It takes a lot of work to maintain the health and safety of our homes, especially when we have small children to care for. But despite everything we do to keep our homes in good shape, it’s not always the cleaners and chemicals we have to watch out for: houses can pose their own types of toxic threats.
Whether it’s asbestos lurking in the ceiling, lead-based paint on the window sill or radon gas in the basement, environmental toxins can have a major impact on our health.
Asbestos was used extensively through the early and middle parts of the 20th century, peaking in 1973. Thanks to shifting building trends and federal rules banning some uses of the mineral and heavily regulating others, asbestos use in the U.S. has fallen from a high of 803,000 tons to only a few hundred tons in 2017.
Any home built prior to 1980 is at risk of containing asbestos, and the odds only increase with the age of the house. It wasn’t just used in one room of the house, either. Asbestos is great at resisting heat and chemical reactions, so it was included in hundreds of building materials and consumer goods, ranging from gaskets, mastics and insulation to ironing board covers, air-powered popcorn poppers and hair dryers.
Unfortunately, asbestos is a known carcinogen capable of causing a rare and debilitating form of cancer called mesothelioma. When people breathe asbestos fibers in, they get trapped in the lining of the lungs. Over the years, the rigid fibers cause irritation and scarring in the lining of the lungs, eventually leading to the disease. Although fewer than 3,000 people each year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, it’s often caught in its later stages, when patients have a poor prognosis and few viable treatment options. Asbestos has also been tied to other diseases and health concerns, including asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and pleural plaques.
Asbestos is considered safe when products containing the material are in good condition, but fibers may be released if the items become damaged. Before attempting to take on any sort of home renovation project, be sure to have a trained inspector check the area for possible asbestos. If the mineral is present, they should also be able to tell you what the next steps are and whether it needs to be removed. The inspection costs a couple hundred dollars, but the peace of mind is invaluable.
Lead can lurk in several areas of the home but is most notably found in lead-based paint and drinking water in older homes. Lead-based paint was used extensively until 1978, when it was banned by the federal government. As lead-based paint ages, it chips and flakes, creating lead dust that can be easily inhaled and pieces that children might put in their mouths.
Water supplies may also contain lead particles, thanks to the degradation of the plumbing in older water systems. As the pipes corrode, lead solder or piping allows the heavy metal to leach into the water supply, where it is easily consumed. In 1986, federal rules banned certain uses of lead solder and restricted the lead content of plumbing materials like faucets and pipes to less than 8 percent.
Children are especially sensitive to the effects of lead. The heavy metal can cause a multitude of symptoms, including weight loss, fatigue, developmental delays, seizures, and difficulty learning. In addition, because lead enters the bloodstream, it is eventually deposited in other areas of the body, including teeth and bones. As adults age, lead is released from the bones, once again exposing a person to its damaging effects. In adults, symptoms may include anything from headaches and muscle pain to more serious conditions like high blood pressure, low sperm counts and miscarriages. Luckily, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to test for lead, and test kits for both lead paint and water can be purchased from your local hardware store.
Radon is a naturally occurring invisible gas that has no color and no taste, meaning people can be exposed to it without even realizing it. When uranium in the soil breaks down, it creates radon gas, which can seep into basements and crawl spaces through cracks and gaps in a home’s foundation. When people breathe the noxious gas in, they are exposed to small amounts of radiation that may result in lung cancer over time. On January 1, 2013 a new law regarding radon testing went into effect. The new legislation amended the Child Care Act of 1969 to require radon testing of licensed daycare centers, daycare homes, and group day care homes. Here’s a great graphic and additional information.
Although smoking is still far and away the most common cause of lung cancer, radon exposure ranks number two and is estimated to play a role in 15,000 to 22,000 deaths in the U.S. alone every year. Since radon is odorless and colorless, the only way to know if you have it is to test your house using an at-home kit. The kits are generally inexpensive and easily bought at most hardware stores. While some short-term kits test for radon in as little as two days, other kits may take up to 90 days. It’s best to use a longer test to get a more accurate radon reading. A professional can also perform tests to determine what your radon levels are and what options you have to correct the problem. This option is especially handy in certain situations, like when you’re attempting to buy or sell a house.
While there’s no shortage of home improvement programs on television showing us how easy it is to renovate our houses, sometimes, it’s much safer to hire a professional to do it for you!
Special thanks to our guest/co-bloggers at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance