Whether you make your home in the heart of a city or in a sprawling suburb, there are certain dangers that have nothing to do with crime rates, economics, or the latest exotic imported disease. Falling bricks, short circuits leading to fires, trash piling up, and uneven, cracked pavements that present a tripping hazard can all do just as much damage to life and limb—but there can be other dangers that are not that obvious. Things like lead paint, mold, asbestos, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde can be harmless under normal circumstances, but become dangerous when they are exposed, or when they accumulate in a residential setting.
Not all buildings have these problems. And hopefully, your own co-op or condo board is informed and aware of the risks and how to mitigate them. If not, you may want to have your unit inspected.
A Rogue’s Gallery of Toxins
When it comes to indoor environmental hazards, one of the major culprits is lead paint. Used mainly in older buildings, it was banned in the late ‘70s when lead paint chips were linked to developmental delays, behavioral issues, and other serious health problems for babies and young children. Even when it's been painted over with layers of newer, lead-free paint, lead paint poses a threat when it's disturbed—either through cracking/chipping, or during any kind of remodeling or maintenance that causes lead-carrying dust or particles to be exposed or made airborne.
“In its heyday lead paint was promoted as the wonder paint,” says Lee Wasserman, president of the LEW Corporation, an environmental consulting firm based in Mountainside, New Jersey. “It had good durability, it would kill fungi. Homes that were built before 1950 have a 69 percent probability of having lead somewhere inside them. Those that were built between 1950 and ‘60s, it’s 30 percent, and from 1960 to ’70, it dramatically drops off.”
James Stump, the owner of Seagull Environmental Training in Fort Lauderdale, adds that “Lead-based paint has been basically illegal for residential purposes since 1978, but as much as 51% of our housing in the United States is pre-‘78. The older the dwelling is, the more likely the paint is to have lead and the concentrations of lead will be higher the further you go back.”
Another very common substance that raises alarm bells in a residential setting is asbestos. Asbestos was widely used as a fire retardant until the late 1970s, although reports that it caused illness were issued as early as the 1920s. To this day, you can find older wooden houses with asbestos shingles. “Asbestos was banned in maybe 3 or 4 materials, two of them in the 70’s and one in 1989, and as far as the rest of building products coming into this country there’s no law saying they cannot contain asbestos,” says Scott Russell, the president of Environmental Safety Consultants, Inc., which has offices in Bradenton and Clearwater.
In most apartment houses, asbestos was used as insulation and is under the surface. But when renovation or construction work exposes the asbestos, it becomes a serious problem. Like lead paint, asbestos was considered state-of-the-art and was legal to use in the past, says Jennifer Carey, president of JLC Environmental Consultants, Inc., in New York City. “Both substances were applied with good intentions, but now must be removed according to regulations governing this process.”
Another serious concern—particularly in suburban areas and garden apartments —is radon. Radon is an invisible, odorless gas that occurs naturally as part of the decay of radium and uranium under the ground. Under certain circumstances it can seep into a home, poisoning and even killing pets and humans. According to Carey, “One of our clients buying a piece of residential property in Tennessee found elevated rates of radon at the site, and walked away from the deal because of those radon levels.”
Often, the type of material the house is built on affects the risk factor. “If a community is built on clay-based ground,” says Wasserman, “there isn’t so much of a radon problem because the clay forms a barrier. But maybe a block away, where houses are built on shale stone, which has a lot of cracks and fissures, the gas begins to rise.” He adds that garden-style apartments have a lower probability of hazardous substances—they tend to have aluminum windows, metal door frames and a sheetrock interior. Indoor air quality issues, he says, are often found in high-rises because of systems that recirculate the air.
Lead, asbestos and radon aren’t the only hazardous materials one can find in the home, of course. Everyone knows the deadly effects of carbon monoxide, which is why many municipalities require carbon monoxide detectors in apartment buildings as well as smoke detectors.
Pollutants from underground oil tanks can also be a serious hidden hazard. Let’s say a gas station has underground tanks to store the fuel it sells. The station goes out of business, the land is vacant for 10 or 20 years, and the presence of the tank is forgotten. Then, when a developer buys the land and wants to develop, they suddenly find out about the potentially dangerous issue.
Which toxins your community should be most concerned and vigilant about depends largely on your location and the type of building you’re dealing with. According to Carey, “As consultants, we find the most common environmental issues that arise in residential real estate are usually lead-based paint, asbestos-containing materials and mold contamination from water intrusion problems.”
How They Get In
Some of the materials we’ve mentioned—lead paint, asbestos, formaldehyde—aren't invaders from afar—chances are they were included in the building’s initial construction.
Russell notes that while lead paint is off the market, modern construction materials can still contain asbestos. “You could go down to your local home improvement store and fill your cart with stuff that contains asbestos,” he says. “Even products that say ‘non-asbestos containing’ can contain asbestos. They get cute and call it ‘Canadian Mineral Fiber’ or ‘Chrysotile.’” He does also note that it doesn’t pose much danger, so long as the materials containing it are kept in good repair. “Depending on the condition and where the asbestos is located, for example a well-maintained shingle outside, there’s not much of an issue. If it’s inside, say in sheet vinyl flooring, if it’s in good repair, then there’s really no hazard.”
