Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

6 Hidden Toxins

It sounds like a horror movie: Hidden dangers lurking in your home, ready to strike. Common household toxins could be making your family sick, but because they’re often odorless and invisible, you may not know why. Your best defense: Monitor potentially dangerous substances and remove them when you can — or better yet, keep them out of the house in the first place. Here are some tips to help you identify and eliminate six toxins that might be in your home.

What it is. An odorless, tasteless radioactive gas released when uranium breaks down in the soil. Outside, the gas disperses into the air, but inside, where it seeps through cracks in the foundation or pipes that penetrate the cement slab, vapors become trapped.

Why it’s unhealthy. Over time, inhaling high concentrations of radon can lead to lung cancer. In fact, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

How to test. Often radon testing is part of a homebuyer’s inspection, but if you’ve lived in the same house for a number of years, order a do-it-yourself testing kit from the National Safety Council ($9.95; or pick one up at a local hardware store. Radon levels are highest in the winter, so if you have a borderline result in May or June, retest when the weather turns frosty.

What you can do. If your house shows high levels of radon, hire a certified mitigation provider (you can find one at or call 800-269-4174), who might be able to solve the problem by installing a perforated PVC pipe beneath your home’s foundation. As soil gases enter the pipe through the holes, a motorized fan sucks the vapors away from the foundation and vents them to the outside.

If you’re building a home, you can reduce radon from the get-go. Put a layer of gas-permeable gravel under the foundation, and top the gravel with plastic sheeting. Seal and caulk every opening in the foundation floor, and add a vent pipe and a roughed-in junction box for a fan later on. You’ll save hundreds of dollars over retrofitting at a later time.

What it is. The mineral was once common in a variety of building products, including insulation, ductwork, roofing materials, and floor and ceiling tiles. Though it’s never been banned outright, asbestos was one of the first air pollutants regulated by the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Why it’s unhealthy. When asbestos is disturbed, its thin fibers become airborne. If inhaled into the lungs, the fibers can cause scarring and inflammation that make breathing difficult. Inhaling asbestos can even lead to cancer.
How to test. If your home was built prior to 1980 and you’re planning a remodeling project, you’ll want to test for asbestos, says Bharti Ujjani, CIH, a certified industrial hygienist with the Whitman Companies, a New Jersey engineering firm. “Have a professional come in, do a survey and identify materials that have asbestos by taking a sample and having it tested. Asbestos becomes dangerous when you disturb it.”

What you can do. “If the asbestos is in good shape — if it’s not peeling, looking dog-eared or flaking — you can leave it alone,” explains Gary Ginsberg, Ph.D., senior toxicologist at the Connecticut Department of Public Health and co-author, with Brian Toal, of What’s Toxic, What’s Not (Berkley, 2006). Wrap the asbestos in heavy-duty builder’s plastic (or even just regular kitchen plastic wrap) and figure out a way to leave it untouched by your project. If the asbestos is damaged, or if the remodeling project will involve asbestos-containing materials, hire a professional abatement contractor to remove and dispose of the asbestos.

What it is. A metal most commonly found in older homes, particularly in paint, lead still makes national news by showing up in new toys and dishware.

Why it’s unhealthy. Ingesting or coming into contact with high volumes of lead can cause a multitude of health problems, from infertility and nerve disorders in adults to brain damage in children.

How to test. A simple pinprick blood test can determine whether you or your children suffer from lead poisoning.
What you can do. Inspect your home. Some commercially available lead-based paint test kits have been found effective, but John Banta, a senior indoor environmental consultant for Restorations Consultants and co-author of
Prescriptions for a Healthy House (New Society Publishers, 2008), recommends paying a flat fee (around $400) for a certified lead inspector to examine suspect materials in your home.

You can seal in lead-based paint and render it harmless by applying several coats of latex or oil-based paint. If the lead paint is peeling or flaking, or if you’re prepping for a remodeling project, contract with a certified lead abatement specialist to seal off the area and carefully remove the lead paint. To play it safe, remove your children from the premises while the work is under way, and have the work rechecked after it’s completed.

