The Most Dangerous Problems in Homes and the Impact They Have on Our Health

By Jamie Birdwell-Branson

Our homes are our refuge—our little corner of the world where we can hide away from outside dangers. But even in the comforts of our home, we can be exposed to toxic substances, poisons, and dangerous building materials that can cause a whole host of injuries and illnesses to homeowners, renters, and their families. Among the most dangerous of these hazards are radon, lead-based paint, carbon monoxide, and asbestos.

Protecting your family from these hazards is simple with just a few common-sense precautions and knowledge about how they can affect you at home. Here’s more information on why these hazards are considered so dangerous, their health and safety impacts, and what you can do to keep your friends and family safe.

Radon

One of the most dangerous problems you can face at home is something that many homeowners and renters likely haven’t heard of—a naturally occurring radioactive gas called radon. Radon, according to Brian Hanson, the radon program coordinator for National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University, is present in all soils throughout the world due to the ongoing radioactive decay of uranium.

Radon can be toxic inside the home because it has the potential to be concentrated in much higher levels of concentration than it would be outside, says Hanson.

“Since [radon] is a gas, it wants to act like a gas, which means it wants to move from areas of high concentration in the soil to areas of low concentration in the outdoor air,” says Hanson. “The challenge is that if the radon is moving toward the outdoor air as it comes up underneath the foundations of our homes and our apartment buildings, the way we build foundations acts to trap the radon and concentrate it sometimes to very high levels under those foundations.”  

As luck would have it, there are no visible signs or smells that radon is present in the home, which means that homeowners and renters don’t typically know it’s there. So, what’s the problem with having these elevated levels? According to estimates from the EPA, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

Being diagnosed with lung cancer is not only deadly—it’s expensive. The American Cancer Society estimates that out-of-pocket treatment costs for Stage IV lung cancer can range from $5,654 to $10,114, depending on what type of health insurance you have (and is significantly higher if a patient has no health insurance at all). 

Who’s at risk?

Certain areas of the country, like the upper Great Plains and the upper Midwest, are more likely to have higher predicted average indoor radon screening levels in houses, but this is not predictive for specific homes. In other words, no matter where you live, it’s crucial to get your home tested for radon.

Radon remediation

The good news is that radon mitigation is a simple and fairly inexpensive process. When you’re about to buy a home, you can have a licensed inspector check for elevated radon levels in a diagnostic test that takes only days to complete. If you already own your home (or you’re renting), you can purchase a DIY radon test kit online or find one at a local big box or hardware store. 

If you do have elevated radon levels in your house, you can hire a contractor who is trained to handle radon issues. They will install a radon mitigation system, which will involve underground pipes and an exhaust fan to reduce the levels of radon. According to Hanson, around 95 percent of homes will require one full day for a successful mitigation and the cost of remediation will be around $1,500–$1,700.

The challenge is that if the radon is moving toward the outdoor air as it comes up underneath the foundations of our homes and our apartment buildings, the way we build foundations acts to trap the radon and concentrate it sometimes to very high levels under those foundations.”

— Brian Hanson, radon program coordinator for National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University

Lead-based paint

Before 1978, lead paint in American homes was pretty ubiquitous. According to EPA estimates, 87 percent of homes built before 1940, 69 percent of homes built between 1940 and 1959 and 24 percent of homes built between 1960 and 1977 contained lead paint.

Though lead paint is highly durable, which is a desirable quality in a paint product, lead exposure—in any amount—is toxic, especially to children under the age of six. Although lead-based paints were used in homes and businesses until 1978, there were many credible voices warning of its dangers for decades, including the paint company Sherwin Williams, who wrote in their monthly S.W.P. publication in July 1904 about the French government’s investigation into white lead. 

He [Mr. Breton, the lead investigator] condemns the addition of white lead to paints and all colors containing it, declaring them to be poisonous in a large degree, both for the workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with lead colors.

Dangers of lead paint

So, what exactly is the danger of lead paint? When children accidentally consume chipped paint, they can be exposed to lead. This exposure, even in small amounts, could give them lead poisoning, which can affect mental and physical development or even be fatal. Here are some common symptoms of lead poisoning in children:

  • Developmental delay
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures 

In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of lead-based paint in residences in order to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in children. Though this has certainly contributed to the decreased amount of blood lead levels over the decades, there are still an estimated 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. that are attributable to lead exposure, according to a 2018 study published by The Lancet Public Health (though this is not solely attributed to lead-based paint).

