Ruth Ann Norton of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative gaves tips for clean and safe homes. | Home Front

Apr 04, 2013

Ruth Ann Norton is executive director of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, which advocates the need for green, healthy and safe homes across the United States. She chatted with readers about protecting families from lead poisoning, mold and other health dangers found in the home.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Welcome to our guest today Ruth Ann Norton who is here to talk about healthy homes. She is the executive director of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. I'm sure we have a lot of questions relating to the health of our homes and paint, cleaning products, etc. so let's get going.

How do I know if I have lead paint in my house? It dates back to the 1930s so I assume I do but what's the best way to check and see?

An important question, especially if there are young children who live in or regularly visit your home (there are over 500,000 kids poisoned by lead every year in the US).  Since your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead.  The best way to check for lead is to hire a certified Lead Risk Asessor.  They will perform an Xray flourescent test for leaded surfaces as well as test for leaded dust.  Lead dust that forms from chipping, peeling or flaking lead-based paint is actually the main pathway for poisoning of young children.  One caution, if you see chipping paint (often looks like old alligator skin) - do not dry scrape it!  To learn safe ways to address lead hazards in your home you can go to and go to "Lead and Other Hazards."  Or go to our joint site with the EPA at

I'm living in a rental with really dirty grout on the bathroom floor. Do you have any suggestions on how I can clean it? Elbow grease and what? Thank you!

While not the most fun job in the world - and yes it will take a lot of elbow grease, you can be green and clean with this one.  Try sprinkling baking soda over the grout (make a small paste with water if the grout is on walls so it sticks) - then dip your grout brush (or even an old toothbrush) into a mixture of white vinegar and water and scrub away.  you will have sparkling grout in no time!

Good morning, I am Ruth Ann Norton, Executive Director of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. I am delighted to join you today and answer questions on how to create, green, healthy and safe homes.  Let"s get started!

Sorry, not a green/healthy home question but I am desperate for help. I have an oddly shaped walk in closet. Think L-shaped, where the top portion of the L is impossible to reach. What on earth can I do with this? If I put full racks/shelves, the back portion is useless. Thought of a shoe cabinet, but it would be blocked by racks/shelves in the bottom portion. ARGH! Thanks in advance.

Could you install some sort of rolling rack that could be pulled out to be more accessible? Check out the offerings at Ikea, Walmart, Lowe's Home Depot orTarget. It is hard to suggest something specific without seeing your space. Consider a consultation from a professional organizer or a custom closet company.

I have noticed an odd smell in certain portions of the house, particularly in the summer. I do not see any signs of mold, but I was wondering how I could find out exactly where it is coming from. Are there any specialists that you could recommend?

Smells are often an important indicator of potential environment health hazards in a home - so definitely pay attention to them.  Another thing to keep in mind is that you may not see the mold and moisture problems that could be lurking behind your walls.  In paying attention to smells - check first to make sure any appliances that use natural gas are in good condition and always make sure you have properly installed and working carbon monoxide detectors.  While the gas itself has no smell, there is often an additive added to help alert residents of gas leaks.  At the first sign of trouble, call your local utility and make sure you ventilate the house and if you can wait at a different location until help arrives.  As for potential mold - you can call specialists who check for mold, mildew and moisture.  Most issues can be addressed by fixing small leaks from washers, dishwashers or faucets - and by also properly caulking around bathtubs and sinks.  Small mold can be removed by mixing a light formula of common bleach and water and scrubbing the area - or buying green mold cleaning products at your local hardware store.  Always try to lay plastic to catch any debris, wear protective gloves and a mask.  larger mold or mildew issues should be addressed by a professional.  Go online to to learn ways to address this issue further.  One last tip - be sure to not allow  areas in basements or around sump pumps to accumulate clutter - and always check your gutters and downspouts to make sure they are working as they too can contribute to mold in the home.

How to clean residue on shower glass doors without chemicals?

Mix one part vinegar to one part water and wash away! 

We have an infestation of crickets on the bottom level of our home. We realize that we need to figure out how they are getting inside, and to seal closed those openings. Our question is: is there any way to trap and remove the live crickets already inside the home without killing them?

Integrated Pest Management for Crickets: 

One quick and fun tip: Put a little molasses in a shallow bowl. Crickets seem love molassess and its a green way to capture them!

· Crickets usually live outside but sometimes will wander into structures either looking for a warm place to stay over the winter or in search of food, water or a moist to live.

· IPM practices for cricket control start on the outside of the home by eliminating moist harborage around the structure (removing rotting wood and leaf litter, weeding plant beds, using less mulch in plant beds).

· In general it’s recommended to clear out a 1 – 1 ½ ft. runway around the home (free of debris or plants) so pests in general would not get close to the structure.

· Most crickets are attracted to light so change outdoor lights to less attractive yellow or sodium vapor bulbs.

· Make sure point of entry to the structure are sealed or screened.

· Mechanical removal with a vacuum cleaner can be effective inside.

