Hazards Around the House

by : Preston Sandlin

Do you have hazards around your house? I mean besides the toy fire truck in the middle of your hall floor in the dark in the middle of the night? Besides the Razor scooter that your little girl left behind your car that you didn't see when you had to back up. Eighty-nine dollars later you learn to look for hazards around your house. If you have kids, you have constant hazards around your home. There are other potential hazards in your house that are not child's play. I am speaking of environmental hazards than can affect your home. You should consider environmental hazards in your home or when you are considering purchasing a home.

In my experience of inspecting homes in Charlotte, NC I have come across some common environmental hazards you should be aware of. Some of these hazards are asbestos, carbon monoxide, lead, radon, carbon monoxide, and groundwater contamination. In this article I hope to identify the basic environmental hazards and to describe the warning signs, characteristics, causes and solutions of the various environment hazards most commonly found in the real estate transaction.

Asbestos is a mineral that was once used as insulation because it was resistant to fire and contained heat effectively. Asbestos was used in residential buildings up until it was banned in 1978. In my inspections I usually found asbestos in older homes on heat ducts at the joints. It's usually that white wrap on the joints of metal ducts. Asbestos can be found covering pipes, ducts, and heating and hot water units. Its fire resistant properties made it a popular material for floor tile, exterior siding and roofing products. Today we know that breathing asbestos fibers may result in a variety of respiratory diseases. Just the presence of asbestos is not necessarily a heath hazard. Asbestos is only harmful when it is disturbed or exposed causing it to become airborne. This often happens during renovation. Asbestos is highly friable. As it ages it breaks down easily into tiny fragment and particles. When these particles become airborne, they pose a risk to humans. Asbestos is costly to remove because the process requires state licensed technicians and specially sealed environments. Removal itself may be dangerous. Improper removal may further contaminate the air within the structure. The waste generated should be disposed of at a licensed facility. This further adds to the cost of removal. An alternate method of control that may be preferable is encapsulation. Encapsulation is the sealing off disintegrating asbestos. More information on asbestos-related issues is available from the EPA (telephone: 1-202-554-1404). The EPA has numerous publications that provide information on asbestos.

Lead-based paint was used on houses built prior to 1978. Lead-based paint may be on any interior or exterior surface. It is particularly common on doors, windows and other woodwork. About 75% of all private houses built before 1978 have lead present. That is approximately 57 million homes. Crawling babies can ingest lead dust from the hands. It can also be ingested in water from lead pipes or lead solder. Elevated levels of lead in the blood can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells. The degree of harm is related to the amount of exposure and the age at which the person was exposed. Presently, there is no federal law that requires homeowners to check for the presence of lead-based paint. Lead-based paint hazards must be disclosed however. In 1996 the EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued regulations requiring disclosure of the presence of any known lead-based paint hazards to potential buyers or renters. A lead based paint disclosure statement must be attached to all sales contracts and leases regarding residential properties built before 1978. Buyers or renters must be given ten days in which to conduct risk assessments or inspections for lead-based paint hazards. Buyers are not bound by any real estate contract until the ten-day period has expired. Real estate agents are to ensure that all parties comply with the law. For more information and pamphlets on lead-based hazards, call The National Lead Information Center, 1-800-424-5323

Radon is a radio active gas produced by the natural decay of radioactive substances. Some areas are known to have more significant amounts than others. Radon is found in every state. The highest concentrations can be found in the plains states, the upper Midwest and Northeastern United States. In the open air, radon usually dissipates into the atmosphere and is not likely to cause harm. When radon enters buildings and is trapped in high concentrations, it causes health problems. This usually happens in basements with poor ventilation. Radon is odorless and tasteless. It is impossible to detect without testing. Radon levels are relatively easy to reduce by installing ventilation systems or exhaust fans. The modern practice of creating energy-efficient homes and buildings with practically airtight walls and windows may increase the potential for radon gas accumulation. Heating and ventilation systems can spread radon gas throughout the house once it has accumulated. Radon has been proven to cause lung cancer. Individuals who smoke and spend considerable time indoors are particularly at risk. The EPA has a pamphlet ' A Citizen's guide to Radon' It is available online or at your local EPA office.

Another colorless and odorless gas that poses health risks is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a by-product of a fossil fuel burning appliance or heating system. It also can come from a car exhaust. A few years ago in Charlotte, four people were killed when someone left their car running in a townhouse garage. The garages were under the units. Apparently someone pulled in their garage and forget to turn their car off. It killed four people. After that Charlotte made it a law to have a carbon monoxide detector if you have any gas-burning appliance. When these appliances are ventilated properly there is not a problem. When improper ventilation or equipment malfunctions and permits large quantities of CO to be released into the structure, it poses a significant health hazard. Its effect is compounded by the fact that CO is so hard to detect. CO is quickly absorbed by the body inhibiting the blood's ability to transport oxygen. This causes dizziness and nausea. More than 200 deaths occur from CO poisoning each year. Carbon monoxide detectors are available and their use is mandatory in some areas.

Groundwater contamination is a problem in some areas. Groundwater is the water that exists below the earth's surface. Any groundwater contamination can threaten the supply of pure, clean water for private wells or public water systems. If the water gets contaminated, the earth's natural filtering may not be adequate to ensure the availability of pure water. The groundwater can be contaminated in several ways. There is runoff from waste disposal sites, leaking underground storage tanks and pesticide and herbicides are usually some of the sources.

There are several hazards one should consider and test for in their own homes or one they are considering buying. Some of these hazards include but are not limited to radon, asbestos, lead based paint, carbon monoxide, and groundwater contamination. The costs of testing for these hazards are relatively small. The cost is especially small when compared to the cost of the presence of an environment hazard that you don't know exists. For more information about environmental hazards around your house, please contact Preston Sandlin at