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Asbestos, lead remain serious health hazards in the home

Oct 30, 2006 |

When thinking about our health, few of us consider the possible hazards associated with where we live. In this two-part series, we'll look at several substances related to the home that may pose a significant health threat but are usually not evident to a casual inspection.

For example, asbestos insulation or lead-based paints may be found in older homes. Radon gas could seep silently into a home of any age. Faulty heaters or poorly vented wood stoves could release carbon monoxide into the air. A home built on land previously used for industrial purposes could mean that there is hazardous waste buried on the property.

Although primarily used in the setting of public and commercial buildings, some asbestos has been used in the construction of private homes. Asbestos has been linked with severe respiratory disease and the development of cancers of the lung and pleura (the fibrous lining of the lung). Masses of asbestos fibers tend to break into a dust of nearly invisible particles that float in the air, cling to clothing and are easily inhaled.

The amount of lung damage depends of the quantity of asbestos fibers inhaled and the length of exposure.

From 1930 through the late 1970s, asbestos was used to provide excellent insulation as well as in the manufacture of vinyl floor tiles and sheet flooring, patching compounds, textured paint roofing materials and even some appliances. However, asbestos in these products usually is not a hazard as long as the product remains intact, since the dangerous inhalable fibers are only released when the material is broken up.

Most asbestos-containing products that are intact should be left alone. If the product is slightly damaged or beginning to show signs of wear, it is generally best to simply cover the involved area. Products containing asbestos should only be removed if they are significantly damaged or crumbling, or if they will be disturbed during remodeling or demolition.

If you are not sure whether a product in your home contains asbestos, ask the manufacturer or original installer. If this is not possible, you can hire an experienced consultant to determine whether there is any asbestos present. If you see debris that might contain asbestos, do not sweep or dust it. Do not vacuum the material, since asbestos fibers are so small that they are not trapped by the vacuum cleaner but instead pass through the filter and return to the air.

Never try to remove asbestos yourself. Always employ an experienced contractor who has had appropriate training and will take all necessary steps to make certain that asbestos fibers are properly trapped and do not enter the air that you will be breathing.

For further information about asbestos, you can contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at (800) 368-5888 and ask for a referral to your regional asbestos coordinator.

Lead in paint

Despite the banning of lead-based paints in 1978, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are still approximately 12 million homes (built before 1980) that have lead-based paint. Approximately 10 percent of these are occupied by children younger than 7 years of age. Experts claim that about two thirds of homes occupied by young children have excessive exposure to lead-based paint and dust. Thus, despite the overall decline of elevated levels of lead in the population, lead intoxication still remains a problem for the poor, nonwhite, low-income children of the inner cities.

Low-income children who often live in poor-quality homes end up exposed to the most concentrated sources of lead — dust and paint from deteriorating housing. In addition to lead-based paints, soil and dust contaminated by lead from gasoline emissions and industrial sources also are potentially dangerous to young children prone to ingesting foreign objects and might inhale this toxic dust.

Congress has addressed the problem by passing the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazards Reduction Act of 1992. This law requires that any time a home is sold, remodeled or renovated, there must be a disclosure of information on the amount of lead in the home.

Removing lead-based paint should be left to professionals, since it is a delicate and even dangerous undertaking. Trying to remove lead yourself could create an even worse problem.

Lead can also be found in drinking water. Lead solder on copper pipes was not banned until the late 1980s, and some faucet manufacturers continue to use lead washers in their products (though the major companies have agreed to end this practice). Home testing kits are available through the non-profit Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland, (510) 208-4555.

Exposure to lead can cause significant problems, especially for children during the developmental years when their nervous systems are rapidly maturing. Initially, lead poisoning may go unnoticed. The child may suffer from colicky abdominal pain, headaches, constipation and irritability. Severe lead poisoning can lead to convulsions or coma. Long-term effects include developmental delay, hearing and intellectual impairment, behavioral problems, short stature, neuropathy and anemia. A single exposure to lead should not pose any health problem.

However, continued exposure can result in blood levels that are high enough to require treatment. In general, the higher the lead level and the later the problem is discovered, the greater the chance of an unfavorable outcome.

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