We want to think of our homes -- whether they're castles or studio apartments -- as our safe havens, a place where we can relax and simply unwind from the pressures of the outside world. But in reality, homeowners need to be vigilant about the potential dangers that can be present inside our own four walls.
These dangers can be readily apparent, such as automotive products stored in the garage or basement, pesticides in a shed, prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet, or cleaning agents kept under the sink. Some can be much more difficult to track down, such as radon gas, freon, carbon monoxide, mold and water-borne chemicals. Still others can even be waiting for us as we first move in -- things like lead paint, lead pipes and asbestos.
More importantly, those threats can be even more menacing for those who are least prepared to deal with them: newborns, toddlers, the elderly and the infirm. And despite the fact that we live in the information age, the number of incidents of poisoning with serious outcomes increased almost 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, says the American Association of Poison Control Centers [source: AAPCC]. The AAPCC reports that the poison control centers receive a call every eight seconds.
On the positive side of the ledger, there's plenty of solid information available on how to not only know what the dangers are, but how to track them down and how to eradicate them from your home.
How do you find an invisible killer?
Radon, the Invisible Killer
Colorless, odorless and insidious, radon is a naturally occurring gas (a byproduct of decaying uranium) and a known carcinogen. Since radon develops underground, it often finds its way into buildings through the basement, in cracks in a building's foundation and other openings, such as sump pumps and drains. In fact, studies have revealed that radon concentrations in the same building will be much lower the higher you go from the ground floor.
Prolonged inhalation of radon has been linked with numerous cancers, but primarily lung cancer. So the best defense is early detection. There are numerous off-the-shelf test kits that can give homeowners a general sense of whether they have a problem, though a professional assessment might provide an added measure of security. When purchasing a radon detection kit, you should examine the package for indications the kit has been approved by federal or state health, environmental or consumer protection agencies. The same applies to hiring a radon contractor [source: HSH.com].
If you, or a contractor, have determined that your home has a radon issue, that doesn't mean the property needs to be condemned. However, it's wise to take immediate action, aimed at sealing any openings where radon may be entering the home (this may include your water source. Although testing can be done by the homeowners, most experts recommend that radon diagnosis and reduction projects should be left to trained professionals.
Water is the staff of life. Make sure it's safe.
Your Tap Water
We all take it for granted. But think, just for a moment, what an enormous undertaking it is to provide everyone with clear, clean, safe drinking water from our taps. Many older cities and towns have outdated infrastructures that can leech heavy metals such as lead and other potentially dangerous chemicals into our drinking water. The same rule applies to older homes, where the plumbing fixtures and pipes can be out-of-date and dangerous.
There are even dangers for homeowners who get their water from private or shared wells, which is susceptible to natural-occurring gases such as radon, or contamination from other dangers, such as fertilizers, landfill leaks or petroleum contamination.
Fortunately, there are a number of options for those who suspect their tap water might not be safe. First, have several water samples analyzed by a reputable laboratory (and consider doing so on a fairly regular basis, such as every two years). That'll provide homeowners with a blueprint. Next, depending on your needs, you can opt for a whole-house water filter, a tap-mounted filter, a free-standing filter, or just buy bottled water (leaving the tap water for showers, laundry and dishwashing uses).
Does your house need a new coat of paint?
New home construction benefits from modern techniques and state-of-the-art materials. But most homes sold are not new, and if your home was built before 1978, there's a likelihood that it may contain lead paint and asbestos. According to the EPA, it's estimated that lead-based paint was applied to roughly two-thirds of the houses built in the U.S. before 1940 and one-third of the houses built from 1940 to 1960.
Both lead paint and asbestos present considerable health risks. In many instances, if the lead paint is in good condition with little chance of being eaten by children, most experts recommend leaving it alone. Removing lead paint is a costly and time-consuming procedure and can be dangerous as well, since lead paint dust can become airborne and easily ingested. Leave this job to the professionals.