Other substances do come from outside. For example, we’ve already talked about radon gas coming from underground, and mold being formed by water leaks and standing water.
Carbon monoxide also gets in from the outside. “We have been called in to projects,” says Carey, “where CO is being emitted from the building’s parking facility where cars are left idling. CO can also be a byproduct of an inefficient boiler or other heating system. CO has been known to cause headaches, dizziness, weakness and confusion, and can often be fatal.”
How Harmful Are They?
The substances we’ve mentioned can have serious health effects. Prolonged exposure to lead, for example, can result in weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss, developmental delays in children, a decline in children’s IQ, high blood pressure and more.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos can result in shortness of breath, scarring of the lungs and, in some cases, lung cancer. For this reason, asbestos workers wear heavy, body-encasing protective suits to prevent them from inhaling the mineral fibers.
Is socioeconomic status a reliable indicator of vulnerability to hazardous substances? Not necessarily, says Wasserman. “As a whole, lower-income people tend to live in older housing stock that isn’t always maintained, and maybe you have more children who aren’t being watched. But I get just as many legal cases [in my capacity as an expert witness] from upper-income people. I have a case of someone who was a medical intern in a prestigious hospital who got exposed in his house in Scarsdale.”
“The average person walking down the street thinks the issue with lead is children eating chips of lead based paint in shabby public housing projects,” says Stump, “and while that is an issue, it’s not the problem at all. It’s the dust that is created from lead that the kids get into is the problem.” He adds that “Children are much more susceptible to lead poisoning because they are still growing. Lead will affect whatever cells in your body are replicating at the time, and children are replicating a developing new everything.”
Further complicating the issue of indoor toxin exposure is the fact that while some of these substances act quickly on the body, triggering symptoms of exposure, others can build up in the body for years before their effects become apparent. Exposure to asbestos “is a disease with a long latency period that can take 10 to 40 years to show up as asbestosis or mesothelioma,” says Carey. On the other hand, “lead paint is an acute toxin that shows up in your blood levels in a short period of time after exposure.” This is why young children are often tested for lead levels in the bloodstream.
Legislation and Regulations
Hazardous substances in buildings are regulated by an assortment of federal, state and local statutes and ordinances. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes standards for risk abatement for lead paint. Asbestos is highly regulated at the federal level because of the passage of laws like the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, the Asbestos Information Act and the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act.
According to Russell, “Up until about 1990, the EPA said if you find asbestos, get it out of the building. Then they did a series of studies that said the asbestos fiber concentrations in the buildings where they had [removed the material] were higher after the abatement than before. So if it’s in poor repair get it repaired or remove it, but if it’s in good repair, good condition, low potential for disturbance, just leave it in place.”
When it comes to lead, Stump says, “The bulk of the rest of the industrialized world outlawed it in 1928 and it’s only in America that we went on using it for 50 more years. Though it’s not very dangerous so long as it’s been painted over and the house is kept in a fairly clean condition, it's when you have a renovation done that it becomes exceedingly dangerous. Florida is one of the worst states—not for quantity, since most of our construction occurred later, but for the fact that our government is one of the 10 states in the country that has not passed their own rules. Florida does not administrate [lead removal] themselves; they leave it to the EPA, who cannot come from Atlanta and do an effective job of administering programs.”
Stump goes on to say that “on April 22, 2010, after many years of having a black hole in our regulations that allows renovations to go on without a lot of supervision or regulations a law was passed that says no one is allowed to disturb paint in pre-1978 housing structures without a federal license to do so. Yet the federal government has a very hard time letting people know this is a regulation and an even more difficult time enforcing it since no one know where any of it is happening.”
He notes that Georgia, for example, put outreach representatives on the road to make sure that everyone knew that the law had changed and needed to be followed. They weren’t sent out to give fines at the time, but only to educate those working in the state.
Testing for Contaminants
When it comes to testing for lead and asbestos, like with all other hazardous materials, a qualified professional should be hired.
“You need to hire a certified lead inspector,” says Stump, “someone certified by the EPA. There are many around. They can come in, take a paint chip sample or they can run a machine called an XRF (X-ray fluorescence meter)—it looks like a gun, and you hold it up to a wall and fire it off. It doesn’t release much energy, but will read back what the content of lead is.”
Russell adds that “asbestos is tested for by taking multiple samples—actual chunks of the building materials suspected of containing asbestos. From there you send them off to an accredited lab and interpret the results.”
There are multiple labs across Florida that do testing for hazardous materials, and they should be consulted if, based on the age, construction materials, and location of your community you think your building might be at risk for a problem. Regardless of those factors however, the pros agree that proactive, thorough maintenance of surfaces, regular professional inspections, proper monitoring and alarm systems, and community awareness of potential risks are the best defense against the worst indoor environmental offenders.
Ranaan Geberer is a freelance writer and reporter for The Western Florida Cooperator.
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