There’s nothing quite like the relief you feel when you finally get home and settle onto the couch after a long day at work.
But how safe should you really feel at home? Or for that matter, at work?
Unseen hazards often hide behind the apparent safety and security of your home. Similar dangers can lurk behind the solidity and familiarity of your workplace. You’d never know, until it was too late, that you – or a coworker or family member – were at risk.
That is, unless you were smart enough to proactively test for hazards. Here are the five greatest environmental dangers which may be present in your home or business.
Most people know by now that lead poisoning can lead to brain damage in young children, and that lead-based paint has been banned for use in U.S. residential buildings and schools since 1978. What most people don’t know is that ingestion of lead can also cause brain, kidney, stomach and other major illnesses in adults – and that lead poisoning remains a very serious problem today.
Despite the 1978 ban, it’s estimated there are still 50 billion square feet of walls with lead paint in American homes and schools. Two other facts are just as worrisome: the lead paint ban still doesn’t apply to commercial buildings, and the drinking water in many areas contains unsafe amounts of lead which has leached from old brass or lead pipes, or has passed through contaminated land from which ground water is drawn. The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan has shown how serious the problem can be.
Testing for lead paint is particularly important if you live in a home built before 1978 and you have young children. It’s also a very good idea if you are planning renovations. Home centers sell kits with easy-to-use swabs which can detect the presence of lead in paint within seconds. Children should also be given a simple blood test around age 2, which will show if they’ve been exposed to lead. Inexpensive test kits to check for lead in drinking and well water are also available, and can set your mind at ease before you brew your next pot of coffee.
Few things could be scarier than an invisible, cancer-causing radioactive gas that occurs naturally. That gas is radon, and it’s the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Most radon that enters homes and businesses is created by the natural decay of uranium, which is present in almost all soil. Some new houses are said to be “radon resistant” thanks to additional vents and tight seals in the homes’ foundations. However, the gas can enter almost any building and if it becomes trapped inside, you have a problem.
Hardware and home stores sell inexpensive testing kits which can be used to check the air in the basement or lowest level of a building (where radon is most likely to be found) over a period of several days. If the radon level is 4 pCi/L or higher, you should call in a mitigation specialist to retrofit your home with additional ventilation.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are primarily responsible for what most people call “indoor air pollution.” They include all of the carbon-based chemicals used for many household purposes; propane, acetone, formaldehyde, butane and toluene are just a few naturally released by paint, personal care and cleaning products, and even plastics, plywood cabinets and carpets. Some VOCs become particularly problematic when they interact with sunlight and chemicals in the air.
Environmental agencies aren’t overly helpful when they say they’re not sure what the long-term effects of these substances might be, but some of the possibilities range from nausea and memory loss to liver damage and cancer. Testing for VOCs and indoor air pollution isn’t cheap, with many of the available kits costing $50 to $150, so you may not want to lay out the money for blind testing. Many experts say, though, that when people are feeling sick in a home or business for no apparent reason, VOCs could be the cause. That’s when they recommend testing to determine whether indoor pollution is the culprit.
Many homes and business facilities which were built before 1990 have the cancer-causing mineral asbestos hiding in their ceiling or floor tiles, siding, roof shingles or insulation. And since the United States has still not enacted a complete ban on use of asbestos, some buildings constructed more recently may also have built with fireproofing or roofing products containing the substance.
Asbestos was conclusively linked to deadly lung cancer and mesothelioma decades ago. However, the material is only dangerous when its fibers are released and inhaled into the lungs. That means insulation or tiles which contain asbestos but are in good condition are not an immediate hazard, and should regularly be inspected but left untouched.
If you believe there is asbestos-containing material in your home or business and it is showing signs of damage or wear, that’s the time to take action. You can either call in professionals to test for the presence of asbestos, or purchase a test kit at your local home center which will let you send a small sample of the suspected material to a lab for testing. Asbestos is nothing to mess around with, so if you’re doing your own testing, be sure to follow all safety instructions included with the kit.
Concern over the growth of mold is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, the problem of “defiling mold” and instructions for its remediation are addressed in the Bible (Leviticus 14:43). There are many types of indoor mold which grow in damp areas, particularly on cellulose materials like paper, wood or insulation. It’s almost impossible to prevent mold spores from entering your house or business; they hitch rides on people, pets and even the wind. And the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 50% of all buildings have indoor dampness, so there’s a good chance your home or office is at risk.
The discovery of mold shouldn’t lead you to panic. It’s only toxic black mold which can cause serious injury or death, and that type of colony is normally seen only in buildings with leaky fixtures or accumulated water, which have been vacant for months or years.
Even so, less-serious mold infestations can cause major issues for those with allergies, asthma and compromised immune systems, as well as infants and pregnant women. If you smell or see signs of mold you should first use an inexpensive test kit to make sure you’re not dealing with black mold (many strains have a black appearance, so you can’t tell just from looking at a colony). Black mold requires evacuation of the area and professional remediation. Otherwise, the mold should be removed by scrubbing the area with a solution of bleach and detergent – and steps should be taken to prevent re-accumulation of moisture in the area.
Living in fear isn’t pleasant, especially since your home is supposed to be a safe haven and if you’re like most people, you spend half of your waking hours at work. Testing for these hazards is an easy way to ensure your safety and health – and more importantly, the safety and health of your employees or loved ones.