How-To Healthy Homes
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Trans 1) Sick Home Syndrome Trans
2) Construction Techniques
3) Finishing Materials
4) Household Hazards

Household Hazards

If you've ever remodeled an old house, you may have unknowingly placed your health at risk: the paint you were sanding (Lead- Based Paint?) or the old steam heat pipes you were tearing out (Asbestos?).

And even in newer homes, there are by- products of new construction materials and techniques that qualify as actual hazards for many people as mentioned in the previous pages.

To conclude this section on healthier homes, we've capsulized important information here on the specific hazards that might threaten you in your own home:


Lead-Based Paint

old paint cans Any home built, or more specifically, painted, before 1978 may have lead-based paint. Lead-based paint becomes hazardous when it chips off or turns to dust. It can cause permanent side-effects when inhaled or swallowed which can go so far as to impair intelligence. It's a big risk to everyone, especially young children.


Pregnant women and kids up to 6 years old are particularly at risk. Adverse effects include reading and hearing disabilities, hyperactivity and sterility.

The Department of Housing & Urban Development estimates that 74% (57 million) of all U.S. houses built before 1980 have some lead-based paint. Adding to that figure, HUD says most homes built before 1960 have significant amounts of lead-based paint.


Have Your House Tested

It's often impossible and impractical to make a house lead-free. However, it isn't difficult to make a home lead-safe. Professional and home test kits are available, but there are some problems:

  • Recently, home kits have been deemed unreliable and sodium-sulfide kits unsafe. We recommend you hire a pro.
  • Your local or county Hazardous Waste Management department, State Department of Health, or the Federal Pollution Control Agency can give you ample information and lists of certified testing and abatement companies.
  • With a pro, the results will be more accurate, useful and safer to you in the long run. Also ask him/her about how to handle your specific situation.

If you're not going to hire professional, you should still test the paint. One affordable way is to mail a few paint chips in a plastic food storage bag to a local laboratory. Check with the aforementioned agencies to recommend a lab and proper sampling procedures.


Sources of Lead-Based Paint Contamination

  • Window Frames opened and closed create lead dust that is scattered into the house by air current
  • Window Sills are prime areas for lead-based dust to settle
  • Painted Heating Radiators
  • Stair Banisters & Trim are typical places young children mouth
  • Work Clothes contain lead dust and should be wash separately
  • Soil around the house is contaminated by paint washed off with rain.
  • Many imported vinyl miniblinds purchased before July 1, 1996 have lead-based paint added to stabilize the plastic.


Protect Yourself During Remodeling

If you're in a situation where you have to start work and can't test the paint, take these precautions:

  • Keep all children away from the project site.
  • Shower and change clothes before contacting anyone. Dust settles on you and your work clothes.
  • Vacuum with an industrial-grade vacuum (preferably with a High Efficiency Particulate Air filter, HEPA). Don't sweep with a broom or use a household vacuum - they spread lead particles even more.
  • Use a good dual-cartridge respirator.
  • If areas of old paint are peeling away, drywall or stucco them with joint compound. This helps contain the spread of lead-based paint and dust. An effective, popular form of abatement is drywalling.
  • Old paint in good condition (not peeling) can be sealed with pigmented shellac and then repainted with lead-free paint.
  • Keep dust to a minimum. Close windows. Occasionally wet mop the area wearing gloves and using dishwasher soap or tri-sodium phosphate detergent found in hardware stores. Dispose of rags and mop heads in sealed plastic bags.
  • Dispose of all suspect peelings, chips and dust in well-sealed, strong plastic bags.
  • Never burn lead-based paint or painted wood.



Danger sign Asbestos is the hazard that most of us have heard about. The man-made material is an excellent insulator and is fire resistant. However, it can cause sever health problems for some people, even cancer, when inhaled.

Controversy over how hazardous asbestos was dragged throughout the 1970s. As a result, asbestos use was gradually phased out from 1973 to the early 1980s.

When disturbed, tiny asbestos particles can stay suspended in the air for hours. These abrasive particles are easily breathed in and damage lung tissue.

Asbestos was a popular building material commonly used in heating pipe/duct insulation, flooring and mastic, siding, ceiling tiles, joint compound, plaster.


Asbestos Removal

cieling debris The best solution for dealing with asbestos is to leave it undisturbed. However, if dust is being created, it needs to be dealt with. Widespread deterioration should be handled by professionals.

Ceiling panels and pipe wrap should also be removed by professionals. Too much dust is generated that hangs in the air an incredibly long time. Even without the help of air circulation, asbestos may hang in the air for days.

Asbestos Removal, Man in Haz-Mat suitFlooring tiles or mastic adhesive may contain asbestos. Any 9"x 9" floor tile made before 1973 contains asbestos and if you're dealing with flooring installed before 1970, it probably contains asbestos.

Contact your local environmental waste management group before removing asbestos. They can provide you with more details about safety, necessary paperwork, and dump sites in your area. There will probably be a dump site fee. In most cases, asbestos must be wrapped in 4 or 6-mil plastic, clearly labeled, and taken to a designated waste site.