· Correct any moisture problems inside, especially in basements.

· Glue traps can also help trap them in dark areas inside the home near the areas where the cricket may hide.


Hi--I use lots of bathroom products I know are not great for the environment. Would appreciate suggestions to keep grout, tiles, shower door, toilet clean without bleach, etc?

You can find great truly green cleaning products at your local grocery stores like Whole Foods and Traders Joe's and even Home Depot and Lowes.  We often use Simple Green to clean up after we perform Healthy Home rehabs in homes.   Be careful though - some companies call their products green, but they are not natural.  Read the label!  but often its vinegar. baking soda, lemons and water that often do the trick. Also try the or for more tips.

We've painted our family room/kitchen Thunder gray from Benjamin Moore, which we're loving. The nearby living room/dining room is currently a jade green (from previous home owners) that needs a change. I'd like to keep a lovely color on the walls, not a neutral, but don't know which would be best near the light gray. Any recommendations?

Almost anything looks good with gray. I like Benjamin Moore Misty Memories, Benjamin Moore Moon Shadow or Benjamin Moore California Blue.

I have a bit of mildew in my basement from time to time. Is this dangerous?


Mold and mildew can be dangerous as they can result in respiratory problems. Ventilation on a daily basis is very important to keep mildew from coming back. If no mechanical ventilation in the bathroom then the window should be opened to allow airflow.  

For safety reasons, to remediate a mold contaminated area > 10 ft2 it is important to use a mold remediation professional, not to do it yourself. 

· For small areas contaminated with mold ( <10 ft2) the first step for mold control is eliminating the moisture source (A potential water source might be water leaking in from the outside because of a defective gutter/downspout system or moisture inside from a leaky pipe or because of excessive moisture producing activities (cooking, showers, laundry, air drying clothes) in combination with poor ventilation in the home. 

· The contaminated area can be cleaned with a detergent solution (not bleach), scrubbed very well, and then dried. Contaminated porous materials such as paper products, drywall, fabrics) is better to discard the material. Other porous material such as grout, bricks, or cement blocks should be sealed so mold would not come back. 



What is a clean & safe home?

A Green & Healthy Home is defined as one that is Dry, Clean, Contaminant -Free, Pest-Free, Safe, Well- Maintained, Well Ventilated, Safe and Energy Efficient. Most of it is common sense - but here's few tips to keep in mind: 

Check your home Radon.  Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer in the US, causing 20,000 deaths each year. Learn more at

Dry - make sure drainage from gutters takes moisture away from your home and check for internal leaks in plumbing.  Mold and mildew is a common trigger for asthma.  As is a home that has pest infestation.  In addressing pests, try not to use harmful sprays but instead use sticky traps, make sure trash cans have lids that close properly and store food in pest resistent containers.  Did you know that asthma is the number one reason kids miss school!

General safety should include having working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.  In addition, make sure loose rugs are secure and that if you have young children you are using cabinet locks to prevent access to harmful materials.  

And make sure your home is properly ventilated and insulated.  To learn more go to to learn more.

Our kitchen designer did a great job of maximizing the space in our small kitchen by creating a slanted pantry. The shelves are in the shape of a triangle and while that isn't a problem for most items (they aren't that deep, so I can see most things by removing a big item or two from the front) I have a problem with the spice storage. I have a lot of spices and I need to remove dozens from that shelf to get to the ones in the back. I would rather not have spice racks on the wall -- I used to have those -- and was thinking of maybe finding some long narrow boxes to put on the shelves (and group the spices in some logical fashion), so that I could at least remove a box to find things, rather than the individual bottles. Is there a better solution? Advice and guidance would be appreciated. Thank you

I think the idea of long narrow plastic bins to put your spices in sounds like a good solution. I have a spice drawer in my kitchen which I really like but it doesn't hold more than 20 bottles of spices. I have the rest in a long bin in one of my cabinets. I would suggest, however, that you do a good spring cleaning of your spices, and look for duplicates and expired dates.

We had lots of crickets when we moved into an older house in Bethesda. Two things helped: First, our cat -- she never got to go outside, but she really wanted to hunt, so she hunted crickets and killed them for us. Unfortunately she always brought them up to the kitchen and left them on the floor for us to find. Second, a dehumidifier in the basement. That really worked wonders. You do have to seal off all the holes, etc., but the dehumidifier made a huge difference for us.

Yes. I agree about the dehumidifier. It makes a huge different in a lot of good ways in the house and cricket elimination is one of them. And even my elderly cat does make a stab at nabbing crickets so that is another good solution.  Thanks.

I know, I know, you get so many more paint questions than you could possibly answer, but... I'm going to ask one anyway. We're planning on repainting the living room shortly. From our front door, you enter directly into the living room. It has a good amount of natural light, but is not particularly large (1920s brick Colonial). We have a navy sofa, blue, brown & ivory rug, some wrought iron, and a very dark brown chair (all fairly small-scale). My husband's leaning towards a blue, but I feel like that might make the room too blue. Any thoughts or suggestions? Mythic paint would be great, but we can also color-match if needed. Thanks!!

