Environmental Hazards in the Home

Will this house make you sick?
Things you should know about your house and the environment


This publication is a reprint of a cooperative publication developed by the EPA, trade associations, and state and federal agencies representing the U.S. housing and home finance industry. It is in the public domain.

Introduction

Does this home fit my needs and those of my family? Is this a safe, secure home, free from potential hazards? Is this home a good investment and will it retain and increase its value in the years ahead?

These are among the hundreds of questions that home buyers ask themselves as part of the home-buying thought process. It is good policy, this questioning, a means of gathering hard facts that can be used to balance the emotional feelings that are so much a part of buying a home.

In ever-increasing numbers, home buyers today find it necessary to add new kinds of questions to their quest for information. Environmental concerns are becoming an element of the home-buying process.

Although it is unrealistic to expect that any home that you are considering purchasing will be free of all forms of environmental influences, most homes (and the areas surrounding most homes) in the United States generally do not contain materials and substances that pose a health threat. However, in recent years, new concerns have been raised as our understanding of the natural environment has increased. Substances, such as radon gas and asbestos, have provoked new questions about how and where we build homes and manage their upkeep.

Home-Buying Considerations

For the majority of Americans, the purchase of a home is the single greatest investment of a lifetime. Will the presence of an undetected environmental hazard have a long-term negative impact on that investment? Does the presence of a hazard have the potential to affect the health of the occupants? If hazards can be safely moved or mitigated, will the process alter the homeowner's lifestyle? These questions -- and others like them -- are, and should be, part of the home buyer's thought process today.

As our knowledge of the natural environment evolves, the body of law governing potentially harmful environmental hazards and their effect on real estate transactions is also evolving. The rights and responsibilities of buyers and sellers are determined by state and local laws or terms negotiated into the sales contract.

Thus, before buying a home, prudent home buyers may want to obtain information about the potential impact of environmental hazards. Local, county, or state health or environmental departments are sources of such information. And, while builders, real estate appraisers, real estate sales licensees, and lenders are not experts on the environment, they may be of assistance in locating experts about the environmental matters. Private home inspectors also may be useful in detecting the existence of potentially hazardous conditions if the sales contract provides for such an inspection.

The pages that follow provide general information about environmental hazards that have the potential to affect the home environment. This information is believed to be accurate, but it is not meant to be comprehensive or authoritative. This publication provides introductory information to help home buyers understand the possible risk of exposure to potentially harmful environmental hazards in and around the home.

The agencies and individuals contributing to or assisting in the preparation of this booklet, or any individual acting on their behalf, make no warranty, or representation (express or implied) with respect to the usefulness or effectiveness, nor do they assume any liability for the use of, of any information, method, or process disclosed in this material.


Contents:

Radon

Asbestos

Lead

Hazardous Waste

Water Contamination

Formaldehyde


Radon

What is radon and where is it found?

How does radon enter a home?

Is radon found throughout the home, or just in certain rooms or areas?

How can I tell if a home has radon problems?

Why is radon harmful?

What health risks are associated with radon gas?

What is an acceptable lever of indoor radiation?

How are radon risks calculated?

Can the level of radon in the home be reduced?

What will it cost to reduce the level of radon in the home?

Is radon removal a "do it yourself project"?

What is the government doing about radon?

State Radon Office

Illinois      217-786-6384

Brochures
The following publications, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460 (202-475-7751), can provide additional information about radon:

A Citizens Guide To Radon
Reduction Measures (A Homeowner's Guide)
Removal Of Radon From Household Water
The Inside Story -- A Guide To Indoor Air Quality


Asbestos

What is asbestos and where is it found?

Is asbestos dangerous?

When do asbestos-containing products in the home become a health risk?

Can I find asbestos in newer homes, and where should I look for asbestos?

How can I identify asbestos in the home?

What should I do if I think there is asbestos in a home I have purchased?

Are exterior asbestos shingles a risk?

What is being done about exposure to asbestos in the home?

Brochures
The following publications, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460 (202-475-7751), can provide additional information about asbestos:

Asbestos (Environmental Backgrounder) The Inside Story

A Guide To Indoor Air Quality

The following publication is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, TSCA Assistance Information Service, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460:

Asbestos In The Home

Hotline:
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Assistance Information Service Hotline (202-554-1404)

This Hotline provides both general and technical publications about toxic substances (including asbestos) and offers services to help businesses comply with TSCA laws (including regulatory advice and aid, publications, and audiovisual materials). The Hotline operates Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 5 PM, eastern time.


Lead

The hazards of lead

Lead in drinking water

Lead paint

Brochures on lead


Lead hazards, what are they?

What is lead, and why is it hazardous to our health?

What are the sources of lead in and around the home?


Lead In Drinking Water

Are there acceptable levels of lead in drinking water?

I have heard that materials containing lead have been banned from use in public water supplies. If this is true, how does lead enter drinking water in the home?

Can I tell by looking at pipes and plumbing fixtures whether or not water in the home will contain harmful levels of lead?

How can I tell if a home has a problem with drinking water?

Is lead a concern in newly renovated older homes?