Treat any old material you suspect as if it does contain asbestos.

  • If you're going to repair a small area anyway, remember, the dust is very harmful. You'll need a respirator mask (dust masks are inadequate), goggles, and gloves.
  • Dampen the area with water to keep dust down and when possible, patch the area using duct tape or caulking.
  • When finished, seal your work clothes in a bag and wash them separately.
  • The simple solution to contain asbestos tile is covering it with new flooring.
  • If you have to remove flooring, don't create dust by sanding. Use hand scrapers and mist the area to minimize dust.


Radon Gas

Radon gas is produced by decomposing uranium and is found in rock, soil and water. It's a natural process, but not in your basement.

Radon is known to cause lung cancer and should be tested for in your home -- especially homes with basements and crawlspaces.

Radon gas may seep through the foundation of any home, not just old houses. It's odorless, doesn't render immediate symptoms, and levels of the gas can fluctuate over time.

Recommended EPA tests take from 2 days to around 6 months to a year. Also, in some parts of the country, radon can be a problem in private water wells.


Deterring Radon:

  • Caulking cracks -- doesn't decrease levels, but discourages gas from entering at walls
  • Vapor Barrier -- placed under slab prevents gas from seeping in
  • Sump Basin/Venting System -- sealed pit gathers gas and vents gas outside when detected.

Contractors to hire for installing radon prevention systems are certified with "Radon Contractor Proficiency" (RCP) by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Contact your state health Department or city hall for free information on Radon.


Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an odorless exhaust gas produced by combustion sources like gas appliances, fireplaces and automobiles and is difficult to detect.

Small carbon monoxide leaks may cause moisture build up and rust around exhaust vent areas. Brief exposure to the gas causes symptoms such as sore throat, headaches and drowsiness.

It poses a health risk (especially in well-sealed homes) from backdrafting, which is a condition resulting from more air leaving the house than is being replenished.

For example, a home's dryer and exhaust fans might force air out, creating a vacuum, but if there's no fresh air coming in then dangerous carbon monoxide gas in the furnace exhaust could be sucked back into the house instead of pushed out through its vent.

A way to prevent backdrafting gases is to install sealed combustion gas furnace and appliances. These self-contained units have a sealed air intake and a sealed exhaust that don't mix with indoor air. A backdraft in the house can't suck the carbon monoxide and other exhaust gases from this type of system.





Formaldehyde is a substance frequently used in the 1970s and 1980s in resins and glues to make particleboard, fiberboard, cabinets, countertops, paneling, furniture.

Now, formaldehyde is not used very much in new building materials and it's not a common problem. But strong outgassing is thought to be possible for up to five years after a product is installed.

Mobile homes, made mostly of pressed board, were sources of high formaldehyde outgassing.

To a lesser degree, new and remodeled homes may develop problems. Gas levels are usually higher in winter when the house is sealed up.

Formaldehyde may cause nasal and respiratory problems and exposure to small amounts may produce flu-like symptoms.


Detectors & Tests

The best, but most expensive, way to test your home for hazards is to hire a professional testing service. Certification varies among states, so contact your local or state environmental agencies to recommend companies.

Professional inspectors, often listed in the phone book under Environmental Services, can conduct a complete and accurate evaluation of your home.

One of the least expensive and fairly accurate testing methods is to mail samples to a local laboratory for analysis. It's not as thorough as a professional test because the results are limited to your sample areas which may not accurately reflect your whole house.

Because there are varying degrees of home kits on the market, it's not a preferred method of testing that we recommend. However, the Environmental Protection Agency does approve certain types of home test kits.

Radon testers look like thick hockey pucks with holes. A combination of short and long-term tests are recommended to give you accurate results. Short-term testers are usually placed in the basement 2-7 days. Long-term testers take 6 months to a year. Then the "puck" is mailed to a lab for analysis.

We discourage you using a home lead- based paint test kit. There are a couple different types -- some approved, others unapproved. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency deemed certain kits as highly unreliable.

If you can't afford to hire a professional to come to your home, mail a few sample chips to a laboratory. Often, samples are taken from different suspect areas, labeled, and sealed in a food storage bag. Testing labs are pretty common in larger cities, so check with them or a government agency to get sampling directions.

Asbestos can also be tested and sent to a testing lab. Contact your local, county or state hazardous materials agencies to recommend testing sources and procedures.

smoke detector / fire alarmCarbon monoxide testers can be hardwired or self-contained like smoke detectors. Similarly, some carbon monoxide detectors can sound an alarm when the gas is present. Some ventilation systems have a control sensor that detects carbon monoxide and triggers an air exchange. Another patch-like detector turns a different color when gas is present. Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in the home near combustion appliances like the furnace, fireplace, and near the attached garage door.

Formaldehyde home kits are available, but not reliable enough for us to recommend. If you and your nose suspect formaldehyde outgassing, it's best to have a professional test your home. They can accurately sample the air in numerous areas of the house and can often pinpoint the problem source. Typical fees range from $200 to $300.