Keep Your Home and Yourself Safe

Health-related problems in your home aren't always easy to spot (unless, alas, you have critters). Consult this guide to uncovering hidden hazards.

By Stephanie Abramson and Allegra Muzzillo
Photo of a house in a plastic bag Kang Kim


 

Lead

Why it can be dangerous: Lead is a grayish, dense, highly toxic metal that was commonly found in oil-based paints until 1978, when the CPSC severely restricted its use. Lead paint can flake off interior or exterior walls, land on rugs or soil, and cover "surfaces where kids eat, play, or crawl," says Mary Jean Brown of the CDC. Lead can also be found in old water fixtures and modern brass plumbing. Particular caution is needed for pregnant women and children, as even a brief exposure "can cause kids to have development delays," says pediatrician Phillip J. Ladrigan. Additionally, elevated lead levels can increase the risk for heart disease and cataracts in adults.
 
How to protect yourself: If your home was built before 1978 or is decorated with old painted furniture, including imported pieces, hire a certified lead inspector. (Store-bought kits can be unreliable.) If lead is found, a certified abatement contractor can manage the hazard. As a general precaution, don't let children play in bare soil, and cover any exposed areas of the yard with plants or grass. In 1998 the EPA prohibited lead pipes in residential spaces; if you think your pipes were installed before 1998 or if you have brass faucets and fixtures, contact your local water supplier to test and make sure that lead hasn't leached into your water. In the meantime, "always use cold water for cooking," says Dale Kemery of the EPA, since hot water may contain high levels of lead. For more information on lead paint, including links to find contractors, visit epa.gov/lead/index.html.
 
 

Carbon Monoxide

Why it can be dangerous: When emitted in a small or poorly ventilated area, this invisible odorless gas "can quickly poison you by preventing oxygen in your lungs from reaching your tissues. It can cause damage to the brain immediately or several days after an apparent recovery," says physician Richard Moon.
 
How to protect yourself: "Install carbon monoxide alarms on each floor of your home and near each sleeping area," says Patty Davis of the CPSC. Have your heating system and fuel-burning appliances inspected annually. If you use an unvented space heather, get one equipped with an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS), which will shut off the appliance when it detects dangerously low levels of oxygen. "And leave doors open to rooms with actively used gas- and wood-burning appliances," such as a furnace, a woodstove, or a fireplace, says Kurt Kneen of the National Safety Foundation.
 
 

Radon

Why it can be dangerous: More than 20,000 radon-related lung-cancer deaths occur in the United States each year, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to the EPA. Radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas, forms when uranium breaks down in soil, rock, or water. It is usually found in a home's lower levels, where it enters via foundational cracks or groundwater.
 
How to protect yourself: Radon has no visible signs, and it can build up over time. So even if you've had a radon test in the past, perhaps during a home inspection, you should still test for it every few years or after any major home renovation, says epidemiologist R. William Field. A long-term kit (about $30 at hardware stores) will measure radon levels in your home for 90 days or longer to ensure an accurate reading. (Short-term kits are sold, but stick to long-term kits because they better reflect the average radon concentration.) After sending the test to a lab, you should receive results in a few weeks. If your radon level measure four picocuries per liter or higher, contact a state-certified or licensed radon contractor to install a radon-reduction system, which will filter and vent radon outside your home. Prices range from $1,000 to $1,500, including the contractor's fee; to find a contractor, call the National Safety Council Radon Helpline at 800-557-2366.
 

 
Read More About:Preventative Health

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