Site Seer: Protect yourself from hidden dangers in your home
April 24, 1997
Web posted at: 9:07 p.m. EDT (0107 GMT)
In this story:
From CNN Interactive Writer Kristin Lemmerman
(CNN) -- When I was a little kid, the normal settling noises
that my house made at night would keep me awake and wondering
whether something evil was lurking in the hallway.
Now that I'm older, of course I know better. I also know
that common household items should worry me more.
Many older homes were built with materials once considered
state-of-the-art but are now known to be toxic: asbestos to
keep your radiator from burning the house down, lead to make
the paint last longer. Dangerous gases can leak into your
living space unseen and unsmelled, like radon and carbon
monoxide. Even the food you bring home from the grocery
store is often full of dangerous bacteria.
I'm not telling you this to scare you. I'm telling you this,
because there are things you can do to protect yourself, and
Web sites that give you all the information you need to get
Asbestos was looked upon as a godsend when its
flame-retardant properties were discovered. Finally, boiler
rooms could be properly insulated, and the insulation
wouldn't catch fire.
Entire schools could be protected from rapidly spreading
flames by putting asbestos in floor and ceiling tiles. As
you might guess, asbestos went into everything anybody could
think of. The same goes for lead, which helped paint dry
faster and more evenly, and could be fashioned into water
pipes that wouldn't rust.
At least today, asbestos and lead are recognized as dangerous
materials, and are generally not used in new home
constructions. But other chemicals still are: For many
people, antifungal chemicals like formaldehyde, commonly
sprayed into carpet and onto furniture are equally dangerous.
Mercury, which is poisonous, is in some mildew-resistant
paints. Even the fumes from common, non-mildew-resistant
latex paints are toxic to some. And many people expect that
fiberglass insulation will eventually be banned, because the
fibrous glass particles that compose it are irritants and may
cause lung disease.
The American Lung Association's Web site can help you learn more about the
risks of asbestos in your home in its "Environmental Health"
section. It also points out other airborne hazards such as
radon, ozone pollution, and carbon monoxide, then tells how
air pollution can play a role in potentially fatal lung
diseases. More than anything, this site gives you a heads-up
on toxic materials you encounter in your home and office
every day, and the safest way to handle them.
Talk about state-of-the-art gone bad: Love Canal was perhaps
the most well-known symbol of society's need for a safe place
to dispose of life-improving but toxic chemicals. The
MedAccess guide to
indoor pollution includes a section on environmental health,
with essays from environmental activists such as Lois Gibbs,
a prominent Love Canal activist.
The site also includes a checklist on things you should be
doing to make your home safer. For example, when you remodel
your home you can check for lead pipes and lead-based paint,
and with the information the site provides, you can make an
informed decision on whether it's safer to leave it there or
remove it, and whether you can safely do it yourself.
A set of databases, compiled from information made available
by the 1986 so-called Right to Know Act cover toxic materials
emissions and air and water quality in your neighborhood.
They're searchable by region.
Now that you have an idea of what in your home could hurt
you, the Environmental Hazards in the Home page, run by HSH
Associates, can give you an idea of how to take care of it.
The HSH site is based on the premise that you'll learn about
the nasty stuff in any given house BEFORE you buy it, and
base your purchase decision on the information you have. If
you didn't take this precaution, it's certainly time to find
out what you bought. The HSH site has all the dirt on
uncovering lead and asbestos in your home; testing for radon,
formaldehyde exposure and water contamination; and other
hazardous wastes in and around your home.
Keep in mind that if you know for a fact that asbestos and
lead were used in your home, taking out the putty knife and
hacking away at these materials yourself is a truly stupid
You can often make yourself much, much sicker by doing an
amateurish job of removing hazardous materials than by just
leaving them there, especially if your asbestos insulation is
in good condition, or your lead paint isn't chipping. The
HSH Associates site will give you the details.
Now you have what you need to take care of a few dangerous
situations. Unless you're a Greenpeace activist, I guarantee
there are lots of other spots in your house that would
normally be perfectly safe, but because they're often misused
or put in the path of a small child they become hazardous.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can open your eyes
to some of the less apparent dangers in the place where you
live. Their list of home and garden articles proves that the EPA
has a remarkable level of Internet savvy for a government
Although the EPA's newly overhauled site is still under
construction, it already has wheelbarrow-loads of information
and special features.
A sample of current articles includes an essay on whether
that quaint woodburning stove in your living room is
destroying the quality of the air you breathe; proper use and
storage of household chemicals; pesticides and child safety;
and the proper use and care of home humidifiers, which if not
used properly, can spread bacteria and mold in addition to
the moist air you wanted.
Other spiffy tools include a feature allowing you to e-mail
the EPA with your questions. Originally, the agency
accepted requests only by snail mail or telephone. How long
does it take to get an e-mail answered? In my case they
called me back, rather than responding by e-mail, within a
couple of hours with an answer to my question.
The EPA also has a section for parents -- "Concerned
Citizens: Protecting Our Children" -- which provides
information on such unexpected topics as "using insect
repellant safely," and another electronic pamphlet on new
As if it were just manmade materials that threaten your daily
existence, you have to be careful with food, too. The
National Food Safety Database gives you the heads-up on all
kinds of food hazards.
Its "hot topics" area covers basic information on
contaminated foods in the news -- like the Hepatitis
A-infected strawberries recently found in Michigan public
schools, unpasteurized apple juice that contained E. coli
bacteria, and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, which has been linked
to eating beef infected with "mad cow" disease (Bovine
The site's consumer information section is broken down into
special interest groups.
These have links on food safety for people more at risk to
food-borne illnesses (the elderly, people with AIDS, small
children), a section on food-borne contaminants like E. coli
and salmonella bacteria, how to identify an infection from
them and how to prevent it, and even a section on food
preservation (canning, drying, or freezing, for example).
This will help when you decide to can the extra beans you
grew in your garden this summer, so you won't give your
entire family botulism.
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