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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 started.


When state-of-the-art sours

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.

Act on your knowledge


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 move.

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.

Protecting your home's occupants

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 agency.

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 carpet dangers.

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 Spongiform Encephalopathy).

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.


Related site:

  • Lowe's home safety encyclopedia - A quiz on the Lowe's retail hardware chain's site helps you determine whether your home has poisoning hazards.
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