Lead-Based Paint

How prevalent is lead-based paint?

How can I tell whether the paint in a home contains lead?

I have heard about problems when children eat chips of lead-based paint, but are there any other ways that lead-based paint can be harmful?

How can I get rid of lead-based paint safely?

Brochures
The following publications, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460 (202-475-7751), can provide additional information about lead:

Is Your Drinking Water Safe?
Lead In Your Drinking Water The Inside Story
A Guide To Indoor Air Quality

Hotline:
For additional information about lead in drinking water, contact EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 800-426-4791 / 202-382-5533 (Washington, DC)


Hazardous Wastes

What are hazardous wastes?

What is being done to locate and clean up hazardous wastes?

How can I determine if a home is affected by a hazardous waste site?

What are the primary health hazards associated with hazardous wastes?

Can hazardous waste concentrations be removed from my property or reduced to non-hazardous levels?

Brochures
The following publications, available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460 (202-475-7751), can provide additional information about hazardous wastes:

A Consumer's Guide To Safer Pesticide Use
Citizen's Guide To Pesticides Hazardous Wastes (Environmental Backgrounder)

Hotlines

  1. The National Poison Control Center Hotline (202-625-3333) provides information on accidental ingestion of chemicals, poisons, or drugs. This Hotline is operated by Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC.
  2. The RCRA Superfund) Hotline (800-424-9346) responds to questions from the public and regulated community on the Resource Conservation and Liability Act (Superfund). (Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM, eastern time.)
  3. The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Information Hotline (800-535-0202) complements the RCRA (Superfund) Hotline and provides communities and individuals with help in preparing for accidental releases of toxic chemicals. (Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM, eastern time.)

 


Ground Water Contamination

What causes ground water contamination?

Ground water contamination occurs when hazardous chemical wastes, pesticides, or other agricultural chemicals (such as fertilizer) seep down through the soil into underground water supplies. Faulty private septic systems, improperly managed municipal sewer systems, and leaking industrial injection wells can also contribute to ground water contamination. In recent years, leaking underground storage tanks also have posed a threat to ground water. Half of all Americans and 95 percent of rural americans use ground water for drinking water.

Is ground water contamination harmful?

The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports an average of approximately 7,500 cases of illness linked to drinking water in the United States each year. This estimate generally is thought to be considerably lower than the actual figures because drinking water contaminants are not always considered in the diagnosis of illnesses.

How can I tell if the water in a home is contaminated?

The only way to know if water home is contaminated is to test it. Since 1977, federal law has required water suppliers to periodically sample and test the water supplied to homes. If tests reveal that a national drinking water standard has been violated, the supplier must move to correct the situation and must also notify the appropriate state agency of the violation. Customers must be notified also, usually by a notice in a newspaper, an announcement on radio or television, or a letter from the health department that supervises the water supplier. If the home is supplied with water from its own private well, laboratory testing of a water sample is the only way to determine if the water supply is contaminated. If you suspect that the water supply is contaminated, or you wish to have the water tested, contact local, county, or state health or environmental departments for information about qualified laboratories.

What can be done to decontaminate a home water supply?

If the home is supplied by an outside water supply source, federal law requires the provider to correct any contamination problems. When homes are supplied by private wells, analysis and treatment of the contaminated water may solve the problem. What will it cost to decontaminate a home water supply?
Normally, consumers bear no direct financial responsibility for eliminating contamination from water supplied by an outside source (if the water was contaminated when it was delivered); the supplier bears the primary responsibility for correcting contamination problems. In the case of contaminated water supplied from a private well (or water that becomes contaminated after it is received from the supplier), the cost of decontamination will depend on the kinds and amounts of contaminants present. In most cases, decontamination of a private water source involves technology and knowledge beyond the scope of the average homeowner. State and local environmental and water quality officials may be able to provide additional information and assistance for decontamination of private water sources.

What is being done about ground water contamination?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the lead responsibility for assuring the quality and safety of the nation's ground water supply. The EPA's approach is focused in two areas: minimizing the contamination of ground water and surface waters needed for human consumption, and monitoring and treating drinking water before it is consumed. In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed a set of amendments that expanded the protection provided by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. These amendments streamlined the EPA's regulation of contaminants, banned all future use of lead pipe and lead solder in public drinking water systems, mandated greater protection of ground water sources, and authorized the EPA to file civil suits or issue administrative orders against public water systems that are in violation of the act. Working with the states, EPA has set the national standards for minimum levels of a number of contaminants and is mandated to set such standards for additional contaminants by 1991. In addition, EPA and the states are working to devise a national strategy for the monitoring and management of ground water supplies.

Brochures

 "Is Your Drinking Water Safe?"
available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460 (202-475-7751), can provide additional information about drinking water.

Hotlines

The Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) provides information and publications to help the public and regulated community understand EPA's drinking water regulations and programs. (Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, eastern time.)


Formaldehyde

What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colorless, gaseous chemical compound that is generally present at low, variable concentrations in both indoor and outdoor air. It is emitted by many construction materials and consumer-based products that contain formaldehyde based glues, resins, preservatives, and bonding agents. Formaldehyde is also an ingredient in foam that was used for home insulation until the early 1980s.

