No, toxin free house hunting isn’t a product recommendation but it’s a topic that I feel strongly about since we are currently looking for a home in another state and doing everything we can to ensure a healthy home is a must. I wish I could simply choose a house based how much I actually like the layout, the yard and the local schools but it’s not that simple!
Due to studies that have been conducted on pollution and chemical exposure impacts, my criteria for selecting a home has changed. Recent studies have shown that environmental hazards in homes are contributing to chronic diseases – and a number of these hazards cannot be modified once you have moved into a home (i.e. distance to environmental risks).
If you are looking at a new area, you may also be interested in the information outlined below. Everyone will give a different weighting to these items and some may be non-issues for you but I want to share everything I have found. Information on environmental hazards is plentiful but disparate and knowledge of these potential hazards empowers us to make the decisions that are right for our families.
By no means is this list exhaustive – I’m sure there are more items that I could be looking into and as I learn more I will update accordingly. Also, some of the studies referenced are preliminary and have not been definitively proven at this time. I hope that this information is helpful for those who are also house hunting!
In late 1991, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services called lead the “number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States.” Old lead based paint is the main source of exposure in the United States today. If your home was built prior to 1978, there is a good chance it may contain lead paint. The lead paint ban took effect on March 1, 1978 so homes built in early 1978 may still have lead paint. For homes built in the later part of 1978 and after, this is likely a non-issue unless artist paint (not included in the ban and may contain lead) was used on an area in the home.
Lead Paint Mitigation
The best mitigation is to ensure that the home you are purchasing does not contain lead paint. Lead paint testing is typically under $500 and will include testing the walls, windows & frames, doors & frames, outside walls, stairs, pillars, etc. There are two methods for testing – the first is to collect paint chip samples and send them to a lab for testing. The second which is much easier is to find a company that uses an X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) machine which can provide real-time results and can detect the presence of lead under multiple coats of paint.
If your home already contains lead paint, keeping the paint in good condition is necessary. When painted surfaces rub against each other, they can create chips and/or dust that contain lead (i.e. windows and ledges). Keeping a home as dust free as possible with regular cleaning will help mitigate inhalation of lead dust and repainting/sealing any flaking or chipped paint areas is a must. When performing home renovations in a home that contains lead paint, ensure that you are following the EPA’s 2008 Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP Rule) to protect your family from lead based paint hazards.
High Voltage Power Lines
Per the National Cancer Institute, a study in 1979 pointed to a possible association between living near electric power lines and childhood leukemia. Among more recent studies, findings have been mixed… Currently, researchers conclude that there is limited evidence that magnetic fields from power lines cause childhood leukemia
A 2005 British study reported that the incidence of childhood leukemia was increased if the address at birth was within 600 meters of a high-voltage transmission line. They found that overall childhood cancers were not significantly increased, and types of childhood cancer other than leukemia were not increased.
Although there is not a definite link to high voltage transmission lines and childhood cancers, there is not enough information to categorically disprove it either. Yes, there are many other sources of EMF exposure in our homes, but why add to that amount?
A very prudent approach based on the limited studies would be to reside at least 600m (0.4 miles) from a high voltage power line. As our children spend such a large amount of time in school, it would be prudent to check the locations of any assigned schools as well to assess distance.
Gas and Hazardous Material Pipelines
Do you remember the San Bruno pipeline explosion? In 2010, a natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric exploded in a residential community in San Bruno, CA which caused a fire that destroyed 38 homes and killed 8 people. Per a Bloomberg report, U.S. pipelines built before 1970 have shown a welding flaw that has caused leaks, ruptures and explosions. These pipelines carry a public safety threat but due to the extreme cost to replace the over 50,000 miles of affected pipeline, they remain in many communities.
Testing occurs by the various pipeline companies to detect flaws before they rupture, but the tests aren’t foolproof and accidents continue to occur. Check out this listing of the number of pipeline accidents that have occurred just since 2000.
You may be surprised to know that there are no federal regulations governing how far major pipelines should be from homes, or schools or businesses. Per the Detroit Free Press:
Companies have wide latitude in choosing where they put their pipelines. They can even get permission to condemn land from owners who don’t want to grant easements. Setbacks are not required in either state or federal laws. Companies buy easements from landowners, often 50 feet on either side of the pipeline’s center, but it’s up to them to determine how wide to make the right-of-way. They often put pipelines near existing roads or pipelines, which may be in heavily populated areas, because those rights are easiest to purchase. After the pipes are in the ground, there are no state or federal regulations on how close a builder can put a house, nursing home, school or business to a pipeline, according to the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit group that has pushed for changes in those regulations.
To determine if there are pipelines in your community, a great resource is the National Pipeline Mapping System. Their online mapping tool allows you to search by county and then by zip or specific address to see the nearest pipelines. Note that this mapping application only zooms in so far – when I reached out to specific pipeline operators for a more detailed mapping I was told that they were not able to provide this due to federal security regulations. You will be able to see the pipeline markers in fields or common green spaces if they are in your community.
