Every day there's another frightening headline about dangerous substances in our homes. Cancer-causing radon seeping up through the floorboards. Deadly asbestos sprayed on the ceiling. Toxic lead in and around our homes. Poisonous carbon monoxide gas spewing from gas stoves.
How much of a threat are these hazards? And what should we do about them? Many people simply bury their heads. And why not? If you know you have a problem, you either have to spend big bucks to fix it or disclose it when you sell the house. And if you aren't sick, why test your home?
Ignorance can be bliss. Or at least it used to be. Today homeowners who are selling or leasing a dwelling built before 1978 must inform prospective buyers or tenants about known or potential lead, asbestos and other hazards in the building.
Which begets the obvious questions: Which substances are dangerous? And what should be done about them, if anything? The information below can help you decide what's best for your home and family.
There are stringent national standards for asbestos inspection in schools. School boards across the country have spent millions eliminating it from classrooms.
As a result of this attention, many homeowners are understandably concerned about what to do with asbestos used as insulation around furnaces, steam pipes, heater ducts, fuse boxes and boilers.
Diseases associated with asbestos include lung cancer and asbestosis. But these diseases usually afflict people whose has exposed them to far more asbestos dust than a person would face in a home setting. Experts rate it as a small risk for homeowners - if left alone.
Let this sleeping dog die.
After all, it's not going to jump out and bite you. And unless it's in crumbling condition, it's not that big a problem. If it stays in place, it won't harm you. It's not necessary to rip it out. Instead, just know it's there and don't create a hazard, especially if there's a small kid in the house.
Chances are, if your home was built before 1980, there is probably some asbestos in it. Asbestos-containing materials were used from the early 1900s through 1978, when the EPA banned its manufacture and sale. However, materials installed after 1978 aren't necessarily free of asbestos, as contractors with inventories of asbestos-containing products were still free to install them.
At one time, asbestos was mixed with acoustical material and sprayed onto ceilings as a cottage-cheeselike coating.
The ceiling finishes sprayed on between 1945 and the late 1970s contained asbestos in a particularly fragile matrix.
This matrix can be easily disturbed while cleaning, hanging a plant, when people walk on the floor above or when the ceiling is exposed to moisture from a leak.
As long as the asbestos remains intact and undisturbed, experts consider living with it quite safe. But if the asbestos is in poor condition or crumbling, removal may be necessary.
If you're uncertain whether the materials in your home contain asbestos, the most inexpensive way to find out is to have a lab test them. The cost is usually less than $100 per sample.
Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, is responsible for more than 200 accidental deaths each year. Thousands more are stricken with its symptoms - mild headaches, dizziness, flulike symptoms and tiredness - and are unaware of the cause.
The usual culprit is a faulty fuel-burning appliance, such as gas or oil furnaces and hot-water heaters, fireplaces, gas stoves, and unvented gas or kerosene heaters.
Car exhaust fumes that filter indoors from attached garages and become trapped are another common source, especially in homes where the garage is below the living space.
Young children, pregnant women and people with asthma, anemia or heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of carbon monoxide, even in small doses.
Proper appliance maintenance is the best way to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, but a device that constantly monitors the air is a crucial backup for safety.
Most of us know that lead in paint is hazardous to children. It can cause severe anemia and permanent brain damage. What many of us don't realize, however, is that children's bodies can harbor dangerous levels of lead without their ever gnawing on a single paint chip.
Get rid of that picture in your mind of a child pulling paint chips off the window from his crib. The problem is usually good old-fashioned dust.
Lead dust is the most common cause of lead poisoning among children. The dust results from the normal friction of opening and closing drawers, doors, windows and door frames coated with lead paint.
Tiny fragments can fly into the air and later settle on the floor - well within the reach of tiny hands and mouths.
Lead dust and chips can also be found outside the home, with the heaviest concentrations within three feet of a home's exterior. This is usually the result of the peeling and chipping of exterior lead-based paint or lead dust released by recent renovations or repainting.
About 75 percent of all homes built before 1980 contain some lead paint, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Before it was banned in 1978, leaded paint was considered top quality and the easiest to spread.
Although lead can also harm older children and adults, the threat is worst for children under 6, and for fetuses exposed to lead through their mother's bloodstream. Despite lead paint's potential for harm, like asbestos, we can live with it. Many experts believe that controlling the hazard is a far better solution than removing it altogether.
Good options include covering the area with wallpaper, paneling or new lead-free paint. Once lead-painted surfaces are covered, they are generally considered safe unless they are exposed, scraped or start to chip or peel.
If you have small children, you'll need to do a bit more to keep them safe. Wash a child's hands, face and toys frequently, mop hard surface floors, windowsills and baseboards at least once a week (don't use the mop for anything else), and load your children's diet with iron-rich foods, including lean meats, beans, spinach, tuna, eggs and greens. Iron helps block some absorption of lead.
Outside, plant grass or other ground cover as a barrier between your children and lead in the soil, from chipping, peeling exterior paint or car exhaust fumes that settle on the ground.
And if you live in or plan to buy a pre-1978 home, consider hiring a trained professional to do an assessment.
Kits for testing for leaded paint at home are also available. Some of these kits can also test for other sources of lead, such as in handmade, brightly colored or imported dishes, mugs and dinnerware, which can leach hazardous amounts of lead. Leaded crystal can leach lead into stored liquids, particularly acidic beverages such as wine or juice.
Visit the Clean Organized Home Store for asbestos home tests and products to help make your home a safer place for you and your family.