Where is formaldehyde found in the home?

Sources of formaldehyde in the home include smoke, household products, and unvented fuel burning appliances (like gas stoves or kerosene space heaters). Formaldehyde, by itself or in combination with other chemicals, serves a number of purposes in manufactured products. For example, it is used to add permanent press qualities to clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and as a preservative in some paints and coating products. In homes, the most significant sources of formaldehyde are likely to be in the adhesives used to bond pressed wood building materials and in plywood used for interior or exterior construction. Urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are found in wood products that are intended for indoor use. Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resins are used in products intended for exterior uses. UF resins emit significantly more formaldehyde gas than PF resins. Certain foam insulating materials once widely used in housing construction (urea-formaldehyde form or UFFI) also contain large amounts of formaldehyde. While contractors have voluntarily stopped using UFFI foam insulation, the material is present in many homes that were originally insulated with UFFI.

What health risks are associated with formaldehyde ?

Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in animals, but there is no definitive evidence linking it to cancer in humans. Above normal levels of formaldehyde in the home atmosphere can trigger asthma attacks in individuals who have this condition. Other health hazards attributed to formaldehyde include skin rashes; watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, throat, and nasal passages; and breathing difficulties. Most persons will first react to formaldehyde when the levels are in the range of 0.1 to 1.1 parts per million. Some individuals acquire a reduced tolerance to formaldehyde following their initial exposure to the gas. In these instances, subsequent exposure to even small amounts of formaldehyde will cause reactions.

Do some kinds of homes carry a greater formaldehyde health risk than others?

Yes. Materials containing formaldehyde were widely used in the construction of some prefabricated and manufactured homes. Since 1985, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has enforced regulations that sharply limit the use of materials containing formaldehyde in these types of housing to the lower emitting products. However, the use of formaldehyde containing products is still widespread in the manufacture of furniture, cabinets, and other building materials.

What can be done to reduce formaldehyde levels in a home?

Reducing formaldehyde levels in the home can be simple or complex depending on the source of the gas. Initial procedures often include increased ventilation and circulation of outside air through the home. If new furniture, drapery, or other sources are contributing to higher than normal levels of formaldehyde, removal of these items (or limiting the number of new items introduced into the home) may be all that is needed. In some instances, home subflooring or walls may be the source of formaldehyde, or foam insulation between inner and outer walls may be emitting gas. If increased ventilation does not produce acceptable results in these instances, homeowners may be required to remove the formaldehyde bearing material. Such procedures will be costly, time consuming, and temporarily disruptive of life in the home.

How can I tell if the home I wish to buy contains formaldehyde bearing materials?

In the case of a new home, you should consult with the builder before you purchase the house. Most builders will be able to tell you if construction materials contain urea-formaldehyde or they may direct you to manufacturers who can provide information about specific products. In the case of an older home, formaldehyde emitting materials may not be visibly evident and the current owners may not have specific product information. Because formaldehyde emissions from building materials decrease as the materials age (particularly over the first two or three years), older urea-formaldehyde building materials most probably will not be a significant source of formaldehyde emissions. You may wish to hire a qualified building inspector to examine the home for the presence of formaldehyde emitting materials. In addition, home monitoring kits are now available for testing formaldehyde levels in the home. Be sure that the testing device monitors for at least 24 hours to assure that the test period is truly representative.

Brochures

The Inside Story -- A Guide To Indoor Air Quality is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Public Information Center, 401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460.

Air Pollution in Your Home and Home Indoor Air Quality Check List are available from Local chapters of the American Lung Association.

Formaldehyde: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask is available from the Consumer Federation of America, 1424 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC, 20036. (Send a self addressed, stamped envelope.)


Acknowledgments:

This publication has been prepared specifically for the home buyer to help understand the possible consequences that exposure to potentially harmful environmental hazards may have on health, and to assist in reaching a more informed decision when purchasing a home. The organizations and agencies that have participated in the development of this publication represent the major components of the housing and home finance industry in the United States.

Special acknowledgment is also given to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its technical assistance in the development of this publication.

American Bankers Association, American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Freddie Mac, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Mortgage Bankers Association of America, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, National Association of Realtors, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, National Council of Savings Associations, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of Thrift Supervision, Society of Real Estate Appraisers, The Appraisal Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. League of Savings Institutions

Sources of Additional Information

The EPA operates a variety of telephone hotlines to provide the public with easy access to EPA's programs, capabilities, and services. In addition to the hotlines, EPA has a variety of clearinghouses, libraries, and dockets that may provide information about a broad range of environmental issues.

Information related to all of these sources is published in the Guide to EPA Clearinghouses, Libraries, and Dockets, which is available from EPA's Public Information Center (401 M Street SW, Washington, DC, 20460).

The EPA regional offices are perhaps the best sources for additional information about environmental hazards in specific states and local areas. Each EPA regional office has information on states and areas within a single geographic area.

EPA Region 6:

230 South Dearborn Street Chicago, IL 60604 Suite 1200 (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI)