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HOME SAFETY : Trapped Toxins Become the Enemy Within

June 12, 1993|From Associated Press

These days, pollution hits many people right where they live. Today's snug, energy-efficient houses trap more and more toxins, sometimes causing them to rise to levels 10 to 100 times higher than the levels experienced outdoors.

Here's what you need to know about some common indoor toxins, along with suggestions about how to lower their concentrations to safe levels:


If you have young children, get the lead out when it comes to dealing with this extremely toxic chemical. Kids who take in even minute quantities of lead show signs of brain injury and reduced intelligence. Over time, lead poisoning can also lead to blindness and kidney damage.

The two most common sources of household lead pollution are drinking water and lead-based paint.

In the fall, a government study revealed excessive lead in the drinking water of homes in cities across the nation. The culprits in most cases were lead water pipes and lead-based solder used to join water pipes. Lead solder was prohibited by federal law in 1988, but many homes and schools still have lead in pipes.

Lead-based paints pose a threat when they are peeling or chipping, or when remodeling sends paint particles and scrapings into the air. Construction dust gets into the soil or air and onto windowsills and floors--and into children's mouths. Even though the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned use of lead-based paints in homes in 1978, this kind of paint is still found in more than 50 million homes.

What to do? Your local health department or state environmental protection agency can tell you whether your home is at risk for lead. They can also point you toward reputable testing companies.

Complete removal of all sources of lead isn't always practical. To minimize the problem:

* Keep a clean house. Wet wipe windowsills with a phosphate detergent and regularly vacuum carpets.

* Leave your shoes outdoors if your soil is contaminated, and take care to wash hands before eating. Removing old soil and hauling in new helps.

* Replace windows and doors that are covered with peeling, lead-based paints. That's often cheaper and safer than having the paint stripped.

* Run your water for a few minutes before using to flush out lead. Use cold water for cooking; hot water picks up more lead.

* Check with state or local health officials about low-interest loans or tax credits for lead abatement.


The guest room in Barbara Scott Murdock's house is in the basement. Guests began complaining of morning headaches that cleared when they went upstairs. "I suspected our furnace needed adjustment and was putting out carbon monoxide," says Murdock, an environmental consultant. She was right.

When a home combustion application--furnace, stove, water heater--incompletely burns its fuel, CO (which blocks the blood's ability to carry oxygen) can become a problem. Headaches, nausea and heart problems signal high CO levels. Extremely high levels can kill. Other gases formed by incomplete combustion cause everything from sore throats to cancer.

Detection kits and test strips ($10 to $40) that change color with CO present may confirm a problem, but most important is fixing the appliance and improving ventilation. Make sure chimneys, flues and filters aren't blocked or cracked. Vents and draft-assist fans help prevent back drafts in flues.


This natural mineral was banned for residential use in 1978 and for all uses in 1989. In old houses, you can still find asbestos in siding, roofing, acoustic tile, flooring and hot pipe insulation. Inhaled, its small fibers can cause lung cancer.

"Asbestos products in good shape do not pose a health threat," says Pete Kuzj, an indoor air quality consultant. "Products become dangerous when the material is friable--crumbly or easily broken apart with hand pressure." Non-friable products are a problem only when they are disturbed by scraping, sanding or chipping.

Asbestos removal usually isn't required, says Kuzj, even when it is friable. "Most asbestos materials can be encapsulated or encased rather than removed," he explains. Many experts regard these steps as jobs for professional asbestos contractors.

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