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Environmental hazards: A homeowner's guide

  1. Asbestos

    Asbestos is a mineral that was commonly used in residential construction before 1978. It was used as insulation because of its fire-resistant and heat-containing qualities. Asbestos was popular material for use in floor tile, exterior siding and roofing products. The presence of asbestos is not necessarily a health hazard. Asbestos is harmful only if it is disturbed or exposed, as occurs during remodeling, renovation or aging. When asbestos is disturbed, asbestos fibers break down into tiny particles. Inhaling airborne microscopic asbestos fibers can cause respiratory diseases. Asbestos removal is dangerous and requires state licensed contractors. In certain cases the sealing off of disintegrating asbestos may be preferable to removal.

  2. Lead-based paint

    Lead was commonly used in paint before law prohibited using it in 1978. A high level of lead in a person's system can cause serious neurological damage. Children under the age of six are particularly vulnerable to negative effects of lead exposure. There is a federal law, known as Federal Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, which does require that lead disclosures be made when a person is selling or leasing a residence built before 1978.

  3. Radon

    Radon is a radioactive gas produced by the decay of natural radioactive minerals in the ground. It can occur anywhere but is especially known to be a problem in the eastern United States. Radon can cause health problems when it is trapped in high concentration in buildings, usually in basements with inadequate ventilation. Growing evidence suggests that radon can cause lung cancer. Radon levels vary, depending on the amount of fresh air that circulates through a house, the weather conditions, and the time of year. Radon odorless and tasteless and it is impossible to detect without testing. Home radon detection kits are available, although a home inspector or radon-detection professional can conduct more accurate testing. It is relatively easy to reduce levels of radon by installing ventilation systems or exhaust vans.

  4. Mold

    There are thousands of types of molds and not all are toxic. Molds reproduce spores that attach themselves to moist materials. In order to grow, they need oxygen, cellulose material, and moisture. Molds produce allergens, irritants, and sometimes toxic substances into the indoor and outdoor environment. When touched or inhaled it may cause tissue or immune system damage as well as cancer. Mold may exist in invisible areas of the home. The "smell" test is the easiest way to detect the presence of mold. Controlling sources of moisture, which means reducing humidity and increasing airflow inside the property is important. Leaking roofs, air conditioning systems, poor ventilation in bathrooms and laundry rooms, plumbing pipes, improperly sealed windows and doors are all common sources for mold problems. Cleaning and removing the mold is often not sufficient unless the source of the moisture problem is detected. For more information on mold please visit

  5. Carbon Monoxide

    Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas. Furnaces, water heaters, space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves all produce CO. CO emissions are not a problem, when these appliances function properly and are ventilated. However, when equipment does not work properly or is improperly ventilated large quantities of CO are released, which can cause nausea, dizziness and death. The presence of CO is difficult to detect. Carbon monoxide detectors are available and their use is mandatory in some areas. Annual maintenance of heating systems helps avoid CO exposure.

  6. Urea-formaldehyde

    Urea-formaldehyde was first used in building materials, particularly insulation, in the 1970s. Gases leak out of urea- formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) can cause some people to suffer respiratory problems, and eye and skin irritations. Urea- formaldehyde is known to cause cancer in animals. Some states prohibit the installation of UFFI. Tests can be conducted to determine the level of formaldehyde gas in a house.

  7. Electromagnetic fields

    An Electromagnetic field (FMF) is generated by the movement of electrical currents. The use of any electrical appliance, including hair dryers, computers and televisions, creates a small EMF. The major concern regarding EMFs, however, involves high-tension power lines. The EMFs produced by these lines, as well as secondary distribution lines and transformers, are suspected causing cancer, hormonal changes, and behavioral abnormalities. There is considerable controversy (and conflicting evidence) about whether EMFs pose a health hazard. Regardless, due to the publicity surrounding this issue, proximity to power lines has affected a property's desirability and value.

For more information on environmental hazards, please visit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source of the information: Real Estate Fundamentals. Wade E. Gaddy, Robert E. Hart.

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