactive gas that is released by uranium-rich granite and found in soil (source). When inhaled, the particles settle into the bronchial airways and is a leading cause of lung cancer.
Radon can be found everywhere across the United States. It seeps into basements through cracks in the foundation, holes, drains, water from a well, pipes, and small open spaces (source).
Radon forces its way inside because there is a difference between the outside and inside air pressure. The air pressure in the soil around the foundation of your house is greater than the air pressure inside.
When buying a home, testing for radon is standard. However, radon levels change over time, and you should test for radon periodically. Testing kits are available for sale and relatively easy to use, saving you the expense of a professional test.
If performing the test for radon yourself, it is crucial to keep in mind that the radon levels in the basement will be more than twice that of the first floor.
Once radon is detected, it is relatively inexpensive to mitigate. Like asbestos, hire a trained contractor to ensure a job done right.
A system to reduce the radon in your home can cost approximately $800 to $2500 depending upon the method you choose and the contractor.
Another fact to keep in mind is most systems will result in some loss of heat or air conditioning and could raise your utility bill.
Lead is a natural substance found in the earth’s crust, but it is toxic to life. Lead is everywhere, in the air, soil, water, and inside our homes. The lead in soil, household dust, and water takes many years to decompose and poses a high health risk.
Lead accumulates in our bodies, where our bodies store it in our bones with calcium. Even at low levels, lead can cause behavior and learning problems in children, lower IQ, hyperactivity, slow growth, hearing problems, and anemia.
When a woman is pregnant, her bones release calcium. Unfortunately for the baby, so is the stored lead. The lead the baby is ingesting can cause premature birth, low birth weight, damage to the brain, kidneys, and nervous system (source).
Adults exposed to lead can also suffer serious health issues. They are more at risk for cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, compromised kidney function, and even fertility issues (source).
Living in a basement also exposes you to higher concentrations of combustion contaminants such as nitrogen oxides. This exposure is yet another reason why your basement must have proper ventilation to prevent you from becoming ill.
Combustion contaminants are particles and gases released into the air when something burns. Common exposure risks found in basements include furnaces, gas stoves, water heaters, fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves.
When appliances are not adequately maintained and are poorly-vented, these contaminants will not cycle outdoors, increasing air pollution indoors (source).
Indoor air pollution can contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, organic contaminants, biological contaminants, and allergens.
Nitrogen oxides found in basements come from the incomplete burning of fuel, such as from wood-burning stoves or a gas stove with the pilot light out.
Nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxide are the most well-known nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen dioxide is corrosive because it is a highly reactive oxidant (source).
Nitrogen dioxide is an irritant that affects the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract. In very high doses, it can cause pulmonary edema and lung issues. If you have continued exposure, it may lead to acute bronchitis, which can become chronic.
Even at a nominal level, nitrogen dioxide can cause problems for asthmatics, lower lung function for people with chronic lung disease, and increase the risk of respiratory tract infections (source).
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Living in a basement leaves you open to carbon monoxide exposure. There are four primary causes of CO: auto exhaust, fire furnaces, wood-burning stoves, and fireplaces, and, lastly, paint strippers or solvents that contain methylene chloride.
Carbon monoxide is another colorless and odorless gas. It interferes with the delivery of oxygen throughout the body (source).
The presence of carbon monoxide will most likely cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion, disorientation, fatigue (in an otherwise healthy person), and those with a chronic heart condition may experience additional episodes of chest pain (source).
In highly concentrated levels, carbon monoxide is deadly. Have your central heating system, as well as chimneys and flues, cleaned and inspected every year to limit CO.
Organic compounds are chemicals that contain carbon.
When considering indoor air pollution in the basement of a home, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are of the greatest concern. VOCs are in many of the most common household and building materials.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs have a high vapor pressure and have a low solubility to water. Many are man-made and used in paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants.
Homeowners and homebuilders use many building materials, paints, paint strippers, solvents, and wood preservatives in remodeling basements and, unless adequately vented, these will cause health issues.
Also included in this list are laminate flooring, rugs, and even the furniture.
Basements, being partially underground, also tend to have a lot of insects, and pesticides contain high concentrations of VOCs. VOCs are also in aerosol sprays, cleaners, disinfectants, moth repellents, air fresheners, and hobby supplies (source).
If the basement is used as extra living space, chances are part of the basement is still used as storage. Many people tend to store fuels and automotive products in this space (source).
On occasion, a product may emit VOCs while in storage, and the VOCs also remain in the air for a long time after use.
You may experience irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat, nausea, headaches, or central nervous system issues such as a lack of coordination and kidney or liver damage.
Scientists know that some of these organic compounds cause cancer, while they suspect other compounds as well. Studies on the effects of VOCs are ongoing, uncovering new information every day.
Formaldehyde (HCHO) is the most well-known of the aldehyde family. Exposure to this gas is from “off-gassing.” Off-gassing is when products release the chemicals and particulates into the air (source).
Formaldehyde is in composite wood, insulation, paints, fertilizers, pesticides, unvented gas-burning appliances, and cigarette smoke.
In addition to formaldehyde, other commonly-encountered aldehydes include acetaldehyde, acrolein, glutaraldehyde, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Exposure can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea, headache, tightness in the chest, and asthma.
Scientists have linked pesticides to many fatal conditions such as cancer, leukemia, liver damage, and still-birth. Other problems include genetic damage, miscarriages, thyroid issues, diabetes, neuropathy, asthma, among other autoimmune disorders (source).
Hydrocarbons are organic compounds made of only hydrogen and carbon atoms that occur in petroleum, natural gas, and coal (source). The safety concern of hydrocarbons comes mainly from contaminated soil around buildings.
Benzine, found in hydrocarbons, can easily leak into basements through cracks and holes and causes leukemia.
Ventilate Your Basement
With the abundance of possible air contaminants, it is clear why the proper ventilation of a basement is so imperative to your health.
Opening windows and doors is one way to bring fresh air in and let old air out. However, basement apartments tend to have only a couple of windows on only one side, which may not be enough to ventilate the air properly.
Having permanently-sealed windows is not practical for a basement apartment where one may need to open the windows.
The natural ventilation method is also heavily dependent on the weather and where you live. If it is cold or very hot, chances are you will not want to keep your windows or doors open.
If some will be living in a basement, you will want to install a basement exhaust fan and vent, especially if you don’t have basement windows. You should locate the exhaust fan near trouble areas like around the furnace so it can pump out any harmful chemicals.
You can even install humidity sensors that will detect when excess moisture is in the air and switch of the exhaust fans.
A heat recovery ventilator uses the cooled or heated air that leaves the house to heat or cool the returning outside air. This system increases the ventilation in your home but can result in significantly higher energy bills.
It is not easy to find affordable housing, especially in or near cities. Basement apartments generally offer this option. Basements also provide the advantage of extra living space for a family, such as a spare bedroom or family room.
However, basement living can be very hazardous to your health. Radon, lead, pollen, mold, mildew, simple house dust, and lack of sunlight, all pose health risks. Before renting or moving downstairs, be sure to take precautions to ensure your health.
Before you move in, ask if radon is present and, if so, has it been taken care of. Check for signs of mold and mildew, VOCs, and other hazardous substances. Make sure someone has properly ventilated the area because you deserve to be safe, healthy, and happy.