What’s more: According to a 2009 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a conservative estimate for the cost of treatment for a child with high levels of exposure to lead are anywhere from $1,027–$3,444. 

How to protect against lead-based paint

Luckily, there are many precautions you can take to keep your children, family, and visitors safe from being exposed to lead-based paint in your home. (If your home was built after 1978, you likely won’t need to worry about lead-based paint, but you can always perform a qualitative spot test for lead to double check.)

According to the EPA, if your home was built before 1978 you can prevent lead poisoning by doing the following:

  • Regularly checking your home for chipping or peeling paint
  • Wiping down surfaces like window sills weekly with a paper towel
  • Mopping weekly to control dust 
  • Finding a lead-safe certified renovation firm in your area if you plan on doing any remodeling

Carbon monoxide

With the unfortunate nickname of “the silent killer,” it’s safe to say that carbon monoxide should be of major concern to homeowners and renters. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, tasteless, and odorless gas (though, it’s now typically mixed with other gases to give it a detectable scent). 

If anyone in a home is exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, it can cause a sudden onset of carbon monoxide poisoning, which could potentially be fatal. According to the CDC, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning (meaning there was no fire that caused the poisoning), 20,000 have to visit the emergency room, and 4,000 are hospitalized every year.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning range from a headache and vision problems to chest pain, confusion, and impaired judgment. If survived, there’s a risk of neurological problems—according to Harvard Medical School, two out of three people with severe exposure to carbon monoxide develop neurological problems and one in five with just mild exposure develop them.

As far as healthcare costs go, the short-term burden is high while the long-term burden is largely unknown. The CPSC reports that the average short-term hospital treatment costs for carbon monoxide poisoning was a whopping $15,769 in 2007.

Carbon monoxide prevention

As frightening as carbon monoxide poisoning is, we know exactly what causes it and how to prevent it. An excess of carbon monoxide is caused from combustion fumes from appliances like a water heater, furnace, gas range, stove, grill, or chimney. Using common-sense safety tips, like ensuring proper ventilation and getting your chimney swept every year, will go a long way to protect your family.

The best and easiest way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home is to buy a carbon monoxide detector, which can alert you when your home has dangerous levels of the gas.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that is found in rock and soil that’s been primarily used as insulation in houses, but it can also be found in roofing shingles, textured paint, heat-resistant fabrics, and even car brakes. This controversial building material has long been the boogeyman of home construction—and for good reason.

According to Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, “Asbestos is a carcinogen and there is no safe level of exposure.”

Though the EPA had a partial ban on the manufacture of certain asbestos products in 1989, the law was overturned two years later. Today, asbestos remains legal in the United States, and though there have been recent attempts to outright ban it, the EPA has imposed only restrictions on asbestos. 

Dangers of asbestos

Asbestos exposure is directly linked to diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a rare form of cancer that affects the lungs, chest, stomach, and heart.

A person can become exposed to asbestos when it is “disturbed.”

“‘Disturbing’ asbestos means to dislocate asbestos fibers during repairs, renovation, construction, implosions, and natural disasters,” says Reinstein. “For example, asbestos can be disturbed if you are doing construction and tearing down old buildings or if a house is damaged during a fire or hurricane. These nearly invisible airborne fibers can be released into the air and become respirable.”

Between 1999 and 2015, there were 45,221 malignant mesothelioma deaths, and the annual number of deaths has increased 4.8% since then, according to reports from the CDC. Mesothelioma has a long latency period—with estimates between 20 and 50 years—but when it’s diagnosed, it can be devastating, as many patients don’t live long after the initial diagnosis. 

Estimates for the cost of mesothelioma treatment are varied due to the stage of the disease and the age of the patient and can range from $24,000 to $44,000, which generally consists of chemotherapy, surgical procedures, and palliative care. 

How to treat asbestos

Many homeowners and renters are unaware that they have asbestos present in their houses or apartments. If you do suspect that there are materials in your home that contain asbestos, don’t ever attempt to renovate or move anything yourself until you can have the materials tested by a qualified laboratory, says Reinstein.

You should also be especially careful if your home was damaged in a disaster like a flood, fire, or tornado because you can become exposed to asbestos during cleanup. 

“The untrained eye can’t visually identify the presence or absence of asbestos. If in doubt, don’t disturb the materials or create dust,” says Reinstein.

If you should choose to do any renovations in your home that contains asbestos materials, always hire a licensed contractor with experience in removing it safely.


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