Dangerous Substances in Your Home: Radon, Radon in Well Water, Lead Paint, Asbestos and Carbon Monoxide
There are many dangers in your home. But there's also a lot of misinformation as well. For most folks, buying a home is an emotional decision, more than it is a rational decision, but for those who want to be informed about the actual relative dangers of certain items commonly found in homes, this is the post for you.
In New England, there are many homes with lead paint. It's been known to be dangerous to children for almost two generations now. It's been out of use for almost 50 years, but it is still not illegal to own, buy or sell a home with lead paint*. Although, from what I can tell, lead paint rarely kills anyone, the impacts can be deadly serious, so it is certainly no lightweight when it comes to the home dangers. In fact, it checks in as the number one danger in housing according to the items I looked at in this post. After the disaster in Flint, Michigan, we should all be aware that lead can also come in via municipal water, if the folks running the public water systems aren't careful. Paint is not the only avenue for lead poisoning, unfortunately.
You can't watch too much TV without seeing an ad for Mesothelioma sufferers. Prolonged exposure to Asbestos can lead to this very specific type of cancer. Asbestos, of course, has been banned across the country for decades, but the original usefulness of the product means that we are still finding it in homes today. Removing it is expensive (although not prohibitively so), and should be done by experts. It is estimated that Asbestos exposure is responsible for 3000 deaths a year, but it should be noted that the number of deaths responsible due to a home's asbestos is far less, although there are not good numbers for it (at least none that I could find). The vast majority of incidents are from those who have worked in shipping and other heavy industries, where asbestos was common, and where they were exposed to it daily over many years. I've put the Nationwide number for asbestos in the chart, but as noted, getting mesothelioma from asbestos in the home seems to be very rare. That certainly means home owners should be aware of *where* it is, and *how* to (not) handle it, and the options for remediation. However, they probably don't need to rule out a house over it.
Smoking, of course, is far more dangerous than any of the dangerous substances in your home.
Far and away though, for household dangers, lead paint has the widest impact. The dangers from
Carbon Monoxide are close in scale to Bee Stings, and Radon in Well Water is not much more dangerous.
It's a law now in Massachusetts for all homes to have carbon monoxide detectors working in the home when it is sold. Across the country though, Carbon Monoxide is one of the smaller causes of death, so it barely even shows up in the chart. Here, I'll drop smoking off the top so we can see the smaller items better:
Here's the same chart without smoking, which makes the other items look bigger.
Car accidents are far more dangerous than most home dangers, even when not mitigated, so please,
buckle up for safety!
Radon can get into your home a couple of different ways. The most common - and dangerous - is through the air. Systems to mitigate this are easily installed and are low cost in most cases. Note that according to the chart, smokers are at much greater risk of getting sick from Radon than non-smokers. MUCH greater. Radon, like smoking, takes years to have an impact, but over years it can have a significant one. Radon can also get into your well water. Currently, the EPA doesn't have a national standard for what is dangerous radon levels in well water, but several states, including Massachusetts, do have recommended mitigation levels. Mitigation is expensive for well water, but very effective. I broke down the Radon information into several groups, Smokers with Radon-in-air exposure, Non-smokers with air exposure, and then the CDC's best guess at Radon in Water deaths, which is very, very low, and looks like a calculated guess.
The Radon numbers are - I would think - probably going to start coming down, as more and more homes are now having at least an one test at some point. As more homes get tested and mitigated, there should be fewer and fewer long term exposure issues, which should drive the numbers down.
There are many things that we probably don't think about enough - like smoking and car accidents - that while we feel they are safe, are much more dangerous than many of the dangers that are in our homes. First time home buyers, confronted with these risks for the first time, should certainly use this data to understand the relative dangers. With a little knowledge and care, these items won't come back to bite you.
*There are, of course, laws against having young children in a home where lead paint is present, however.
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About Matt Heisler
Matt Heisler is a real-estate professional and owner of this website. He has been selling homes in MA for buyers and sellers for over 20 years. He is an expert in foreclosure purchases, short-sale purchases, short-sale sales, buy and hold investing, fix and flip investing, and of course traditional residential home sales. He is happy to take questions as they pertain to real estate on Title V, Radon, Termites, Sump Pumps, Roofs, Foundations, Wells, Septic Systems, Cash-Flow, Staging, and a host of other housing issues. As a Vanderbilt University alumnus, he is proud to serve his local community.
*All information is posted in good faith and is assumed to be reliable, but may rely on third party information sources.