News reports feed us a steady stream of stories on scary, invisible hazards lurking in our homes, presumably ready strike us down at any second, but how much of it is really cause for alarm? Which hidden dangers are serious and which aren’t? And what should you do to protect yourself and your family?
Here’s a look at some of the most well-known hazards and what you should do (or not do) about them:
Lead paint, when ingested, can cause lead poisoning, a condition which can severely affect mental and physical development. High doses can be fatal. Children under 6 are especially vulnerable. The danger is that tiny bits of chipping or peeling paint – or even paint dust – can get onto a child’s hand, and eventually their mouth. Lead paint was banned in 1978, but in older houses, it may still be lurking. And the older your home is, the higher the chance it has lead paint in it.
The paint doesn’t pose much of a danger if it’s in good condition and undisturbed. The danger is with paint that’s chipping, cracked, damp or peeling, or paint that’s in high-use spots like window sills, doors or stairs and railings. There can also be lead paint on old furniture or toys.
If you suspect you have lead paint in your house, hire a professional to come to the house to assess the hazard level. If a danger is found or if you plan on remodeling, you will need to hire someone to remove the paint. Check the Environment Protection Agency‘s (EPA) website to find an accredited professional.
If you have lead paint that’s intact and not an immediate danger, you can reduce your risk by keeping paint well-maintained and undisturbed. Keep dust at bay wiping window sills and other surfaces with a damp paper towel, then throwing the towel away. Wash floors with soft, disposable clothes. Avoid using abrasives or chemicals on painted surfaces. Check surfaces regularly for signs of deterioration.
Asbestos can be found in a variety of places including floor tiles, pipe insulation, insulation (especially in houses built between 1930 and 1950), shingles, textured paint (like “cottage cheese” ceilings), and siding. In the 1970s, its use was curtailed when it was discovered that long-term exposure to asbestos can cause lung problems, including cancer.
Even if you have asbestos in your house, don’t worry–the mere presence of asbestos is not hazardous according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. If the asbestos-containing material is in good shape, experts recommend that you should just leave it alone. The danger comes when the asbestos is disturbed and fibers are released into the air.
The best way to deal with asbestos-containing materials is to inspect them regularly. Don’t touch or disturb, but look for breaks, cracks and other signs of wear and deterioration. Make sure nothing is rubbing against the material. Don’t scrub, vacuum, or cut into anything containing asbestos. Don’t pry up floor tiles yourself and don’t sand or strip flooring unless you know that the material is asbestos-free.
If you are worried, have an asbestos professional assess your risk and make recommendations. If you have a hazard or plan on doing a remodel that may disturb existing asbestos, you will need to hire qualified experts to remove and dispose of the asbestos safely. An asbestos professional may also recommend that instead of removing it, you cover and seal it to prevent fibers from being released into the air. Asbestos workers do not need to be licensed, so to find an accredited professional, check with state and local agencies. (Check EPA’s website for a list of contacts for your state.)
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can’t be seen or smelled. Radon is formed by a breakdown of uranium in the soil and gets into houses via cracks in foundations, gaps around pipes and open spaces inside walls. Radon exposure is the second-largest cause of lung cancer and, alarmingly, one out of 15 homes is estimated to have elevated exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
To check your home, get a “short-term” test kit, available online or at hardware or home improvement stores (tests cost about $20). If you get a reading of 4 picocuries per liter of air, or “pCi/L,” follow up with a long-term test kit or another short-term kit to confirm the result.
If the level remains above 4 pCi/L, you should take steps to lower the radon level. The method that will work best for your home depends on several factors, including what type of house and foundation you have. The most common methods are venting and fan systems, crawl space ventilation and sub-slab suction which draws out radon and vents it away from the house. Sealing foundation cracks, covering exposed ground and opening windows offer another level of protection.
After making adjustments, re-check radon levels to make sure the new system(s) are working, and re-check annually.
Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, colorless and deadly gas. In concentrated doses, it can kill in minutes. The most common ways carbon monoxide can get into your home include: blocked chimneys, gas engines on cars, lawnmowers or generators operating without ventilation, and malfunctioning heaters or ovens.
To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, try these steps:
- Install a carbon monoxide detector in the hallway near every sleeping area. A battery-operated model will keep working during a power outage. The detector should be installed close to the ground.
- Don’t use outdoor grills inside or try to heat the house with an appliance like an oven.
- Don’t use gas-powered devices or tools inside.
- Don’t leave cars running in the garage, even with the door open.
- Have a professional check your heating system and fireplace annually and make any needed repairs. Open the chimney flue before lighting a fire.
- Keep gas appliances and wood stoves in good working order and properly vented.
If you suspect a carbon monoxide leaks or someone is exhibiting signs of carbon monoxide poisoning (symptom include headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and coordination problems.), call 911.