Likewise, asbestos is often found in older homes because it was a once considered something of a miracle product. Asbestos fibers are strong, heat resistant and chemical resistant, which made them a seemingly ideal building material, especially for insulation. However, they've also been linked to numerous respiratory problems and lung diseases -- such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer -- and are now banned from construction.
In older homes, the most common areas to find asbestos are floor and ceiling tiles, plasters, insulations, adhesives, wallboard, joint compound, roofing materials, fireproofing materials and cement products [source: Alliance for Healthy Homes]. Keep in mind that while most manufacturers have curtailed their use of asbestos, it hasn't been banned altogether.
What grows in those dark, damp corners of the basement?
The mold you find on outdated bread or over-ripe fruit is easy to spot and avoid. Mold that grows in those unseen corners of the bathroom, basement or crawl spaces can be considerably more difficult to detect -- and considerably more dangerous. Mold can lead to a host of physical ailments, from mild (runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes) to much more serious (skin rashes, asthma and respiratory infections) [source: The Bump].
And, since these microscopic organisms can grow just about anywhere, they're prevalent throughout many homes. With more than 1,000 types of mold identified in U.S. homes, it's a problem that can't be ignored [source: Alliance for Healthy Homes].
To prevent mold outbreaks, understand that these irritating spores love dark, damp spaces (and be aware that airborne mold spores are much more resistant to dry environments). Look for discoloration along floors and walls. If you've had any flooding in your basement or water damage to your roof or walls, there's a good chance that those areas are serving as a home-based petri dish for mold growth.
Given that these are often hard-to-reach places, the work often requires a professional contractor. The critical issue in addressing a mold problem is to not only to safely remove any existing mold and spores, but also to ameliorate the existing moisture issue.
Next up, what can happen when modern conveniences turn bad?
Appliances: Modern Convenience, Modern Peril
Home appliances, both major and minor, are the classic "out of sight, out of mind" product. We depend on them, but as long as they're working, we rarely give them a second thought. And that can be a big mistake.
First, older appliances (especially refrigerators and air conditioners) can put a huge stress on outdated electrical boxes and wiring, which can lead to fires. Make sure both the wiring and the electrical box have sufficient capacity. Likewise, clothing dryers can be a time bomb if the lint screens and vents aren't cleaned on a regular basis.
Furthermore, older large appliances -- refrigerators and freezers in particular -- can develop freon leaks. Even smaller appliances that have electrical currents running through them, such as toasters, can be dangerous if not used with care and common sense. (For example, always unplug a toaster before fishing out a lost piece of bagel or muffin with a fork). Other older small appliances, such as hand-held hairdryers, can also contain asbestos.
Are there dangers lurking in the backyard?
The Garden Shed
That manicured green lawn, free of grubs, crabgrass and other weeds, might be a shining example of the old slogan, "Better living through chemistry." But those very same products -- pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers and the like -- pose a very real threat if not used (and stored) properly.
Plus, many of these products are dangerous once they've been applied. Take care to prevent family members (especially children and their friends) and pets from coming into contact with these potent chemicals, including newer brands. According to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, a survey of 19 pesticides registered since 1997 found that nearly all of them posed hazards, including increased risk of cancer, genetic damage, birth defects and other serious health problems [source: Alliance for Healthy Homes].
This same approach is recommended if you store gasoline and any gas-powered tools, including trimmers, lawnmowers, tractors, snow blowers and chainsaws. In addition, great care should be taken when using any tool with sharp blades, whether gas-powered or human-powered. Keep these out of reach of children.
What are the dangers in keeping warm?
For those homeowners who heat their homes with natural gas, propane, or oil, or those who cook with gas ranges, carbon monoxide is an ever-present danger. Another odorless, colorless gas, carbon monoxide is exceedingly dangerous and can kill quickly. The risk, not surprisingly, is even more prevalent during the winter months, when homeowners button up their houses to keep warm. Make sure all heating and cooking vents are properly cleared.
Also, invest in several hard-wired CO detectors, and make sure they all have battery back-ups. Replace the batteries on a regular basis (say, every time you change the clocks), instead of waiting until the low-battery alarm is triggered (Murphy's Law dictates that if you don't, the batteries will run out at 3 a.m. on a Sunday, when you can't find a 24-hour hardware store). If the alarm sounds, contact your local fire department immediately.
