Home Improvement Dangers: Lead, Asbestos, and Mold


They say home is where the heart is. But did you know that your house could kill you? It sounds over-dramatic but there are actually a number of toxic materials that could potentially be present in your house, particularly if it was built 25 years ago or more. That doesn’t mean you have to put up a ‘for sale’ sign and run to the hills. You just need to be aware of the possible risks. (And, if you’re house hunting, you should either hire a home inspector or snoop around yourself for evidence of any of the following before you put down an offer.)



lead paint in the home
Be careful when working in older homes, there can be lead paint.

While lead is a natural element, ingesting it can lead to developmental problems in children (or the fetus in pregnant women). There are two potential areas of concerns for lead exposure in older homes: Plumbing and paint.

Lead pipe was used in municipal and residential plumbing until the 1950s and, after that, the solder used in copper pipes contained lead until the 1980s.

Check out this report from the EPA on Lead in Drinking Water

If you have reason to be concerned you can have your water tested (some municipalities have free lead-testing programs). Depending on the test results, you may want to replace your old pipes with new copper ones.

There are also two simple preventative measures you can take: Running the tap for a minute to flush standing water before you take a drink (i.e. first thing in the morning) and use only cold water for consumption (hot water will leach more lead out of the pipes than cold).

Older homes (pre-1980) may also have rooms that were painted with oil-based paint containing lead. The fear of children ingesting chips of lead contaminated paint is so great that in the United States (and other jurisdictions), federal law requires that owners inform potential buyers or tenants of lead contamination prior to sale or tenancy. Disposable lead-paint testers can tip you off to a potential problem, but a lab test in the only way to be sure. Removal of lead paint is a job for the pros, and the building’s residents should vacate while the work is being done.



asbestos wrapped ductwork
Older homes can have asbestos wrapped ductwork, and you need to be aware when doing work of the dangers.

Asbestos is a mineral that’s been used in countless products – from wallboard and insulation to small appliances – to take advantage of its sound-, fire-, and thermal-resistance properties. But it comes with a major potential side effect: When inhaled, its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other respiratory problems. While many homes contain some asbestos, for the most part, it’s not a major concern. It’s only when you disturb the material – typically during renovation work – that the fibers separate and become airborne. If you do plan on demolition work that could disturb asbestos – such as removing plumbing or ductwork wrapped in it – hire a specialty disposal company to remove the material first.



Mold in the home is dangerous
When doing renovations, you can find hidden mold in the home, behind drywall, behind wall paper, or other places you don’t normally see.

Mold is relatively common – picture what happens to your fruit bowl after it’s been sitting for a few days – but can have negative consequences that range from cosmetic (like the discolored caulking in your shower) to lethal, the infamous “black mold” that’s made so many newspaper headlines.

Learn how to handle mold found during a bathroom renovation in this post

Most mold can be cleaned up and killed with a soapy water or, for extreme cases, a water-bleach mixture. (Wear a dust mask and gloves, and keep young children and anyone with asthma or allergies away from the area while you work.)

While floating mold spores are the culprits, moisture is the key. Standing water and leaks should be cleaned up and the source of the leak repaired to avoid reoccurrences.

For peace of mind, you can take a swab of the mold and send it to a lab for testing.

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