Is Your Home Hazardous to Your Health?

Cynthia Wilson
Written by Cynthia Wilson
Updated March 15, 2016
contractor in haz-mat suit scraping paint from home exterior
A crew member of Alpine Environmental in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, removes lead paint from a home. (Photo by Mark Wilson)

Mold, radon, lead or asbestos may be hiding in your home and making you sick. Learn how to protect yourself.

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Ever wonder if that persistent headache or ongoing sinus condition is related to something in your house? It’s possible.

Experts say many homes harbor mold, radon, lead and even asbestos, and all pose health risks. Read these tips to learn where the hazards hide, how they can affect your health and what to do to remove them.

health hazards infographic
(Photos courtesy of Angi members, Connecticut Department of Health, Wisdom Mold Consultants and iStock. Illustration by Emily Svenson)

Mold

What is it? Molds are fungi that grow on porous surfaces exposed to moisture. No one knows how many species exist, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number ranges from tens of thousands to perhaps 300,000 or more.

Where do you find it? Mold hides behind drywall, under carpeting, in attics and basements, and around air duct systems, says Donald Lassiter of ACE Multi-Cleaning & Restoration LLC in Temple Hills, Maryland. “If it’s dark and damp, Mr. Mold can grow on anything that has pores or can breathe.” Lassiter adds that mold can begin to develop 48 hours after an area is exposed to moisture if the affected area is not cleaned and dried.

Why is it dangerous? Breathing in mold spores causes nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, and skin irritation in some people, according to the CDC. People with mold allergies, asthmas and chronic lung illnesses may have more severe reactions or get lung infections.

What can I do to prevent mold? Lassiter recommends repairing leaky roofs, plumbing, cracks around windows and cleaning gutters to prevent water buildup. Keep a moist basement dry with a dehumidifier, he says. Scrub mold with detergent and water if the affected area is a hard, non-porous surface that is 3 feet by 3 feet or smaller, the Environmental Protection Agency says, and let the area dry completely.

When should I call a pro? If growth resembling dandelion fuzz appears on your air ducts or polka dots on your walls, ceilings, wood or flooring, call an expert because it could be the first sign of mold on a porous surface. “Bleach doesn’t remove mold and it doesn’t kill mold,” Lassiter says, adding that attempted DIY remedies may spread spores and cause secondary damage.

What's the average cost to remove mold? Lassiter says most of his jobs start around $350, and total costs depend on the severity and square footage of the affected area, with some jobs costing into the thousands.

Asbestos

What is it? Some manufacturers still use asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, to create heat and corrosion resistant materials, including durable fabrics, sound-absorbing and insulation products.

Where do you find it? Darrin Meacham, owner of Asbestos Inspections & Removal Co. in Indianapolis, says heating systems and flooring materials, such as linoleum and vinyl, often contain asbestos. “Those are the most common, but asbestos can be in any building material,” he says, including plaster, siding and roofing.

Why is it dangerous? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify asbestos as a known human carcinogen that increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen.

What can I do to avoid it? Federal regulators have restricted asbestos use, but it’s still found in numerous imported products, Meacham says. So be vigilant when purchasing flooring and other products for your home and ask contractors whether the products they use contain any traces of asbestos. “Any product that contains mineral fibers means it has asbestos in it,” he says.

When should I call a pro? Meacham recommends calling a licensed asbestos abatement contractor before you demolish any structure or undertake any major renovation because asbestos is impossible to identify just by looking at it. He says a licensed asbestos abatement contractor has to take a sample for analysis.

What's the average cost to remove asbestos? Meacham says he charges $75 to analyze a single sample. A whole house inspection can cost between $300 to $500, depending on the size of the home. Meacham says removal costs range from $800 to $2,000 for a 1,000- to 1,500-square-foot home.

Radon

What is it? Radon is a colorless and odorless carcinogenic radioactive gas.

Where do you find it? The natural breakdown of uranium in soil produces radon, which means it can penetrate buildings through the water supply, cracks and holes in a building’s foundation. Once inside, radon can become trapped if not redirected away from the structure.

Why is it dangerous? Radon causes the most cases of lung cancer in the United States, second only to smoking, according to the surgeon general. The EPA reports lung cancer caused by radon exposure kills an estimated 20,000 people each year.

What can you do to prevent it? Test your home. Jim Bittner, mitigation engineer at Cascade Radon Inc. in Portland, Oregon, recommends checking to see if your local chapter of the American Lung Association sells radon test kits, which they often offer for as little as $10. Bittner says you can also buy radon test kits at superstores, hardware and home improvement centers for under $40.

When should I call a pro? If your home test records a level below 4 picocuries per liter, or 4pCL, which is a measure of radiation per volume of air, no immediate action is needed, according to the EPA. However, if a follow-up test confirms the a score of 4pCL or higher, the agency strongly recommends contacting a radon mitigation firm for a permanent solution.

What's the average cost to remove radon? Costs vary by region based on the home’s construction style, soil and radon levels. Bittner says installing a mitigation system in a typical single family home in the Portland, Oregon, area costs about $1,500.

Lead

What is it? Lead is a soft metal used in many consumer goods, including paint, because it’s malleable and makes finishes more durable.

Where do you find it? In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of lead in paint, but homes built before then may still pose risks. Many imported consumer products also contain lead, including candles, cosmetics, pottery, ceramic toys, toy jewelry, tea kettles and vinyl mini-blinds, the CDC reports. Federal and state regulators require retailers to comply with lead limits disclosure rules, including posting or providing easy to read type with products that contain lead and its effect on humans. The EPA allows consumers to dispose of lead-contaminated toys like other household waste, but you should consult state and local government agencies, which may have stricter rules.

Why is it dangerous? Lead is odorless and colorless, and can cause irreversible neurological damage. It poses a special risk to children who tend to be exposed via chipped paint, dust and soil in and around homes where lead paint was used.

What can you do to test for lead? Confirming the presence of lead requires analysis, says Che Ramirez, owner of Colorado Hazardous Environmental in Denver. If you suspect your home’s interior or exterior contains lead paint, he recommends sending a chip sample to a local laboratory for testing or verifying results obtained from a hardware store test kit that instantly analyzes suspected lead surfaces.

When should I call a pro? Ramirez recommends never touching known lead sources and contacting an EPA lead-safe certified contractor to remove it. “No one can say what amount of lead isn’t dangerous. Everyone reacts differently,” he says.

What's the average cost to remove lead paint? Costs vary by region, as well as the type and scale of contamination, Ramirez says. He estimates costs to remove lead paint on a 500- to 1,000-square-foot home can range from $3,500 to $10,000 in his state, depending on the process used.

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