Sometimes the biggest threats are what you can’t see – and that’s especially true inside the home.
“Hands down, lead-based paint, radon and carbon monoxide are the top three [environmental home] hazards,” says Rebecca Morley, executive director for the National Center for Healthy Housing. “These threats are odorless and invisible to the naked eye.”
Because they’re hard to detect, homebuyers should request inspections and documentation on threats like radon or lead-based paint, especially when considering older homes.
For those who already own and occupy older homes, testing can save lives. According to the most recent consumer research survey from the National Center for Healthy Housing, just 34 percent of homeowners have installed a carbon monoxide alarm in their homes, and only 10 percent have tested for radon, while 1 in 10 have tested for lead-based paint if their home was built before 1978.
While environmental hazards are often invisible, the health effects on home occupants are very real. Experts say that concerned homeowners should hire a qualified home inspector who can identify these environmental risks. And, as Morley advises, all home hazards should be treated with equal importance. She says. “If you’re going to be addressing one health and safety problem, hit them all at once and do them soon.”
Radon is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas – it’s also radioactive, and is estimated to cause more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Luckily, high radon levels are not an overly expensive problem to fix. To test for radon, short-term, do-it-yourself test kits cost $10 to $20, while longer term measures range from $50 to $150. The EPA website says that radon reduction systems are very effective and not too costly.
Additionally, EPA is making significant progress on its June 2011 Federal Radon Action Plan. Notably, the plan aims to reduce the risk of radon in homes across the U.S. by adding a requirement of mandated radon inspections for any properties that receive Federal Housing Administration mortgages.
Carbon monoxide is another “invisible” gas that is toxic to humans. Concentrated levels of carbon monoxide can deprive the human body of oxygen, according to the EPA, which can result in a slew of health problems ranging from fatigue and chest pain to brain damage and death.
Much like radon poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning is avoidable. Carbon monoxide detectors are priced at around $40. Appliances that use or produce gas or exhaust (ovens, cars, furnaces, etc.) should be properly maintained and ventilated to prevent dangerous carbon monoxide levels.
“Lead poisoning is still a major concern in housing built before 1978,” says Leo Trasande, associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine and health policy at New York University School of Medicine.
That’s why sellers must disclose any knowledge of lead-based paint when selling homes built before that period. For sellers, testing for lead-based paint costs about $300 to $400 for an average-sized single-family home.
Lead is a neurotoxicant, which can have an especially strong effect on children, says Allen Rathey, president of the Healthy Housing Institute. “In older homes, lead paint was commonly applied, and paint chips and dust can be very harmful to the mental and other development of kids.”
As Trasande explains, “children are uniquely vulnerable because they breathe in more air pound for pound and their developmental organ systems are more vulnerable ... They also have more years to live in which they can suffer the health consequences.”
Federal requirements are by no means all-encompassing when it comes to home environmental hazards. Morley explains, “Housing is private property unless the federal government subsidizes or owns it. Otherwise, they don’t have much of a policy lever, so it would fall on local code or state law.”
Regardless, experts agree that testing and awareness are the best defense against these “invisible” hazards. Check with your local EPA for more information, and ask your real estate professionals if you consider buying a home.