I would never be accused of being a decorator - but here it goes - seems to me that a lighter earth tone might work to bring all of those colors together. I think the folks at the paint counters in local hardware stores have a number of  "green" oriented paint products and are really good at answering this type of question. 

Our master bath has two windows which bring in a lot of light but they are the type that don't open. I am thinking about changing out the windows to the kind that open so we have better ventilation in the bathroom. Would that lend itself to keeping the mold and mildew build up down since we would probably have fresh air venting out the bath?

Absolutely.  Fresh air ventilation is really important in places like bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and basements.  Installing vents with fresh air returns are a great step to a healthier home as well.   It is also good for fire safety to have windows that open.

Last year I had all flooring in my home replaced with hardwood floors....tigerwood wide planks. I love them but now have decided to get area rugs. I think the wood is beautiful but think each room needs to be finished off with rugs. I live in NoVa and am wondering if you or the readers have any suggestions for places to go to look at all types and sizes. Thank you.

Make sure if you install or use rugs in your home you have them tacked down properly (to prevent trips and falls), that they do not contain harmful  "VOC's" and that you vacuum them often with a HEPA filtered vacuum to cut down on a build up of allergens.

Is there an effective way to get rid of nests under the eaves of your house without chemicals? We get a lot of sun and a lot of nests. Thanks.

· The best action is prevention.
· Scout from mid-spring on for small nests. Early on a chilly morning, before wasps have revved up for the day, knock down the nests with a pole, a strong jet of water from a hose, or even your kid's super soaker—then step on the nest. If wasps set up shop too close to home (especially in wall voids) and you didn't catch them early, hire a professional to remove the nest.
· Before you start outdoor projects, check for nests in trees with holes in them, decks, railings, eaves, the undersides of outdoor furniture, and branches of trees and shrubs.
· Dealing with wasps outdoors? Remember you are not their prey (unless you accidentally sit on one) so try not to swat them. Lures set far from your picnic table a few days before could help divert them. Cleaning up spilled sweets and keeping garbage cans away from tables will make your picnic area less attractive.
· Mowing over a weedy area? When disturbed by a mower, ground-nesting wasps go into attack mode fast—so be careful. They're more likely to nest in sandy soil and nests only get bigger as the season goes on.

I would love to hire a cleaning service but have been stopped cold by the worry that the products they use would cause breathing problems. Since most commercial products available in the store cause these problems, and professional ones are even stronger and more strongly fragranced, what do I do?

There are Green Cleaning services out there who use only natural products such as baking soda,  lemons and vinegar. One that I have written about in the DC area is called The Green Mop. Many cleaning services will work with you and your ideas about what cleaning products you want used in your home.

I live in 60's ranch "Brady Bunch" style home and it has no ventilation! The ceilings are high slope ceilings with no attic so we know there isnt the typical ventilation of todays homes. What can we do to improve air quality?

While you can you use in home air filtration systems like those produced by Austin Air, the best step you can take is to hire a contractor to install fresh air return vents in your kitchens, baths, laundry rooms and basements.  also, please make sure you use a dryer that vents outside.  If your dryer vents into an indoor water filtration trap, please make sure you empty it and clean it daily.   There are some higher end dryers (European made mainly) that are ventless - but the best step is to ensure venting that moves the air outside.   I will say there is something great to be said for the old fashioned way of drying your clothes in the sunshine or on a dryer rack when reasonable.

I would like to incorporate more green products into my routine - but as a student, I am on a very tight budget. Any recommendations on how to be green on a budget?

Its cheap and easy to be green and clean.  Check out tips at or log on to to learn more.  Here's your shopping list:  Hydrogen Peroxide, baking soda, lemons, and white vinegar.  A couple of brushes and some lint free cloths or even newspaper and you should be good to go!

We appreciate Ruth Ann being with us today to answer some important questions about how healthy our homes are. Next week we'll be discussing the 2013 DCDesign House, a story which we are all very busy working on here at Local Living. We will have lots of photos and information and a designer from the show house will be on the chat on Thursday April 11. So see you then. 

In most (all?) states, the seller has to make a statement about knowledge thereof. Unless they stated specifically that they've tested and there's no lead paint...there's lead paint in a '30's house.

That is correct - in all homes and rental properties  built before 1978, the seller or lessor must make a disclosure about known lead hazards or potential risks in the home under federal law.  All transactions must also provide a copy of the booklet "Protect Your Family from Lead In Your Home."   You can download a copy from ,  or .

Thank you for having me today. For more questions, email us at . Thanks again!

In This Chat
Ruth Ann Norton
Ruth Ann Norton is executive director of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, which encourages different industries to collaborate to efficiently build green, healthy and safe homes across the United States. She also leads the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and is a founding member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission.
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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