For many of us, home is where we spend most of our time. But there are potentially hidden dangers and toxic materials seeping in and around your home without you—and your family—knowing.
BY: Sara Smola
We’re all aware of the effects of outdoor pollutants—smog, green-house gases, use of pesticides on our (dehydrated) lawns but what about the poisons lurking in our homes? Our homes are considered safe spaces but, because we spend more time in our houses than anywhere else, the constant exposure to an unknown pathogen can makes us susceptible to all kinds of illnesses.
If you have been experiencing allergy-like symptoms or been feeling mysteriously ill, it could be your house causing you to feel sick. From the chemicals in your carpet fibers to the possibility of mold spreading behind your cabinets, dishwasher or even walls, if left unaddressed, a house can contain numerous potential sources of severe harm to your health.
Mechanical engineer Kevin Smola has over 35 years of experience designing HVAC and plumbing for businesses like Disney and City of Hope, and has consulted on the residential properties of notable clients including Steven Spielberg, Kenny Rodgers and Bob Hope. He recently sat down with me to detail some of the more common household dangers. (Full disclosure, Smola is not only an expert, he’s my father. He bought lunch.)
Mold is a common occurrence throughout a home—whether you’re aware of its presence or not. Any time there’s a leak, moisture comes into the house, whether it’s through the roof, wall or window. If you break a pipe and the water goes through your carpeting, it’s imperative that the moisture is dried up before mold has a chance to grow. “Mold spores are in the air all the time, but they’re not really harmful to us until they actually rest where there’s moisture and then begin to grow,” says Smola. “Typically, green mold is not as toxic as black mold—but that’s a gross generalization. If you ever see mold in your house you can call an industrial hygienist and they will test it to see what kind it is. Lots of molds don’t even have an odor to them but some people are susceptible to the mold spores and will become sick and don’t even realize why.” The bathroom, kitchen and laundry room are prime zones for mold, but good ventilation (such as airing out the home frequently) helps prevent growth.
Hardwood flooring not only looks luxurious but is safer for your health. Allergens like pet hair, dust mites and fungus can lurk among carpet fibers. “That just has to do with basic cleanliness,” Smola says. “In any house that’s not taken care of, you’re going to have an infestation whether it’s insects or rodents.” Maintenance and upkeep will reduce the chances of an unclean floor, as well as preventing the spread of such infestations by taking your shoes off at the front door. Or, scrap the wall to wall carpeting (in lieu of tile or wood flooring) altogether as the carpet fibers themselves commonly contain hazardous chemicals including fire retardants (which can damage your immune system and brain development), pesticides and lead.
Used for insulation on the pipes or the walls, asbestos can be benign where it is. But it’s when asbestos is disturbed and goes airborne, that it becomes hazardous to your health. Smola clarifies, “Homes that were built before the ‘70s, there’s a possibility of asbestos in the house. You’d see it in some of the old popcorn ceilings from the ‘50s and ‘60s—those have asbestos in them. Typically with asbestos, it’s not “frayable,” which means the little pieces don’t break off. It doesn’t explode or shoot into the atmosphere by itself. However, if you drill a hole through the ceiling and the asbestos is there, now what you’re doing is disturbing it and putting it into the airstream where you can inhale it. When a person inhales asbestos, the fibers get lodged into the lungs and there’s an inclination for cancer to form around the fibers. Once asbestos is in the lungs, it doesn’t come out.”
Radon and carbon monoxide pose a cause for concern. Though carbon monoxide can be detected through an alarm system, radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can enter your home through holes in the foundation—is much stealthier and can only be found during appropriate testing. If you are buying or selling your home, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highly recommends having it tested for radon as a precaution. According to the EPA, “Nearly one out of every 15 homes in the United States is estimated to have an elevated radon level,” and that because of radon, “you and your family are most likely to get your greatest radiation exposure at home.”
Though modern paints no longer have lead in them, much to everyone’s relief, those living in older homes may still be at risk. “Homes that were built in the ‘20s and ‘30s like many in Pasadena, a lot of them have been remodeled and modernized but if the walls were just painted over, then one of the deep layers could have lead paint in them. So if you were going to make changes to a particular room, like if you were going to put a window in or break open a wall, it’s likely that you would be cutting the drywall and getting to the surface of where that lead paint is located.”