Carbon Monoxide
What it is. Carbon monoxide gas is a byproduct of fuel combustion and comes from such sources as furnaces, generators, car and truck engines, charcoal grills, fuel-burning lanterns and portable heaters.
Why it’s unhealthy. Because it’s odorless and invisible, you won’t know you’re being poisoned. But breathing in carbon monoxide can hit you with a headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea, vomiting or chest pains. In higher quantities it can cause unconsciousness, coma or even death.

What you can do.  Buy a carbon monoxide detector. “For $50 it can save your life,” says Banta. Detectors are available in battery-powered and plug-in varieties, or can be hardwired into your home’s electrical system. If the detector’s alarm goes off, leave the home immediately and call the fire department.

Ask someone from your oil or gas company to inspect your furnace each fall to make sure it’s tuned up and venting properly to the outside. Don’t use powerful engines, including generators and power washers, indoors and avoid using them near open windows and doors, where their fumes can enter the home.

Also, don’t leave your car idling in the garage. “Even if the garage door is open, you’re exposing your body to elevated levels of carbon monoxide,” says Ginsberg. “If you do that every day, you’re distressing your cardiovascular system.”

What it is. Fungi flourishes in warm, humid conditions and can grow in your home’s damp spots, including bathrooms, basements, walls and floors. Sheet rock, insulation, carpeting, padding and ceiling tiles all provide ample food for mold.
Why it’s unhealthy. Exposure to mold can cause allergic reactions, trigger asthma attacks, irritate your eyes, skin, nose and throat, and produce illnesses and infections.

How to test. “If you can see the mold, then testing isn’t necessary,” says Banta. “But the EPA says that many times mold is hidden. This is one time when testing can help find it.” No need to test for what type of mold you have. Black, green or yellow — they’re all bad.

What you can do. Repair roof, window and pipe leaks immediately. If your basement is prone to flooding, seal the floors and walls and install a sump pump or other mechanism to drain water away from the foundation. If you do have a water disaster in your home, clean it up and dry out the area as quickly as possible.

You might be able to use a disinfectant to scrub out a small patch of mold on a bathroom tile or other hard surface. With a softer surface, such as a ceiling tile, remove and double-bag the moldy materials to avoid releasing mold spores, or call in a remediation professional to handle the problem.

If you’re building a new home, design for moisture control. “If you’re building from scratch, build in natural ventilation, put in drains where things might leak and don’t bring the sheet rock down to the floor,” says Paula Baker-Laporte, principal architect and founder of Baker-Laporte & Associates and EcoNest Design, and co-author, with Banta, of Prescriptions for a Healthy House. A breathable envelope rather than airtight construction helps moisture evaporate. Installing a dehumidifier may discourage mold growth as well.

Volatile Organic
Compounds (VOCs)

What they are. An array of chemicals, widely used in building materials, furniture, cabinetry, paint, varnishes and cleaning supplies, that become gaseous at room temperature. Benzene, acetone and acetate are all VOCs, but the most well known may be formaldehyde, which is commonly found in the adhesives used in composite wood products or to install carpeting or tiles. That new house smell you’ve noticed as you walk through new construction is probably off-gassing VOCs.

Why it’s unhealthy. Breathing in VOC gas can trigger asthma, allergies, headaches, rash and other illnesses. “Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen,” says Ujjani. “It can be dangerous even in fairly low concentrations.”
What you can do. If you’re having a strong reaction, hunt down the source of the problem and remove it, if possible. Otherwise, sit tight. VOC off-gassing dissipates over time, usually within three to six months.

Open windows and keep fans blowing to reduce VOC concentrations. Tackle remodeling projects in the spring or fall so it will be easier to keep up an air exchange with the outdoors. Also, search out green products.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to build a house that was formaldehyde-free, you had to special-order [products] from all over the country, but that’s changed dramatically,” says Baker-Laporte. Avoid particleboard or composite wood products in favor of solid wood furniture and cabinetry. Look for paints, veneers and varnishes labeled “low VOC.” And opt for green cleaners; even white vinegar and water can do the trick. The result will be better indoor quality, and an overall healthier home.

Melody Warnick wrote about
rainwater harvesting in the May/June 2007 issue of  Smart HomeOwner.
She’s based in Ames, Iowa.