Some states require that sellers disclose if a pipeline crosses the actual property (this would show up on the title report as well), however, current regulations do not mandate that buyers are notified if a property is near a pipeline (the term “near” has not been defined). The question remains – how close is too close? You obviously don’t want a pipeline running through your property or on a lot adjacent to you. Based on the summaries of pipeline accidents, most of the risk has been within 0.5 miles of the rupture but this depends on the size of the pipeline, the rupture pressure, etc. Evacuations have typically occurred within 1 mile of a rupture so a prudent approach would be to reside at least 1 mile from a major pipeline.
EPA Superfund Sites
The Environmental Protection Agency’s website allows you to search for Superfund (hazardous waste) sites in a given location. The default is to search active sites but it is best to search both active and archived sites to get the full picture of hazardous waste cleanup activity in a specific area. We found a Superfund site near a home that we were interested in and since it was an archived site with limited data online, I contacted the EPA (contact names are listed for each site). I was very pleased with the quick responses I received and their willingness to reach out to other departments and individuals within the EPA to get the answers I needed regarding the type of cleanup that was undertaken.
Don’t forget landfills! As the article on sixwise.com outlines, there are risks associated with living within 2 miles of a landfill (active or former). These sites should also display on the EPA Superfund listing but you may want to dig a bit further online as I found a private landfill that was unregulated and then shut down that was not on the EPA site and was within a mile of a property we had viewed.
According to the EPA, radon is a cancer causing radioactive gas that is found across the US. There is no safe level of radon exposure, but levels above 4 pCi/L need to be mitigated. The EPA advises that a homeowner should consider mitigation when the radon level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L since the average indoor radon level is estimated to be 1.3pCi/L.
The good news is that elevated radon readings can be mitigated. The only way to determine the radon level in your home is to perform a test. There are do it yourself kits but it is best to have the test performed by a state qualified radon tester. Both short term (duration of 2-90 days) and long term (90+ days which show more of a year round average) tests can be performed.
The test kit should be placed in the lowest lived-in level of the home. Per the EPA, it should be put in a room that is used regularly (like a living room, playroom, den or bedroom) but not in your kitchen or bathroom.
If you determine that the radon levels in your home require mitigation, the EPA publication ‘Consumer’s Guide To Radon Reduction – How To Fix Your Home’ is a great resource. There have been recent discussions concerning granite countertops emitting radon. Note that any type of stone can contain natural radioactive elements like radium, uranium and thorium which decay into radon. The EPA states that some types of granite contain more of these elements than others, and therefore, emit more radon than other types of counter tops. Keep in mind that the radon originating in the soil beneath your home is more of a health risk than radon emitting from building materials.
What is the issue with living close to a freeway if you can tolerate the noise?
- According to the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, lung function is about 10% lower in children who live near freeways.
- In 2000, a study conducted in Denver, CO indicated that children who live 250 yards (750 feet) of streets or highways with 20,000 vehicles per day are six times more likely to develop all types of cancer and eight times more likely to get leukemia.
- A Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles study found that children who live about 1,000 feet from a freeway at birth have a two-fold increase in autism risk.
The exhaust released by vehicles contain a high number of carcinogenic chemicals including benzene. In addition to their link to cancer, these chemicals are also linked to heart disease and asthma. Still not convinced? A Los Angeles Unified School District policy prohibits new schools to be located within 500 feet of a freeway unless the district determines that no alternatives exist.
Based on the studies conducted to date, it is healthier to live away from major roads and freeways. If you are looking for a property that is close to a freeway, a prudent choice would be to reside at least 1000 feet (0.2 miles) away.
Aircraft engines emit a toxic chemical “soup” which includes benzene, 1,3-butadiene, hexavalent chromium and formaldehyde. These are carcinogenic chemicals that have been known to cause leukemia, lymphomas and possibly other cancers. A number of studies and assessments have been performed over the last decade to examine cancer cases in individuals living near airports.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, earlier assessments indicated that pollutants emitted from aircraft engines among those living within 16 square miles of an airport could increase one’s cancer risk. However, a US-EPA study in 1993 found that carcinogenic chemicals emitted from trucks, cars, trains and other transportation methods outweighed those emitted from aircrafts.
According to the Seattle Times, a study performed at Washington’s Sea-Tac airport found benzene emissions near the airport were over 400 times what was considered an acceptable state standard. A more recent study performed at the Santa Monica Regional Airport has shown that based on air pollution findings, more research needs to be done to assess health impacts for those living near smaller, regional airports.
There is obviously conflicting information on the assessment of increased cancer risk due to living near an airport and there has been no evidence thus far to substantiate a direct link to airport pollution and increased cancer cases. However, it is known that the chemicals emitted by aircraft engines as well as ethylene glycol deicing fluid are carcinogenic and I want to avoid the possibility of these chemicals being emitted onto my local parks, schools and my home. Based on all of the assessments performed to date and the risk probability, a prudent choice would be to reside at least 6 miles from an airport and not on the flight path.
According to the null, approximately 3000 different types of commercial products contain asbestos – it may be found in products such as floor tiles, roof shingles, exterior siding, cement, automotive brakes, acoustical and structural insulation, etc. Note that asbestos becomes an issue in the home if friable asbestos (that which can be crumbled by hand pressure) becomes disturbed or damaged since those fibers can then be released into the air. Asbestos in a non-friable state (products such as floor tiles or siding that does not easily release fibers) is not an issue unless it is disturbed in some way.
There are serious health risks to asbestos exposure. Workers who were exposed to asbestos were found to have an increased risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma – both of which may develop 20 to 50 years after exposure.
Unfortunately a rule proposed by the EPA in 1989 to ban approximately 94% of asbestos used in the US was vacated and remanded in 1991 by the US Court of Appeals and therefore the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution of most asbestos containing products is still legal.
During a home inspection, any possible asbestos-containing materials should be identified by the inspector. According to the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, it is recommended that you hire a professional asbestos inspector certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an inspection and take samples of any suspect asbestos-containing material.
Wooden Decks and Play Equipment
According to the null, if your home has a wooden structure such as a deck or play structure that was built before 2004 and is not made of cedar or redwood, it likely contains Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). CCA is a chemical preservative containing arsenic, chromium, and copper that is used to protect wood from dry rot, fungi, molds, termites, and other pests.
On February 12, 2002, manufacturers voluntarily cancelled most CCA treatment on wood intended for outdoor residential structures effective December 31, 2003. As of January 1, 2004, the EPA no longer allowed CCA treated products be used on wood intended for most residential structures.
Healthy Child Healthy World has great information on how to mitigate exposure to CCA treated wood which includes the some of following suggestions below:
- Determine if your wooden structure contains CCA by either testing or checking for the existence of a label/stamp on the underside of the wood which identifies the preservative type
- If you choose to remove the structure, contact your local sanitation department to ensure you are following proper disposal procedures
- Avoid sanding or power washing the wooden structure
- Ensure that anyone that touches the wooden structure washes their hands after playing on or handling the wood
- Do not allow children to eat while playing on CCA treated playgrounds to ensure that arsenic is not transferred to their mouths for ingestion
- Do not allow children or pets to play under a CCA treated deck or play structure since studies have shown leaching occurs from CCA treated wood and can contaminate the soil
- Apply a sealant to the wooden structure at least twice a year to reduce exposure to the chemical residues
Problem or “Chinese” Drywall refers to defective drywall which was imported from China into the US from 2001 through 2009. This defective drywall emits VOCs which have been linked to irritated/itchy eyes and skin, difficulty breathing, persistent cough, bloody noses, runny noses, recurrent headaches, sinus infection, and asthma attacks. The emissions from this defective drywall have an odor most commonly described as that of rotten eggs which worsens as the humidity and temperature rises.
If the drywall in your home was installed between 2001 and 2009 and upon visual inspection, blackening of copper electrical wiring and/or air conditioning evaporator coils is found, further lab testing should be performed to confirm the presence of problem drywall.
If defective drywall is found through laboratory testing, it is important that proper remediation steps are performed. The null provides a great resource for remediation of problem drywall which includes guidance to replace all of the following in the home:
- Problem drywall – note that remediation calls for the general replacement of all drywall in an identified home due to challenges of finding individual problem sheets
- Fire safety alarm devices (smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms)
- Electrical distribution components (receptacles, switches and circuit breakers – not necessarily wiring)
- Gas service piping and fire suppression sprinkler systems
Mold exposure can cause irritation of eyes, skin, nose, throat and lungs. It can also cause asthma attacks in people with asthma who are allergic to mold. Note that if mold spores are present indoors, they must land on surfaces which are wet in order to enable mold growth.
During a home inspection, the inspector should look for visible mold growth. In addition to a visual inspection, an infrared thermal imaging camera can be used to detect thermal differences throughout the home. Note that if your inspector uses this diagnostic tool, it is a first step in the detection of possible moisture issues. The infrared thermal imaging camera is not a moisture detection tool but by detecting the differences in temperature between a wet area and surrounding dry areas, it can serve to identify areas in the home where further testing should be performed. Only a moisture meter will detect moisture and that diagnostic tool should be used if thermal differences are detected.
Samples of mold can be tested, however, no EPA or other federal limits have been indicated for mold or mold spores so it may be difficult to make any meaningful interpretation of the results. If no visible mold is seen during the home inspection, an air quality test can be performed to confirm the presence of mold spores. Even without the ability to interpret results against a federal limit, you will know whether or not mold spores are present in the home.
If your home is on a public water supply, the municipality will perform testing for water quality. Water Quality reports are available to the public and should be requested from your public water company. Even if the results of those reports indicate that there are no contaminants of concern, you should test the water coming from your taps since your water may contain lead after passing through lead pipes, bacteria, nitrates, pesticides, or vinyl chloride after passing through PVC pipes.
There are a number of home testing kits which you can perform yourself to test for the presence of a variety of contaminants. You can also test your water at a lab such as National Testing Laboratories, Inc. If there are contaminants of concern found in your tap water, you can install a water filtration system such as a reverse osmosis system which removes practically all chemicals from your water supply including fluoride.
If your home has a private well water source, the EPA’s Private Drinking Water Wells article outlines the types of testing that should be conducted as well as the suggested frequency of those tests.