Even the chemicals in processed wood logs or blocks can emit carbon monoxide. Make certain that your fireplace is properly vented. And if you use your fireplace frequently, have it routinely cleaned by a qualified and licensed chimney sweep to avoid fire hazards.
If you suspect you've been exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning (signs include dizziness, headaches and nausea), contact your doctor [source: American Lung Association].
Do-it-yourself? Be careful.
Almost anytime you get your vehicle's oil changed or anti-freeze replaced these days, a portion of the cost goes to a disposal fee. That's because those substances are unsafe. The same applies to those industrious do-it-yourself types.
In today's economy, it makes sense to want to save a few bucks by doing some of these maintenance services yourself. But be aware that the products you're handling -- brake fluids, transmission fluids, antifreeze, washer fluids, motor oils, car batteries, even replacement light bulbs -- can pose a danger, both before and after you use them. Store and dispose of them carefully. If unsure, check with your local fire department or department of public works.
Many communities host an annual (or even more frequent) "hazardous waste disposal day." Your local municipality can also be a clearinghouse of information if you need to discard other potentially dangerous products, from fluorescent lights to batteries to fire-resistant carpeting. There's typically a fee for that service, but it's a small investment in exchange for your peace of mind.
Are there dangers lurking underneath the sink?
Under the Sink
Though all home-based threats should be taken seriously, perhaps none are more readily available, or more easily avoidable, than the chemicals in many household products, from cleaners to bonding agents. Don't be fooled by the quaint packaging. A quick look at the warning labels is enough to prove that these products can pack a wallop and can be potentially fatal.
According to the Virginia-based American Association of Poison Control Centers, the country's 57 poison centers fielded 3.9 million calls in 2010, an average of nearly 11,000 calls per day. Experts at the nation's poison centers treated 2.4 million human poison exposures and handled 1.5 million information calls in 2010. And while children younger than 6 accounted for about half of all the poison exposure calls, adults 20 and older accounted for 92 percent of all deaths reported [source: AAPCC].
While 75 percent of all calls to the poison centers originated from the person's home, the AAPCC estimates that roughly 90 percent of all poisonings happen at home. The good news is that cleaning products and other household chemicals, from bleach and polishes to solvents and air fresheners, aren't hidden dangers.
If you have curious toddlers, make sure you have child safety latches on all your cabinet doors. Even better, consider keeping these products far away for your primary living space, storing them in the basement, garage or outdoor shed. Also be aware of everyday household products that contain dangerous chemicals and compounds, such as thermometers (mercury).
Next up, there are more bathroom dangers ahead.
Your Medicine Cabinet
Below the sink isn't the only danger zone in your bathroom. Like cleaning products, medications, health care and personal hygiene products can be a minefield. According to American Association of Poison Control Centers, three of the top five causes of substances most frequently involved in poison calls were analgesics (11.5 percent), cosmetics/personal care products (7.7 percent) and sedatives/hypnotics/antipsychotics (6 percent) [source: AAPCC].
Note that prescription drugs rank below cosmetics. Items such as perfumes, nail polish, aerosol deodorants and hair sprays and even some soaps can present a risk. Seemingly benign products such as sunscreens, lip balms, shaving creams and moisturizers can contain the chemical oxybenzone, which has been linked to hormone disruption and low birth-weight babies, or parabens, a synthetic preservative that is suspected of causing cancer in animals. Even fluoride toothpaste can be considered a health risk if swallowed [source: Park].
Prescription medications still remain a major concern, whether taken accidentally, or taken by someone surreptitiously. Again, the person in the mirror on your medicine cabinet is in the best position to make sure that these products aren't abused or happen to fall into the wrong hands.
Imagine the suicide booth on 'Futurama,' only real. Learn more about the Sarco suicide pod at HowStuffWorks.
- 15 Modern Conveniences That are Bad for Your Health
- Indoor Air Pollutants
- Transform Your Home into a Healthy Home
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