Some hazards in the home are easy to see. Like a loose electrical socket. Or torn carpet on the stairs. But others are harder to spot. And some are invisible, in the very air you breathe. These include lead, mold, and radon.
But there are ways you can find and fix these unseen hazards. Learning about possible toxins in your home may be concerning. But knowledge can help you take action.
Getting the Lead Out
Lead is a naturally occurring metal. It’s used to make many products, like car batteries. But it doesn’t belong in your body. It causes damage to the brain and nervous system. Lead exposure is especially dangerous for children. There is no “safe” level of lead in the bloodstream.
Lead exposure causes problems with thinking, learning, and memory, says Dr. Aimin Chen, an environmental health researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. This can affect how well children do in school. “It’s also linked with attention problems and hyperactivity,” he explains.
These effects aren’t just found with high levels of lead. “Even at lower levels, which are more common in children, you see some of these associations,” Chen says.
Lead used to be added to gasoline and paint. These uses are no longer permitted. But paint lasts in homes for a long time. If you live in a house built before 1978, it likely has lead paint somewhere.
If older paint isn’t chipping or peeling, it’s not likely to create lead dust, says Chen. But paint can sometimes get damaged where you might not see it. Such areas include door frames and window sashes, Chen explains. Paint on the outside of a house can also chip and fall into the dirt where kids play.
Lead can get into drinking water through old lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures, too. Find out how to test for lead in paint, dust, and drinking water.
Testing for lead is especially important for younger children, up to the age of six, Chen explains. Your health care provider can check with a simple blood test. If your child has very high blood levels of lead, your health care provider can advise on whether they need to be treated and how.
You will also need to have the lead source cleaned up by a certified professional. Your local health department can provide information on what to do with lead paint. It’s not safe to try to fix it on your own.
Water and Mold
If you’ve ever left a loaf of bread or piece of fruit out too long, you’ve likely seen mold grow. Most types of mold are harmless. But some can be dangerous. They can produce compounds that trigger allergies or asthma attacks.
Mold can grow in buildings when water gets in, explains Dr. Matthew Perzanowski, an allergy and asthma researcher at Columbia University. And any type of dwelling can potentially get water damage, he says.
“In urban communities, it’s often poor ventilation in the bathroom, or a leak in another apartment,” says Perzanowski. “But water can also come from storms, or floods, or other kinds of leaks. And if you live somewhere with high outdoor humidity, that makes it harder to dry things out inside the home.”
Sometimes, you can see mold on walls or other surfaces. Other times, such as with a leak behind the walls, you may just smell it, Perzanowski says. Some people describe this smell as musty, stale, or damp.
If you find mold in your home, “you have to make sure that the water source goes away,” he says. “Cleaning and painting won’t do any good if you don’t get rid of the water.”
You can clean small areas of mold growth—less than three feet by three feet—yourself, Perzanowski explains. But take precautions not to breathe in the mold.
“Wear an N95 mask and goggles. Use warm soapy water and towels you can throw away,” he says.
You may need to remove and replace sections of caulking or walls that are moldy. Or throw out fabrics or rugs that can’t be cleaned. Large areas of mold damage may require professional help.
Perzanowski’s team is currently tracking whether a large-scale mold removal program in New York City helps reduce asthma symptoms in both children and adults. Learn more about mold cleanup from the EPA and CDC.
Radon on the Radar
You likely know that smoking cigarettes is one cause of lung cancer. But cigarettes aren’t the only toxin that increases that risk. An odorless, colorless, radioactive gas called radon can cause lung cancer, too.
Radon gas is found naturally in nearly all types of rock, in all parts of the country. It’s a risk if it gets inside. It can seep through cracks in floors, walls, and the foundations of homes and other buildings.
Even buildings without basements can have dangerous levels of radon, says Dr. Ellen Hahn, a nursing researcher who studies cancer risk reduction at the University of Kentucky.
Exposure to radon gas is most harmful to people who also smoke tobacco, says Hahn. “But breathing radon is really dangerous for everyone,” she explains. “There is no risk-free level of radon.”
Low-cost and free tests can measure radon levels in the home. If levels are high, a certified radon professional can vent it outside to make the home safe again. This process is called radon mitigation.
But few households test for radon. Even fewer mitigate. Hahn and her team have been looking for ways to increase radon testing in rural Kentucky. They have been recruiting and training local residents, including high school students, as “citizen scientists.” These volunteers perform home radon testing using digital radon detectors, which can be used over and over again. Standard kits for radon testing can only be used once. Her project also makes digital detectors available at local libraries.
“Libraries are trusted sources of information and resources,” Hahn says, “so why not make them places to check out a radon test kit as well?”
Her team is also looking at ways to get landlords to test for and mitigate radon. Renters can test, but the landlord decides whether to mitigate, she explains.
Certain regions can be hotspots for radon gas.
Reducing Home Health Hazards
You can test for or prevent many home health hazards:
- If your home was built before 1978, test exposed paint for lead. You can buy test kits yourself or hire a professional. Some city health departments provide free test kits.
- Have children tested for lead exposure regularly, from at least birth through age six.
- Use vent fans in rooms that have lots of moisture, like the bathroom, to prevent mold growth.
- If you have a leak or flood in your home, dispose of damaged items as soon as possible.
- Clean small areas of mold on walls or fabric with hot, soapy water. Be sure to wear a mask, gloves, and goggles while cleaning.
- Test your home for radon. Some local, county, or state programs offer free test kits. You can contact the National Radon Program Services at 1-800-SOS-RADON (1-800-767-7236).
- Learn more about other potential toxins in the home at go.usa.gov/xucEz