Reducing Common Health Hazards in Your Home
Radon, lead paint, mold – here’s how to identify and mitigate potential health risks before they’re an issue
The pandemic upended many aspects of daily life, including where we spend our time. Especially with telecommute arrangements likely to remain more common than they were prior to COVID-19, our home environments matter more than ever. And while we like to think of home as a safe haven, mold, carbon monoxide, pesticides, insects, secondhand smoke and other factors can endanger health. Here we highlight a handful of common home hazards and offer tips to keep you and your family safe.
Federal legislation in 1978 banned the use of lead-based paint in residential settings, but according to the EPA, lead paint still exists in millions of homes. With New England’s plentiful stock of older homes, lead paint is a special concern in our region, says Beverly Baer Drouin, section administrator of the Healthy Homes and Environment Section at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.
Contrary to what many believe, lead paint can be hazardous even if it’s not visibly peeling or chipped. Daily activity, such as walking up and down lead-painted stairs or opening and shutting lead-painted doors and windows, creates friction that can generate lead dust, putting children, in particular, but also adults at risk.
One solution is to cover it. If lead paint is present in your home, “you need to keep it enclosed or encapsulated with something else,” Baer Drouin says. For example, you can apply a liquid coating of an encapsulant (available at hardware and paint stores) over the lead paint, or install carpeting on lead-painted floors or stairs. Lead-painted windows can be swapped out with vinyl replacement ones. Dealing with lead is not always a simple matter, though, so do your homework and consider hiring a pro.
All New Hampshire residents, Baer Drouin says, regardless of where they live in the state and the age of their home, should test for radon, a colorless, odorless gas that can exist in granite and soil and seep into buildings. Radon exposure is the second-leading cause (behind smoking) of lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association.
Radon test kits can be purchased in stores for less than $20, but starting in June, the state expects to offer free radon tests to residents, Baer Drouin says, through the website of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) at dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/radon/index.htm.
New Hampshire homeowners who rely on a private well for their drinking water should also test for arsenic, a colorless, odorless, tasteless element that naturally occurs in rock and soil, and can also result from human activity such as pesticide use. Long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, impaired brain development in children and other health problems. Researchers say about one in five wells in the state contains dangerous amounts of arsenic.
Water leaks can lead to a number of problems including mold, insects, mice, deterioration (raising the risk of lead-paint troubles if your home has lead paint) and injury, so invest in a good roof, and if your home springs a leak, don’t just grab a bucket — fix it. Renters should promptly report maintenance-related problems, including water leaks, to their landlord.
Shoddy or misguided housekeeping
Renters and homeowners alike should also keep their homes clean. Especially if anyone in your home has allergies or respiratory troubles, vacuum with a HEPA filter, if possible, to catch small particles, and don’t neglect to change the filter when it’s due. Good housekeeping also includes properly storing food, not leaving dirty dishes in the sink overnight, and picking up pet messes, Baer Drouin notes.
However, consider what you scrub with. Even cleaning supplies can pose a health hazard if they contain toxic ingredients or are used improperly. Bleach, for example, is a registered pesticide, Baer Drouin says. “Sometimes people think, ‘If I use a little bit of chemical to clean, a lot of it might be better.’ They don’t realize the impact that can have on them.”
Fortunately, an assortment of Earth- and body-friendly cleaning products is available today, and DIYers can easily find recipes online that Baer Drouin says work just as well as commercial products, but without the potential adverse health effects.
Get some air
Bad news for those of us who prefer our toast extra-crispy (OK, burnt): We are creating hazardous indoor air pollution. Indeed, one study indicated that burnt toast might be more toxic than traffic fumes.
Clearly, burning food is not a good thing to do, but the more consistent conditions in your environment can pose an even bigger threat than occasionally overcooking something, says Scott Lawson, founder and president of The Lawson Group in Concord.
One of his top tips? Bring in fresh air as much as possible. Quoting an old axiom, Lawson says, “Dilution is the solution to pollution,” meaning the more fresh air you have in your home, the more you can reduce indoor contaminants. Lawson acknowledges that, given the weather in New Hampshire, it’s not always practical to open the windows, but says that, when it’s too chilly to let in outside air the old-fashioned way, Granite Staters can use mechanical means, such as an HVAC system, to support healthful air exchange.
National Center for Healthy Housing’s Principles of a Healthy Home:
On radon, including a NH map of where radon has been shown to be prevalent:
On arsenic, including a list of companies that provide water testing: