|Teach Yourself Environmental Home Inspecting|
First, let’s mention the quality of outdoor air:
Although this section has to do with indoor air quality, the quality of outdoor air where you live is also significant. See how your community rates at www.breathelife2030.org. You will better appreciate the Clean Air Act if you compare Delhi and many other places to your area. According to that website, one third of deaths are due to poor air quality, and over 90% of the world’s children are breathing unhealthy air.
For more on outdoor air, see also the Pre-Purchase section LINK*****.
VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCS)
This class of compounds contains carbon-hydrogen bonds and is responsible for much indoor air pollution. Formaldehyde is a VOC. For an overview of VOCs, check out Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality from the EPA and see what the EPA has to say about formaldehyde.
In the Indoor Air Quality Testing Options section, I mentioned www.homeaircheck.com, which offers a basic test for VOCs in the home, plus some suggestions about possible sources. At the bottom of the page, there is a healthy indoor air checklist to help in gauging whether testing might be useful.
Also read the section on Fike Analytical Labs' TVOC (total volatile organic compounds) testing.
A quick summation might be: minimize car exhaust gases from an attached garage and choose least-toxic indoor products. There are gradations in this, from shopping locally for low- or no-VOC products, products in the organics aisle of a grocery store, or products from a health food store to the many options available on-line to working with one of the healthy home consultants listed below in the Building Materials section.
There are also VOC meters, such as the BRAMC, 5-in-1, formaldehyde & VOCs meter, particle counter for larger particulates (2.5 microns, 10 microns), carbon dioxide, available on eBay. Get the 3-year protection warranty.
Read the instructions and do not over-expose the unit. For example, hold the sensor a few inches away from an opened detergent bottle and then slowly move it closer. It can take a minute to begin responding. Once the levels start going up, pull the unit away from the source. You have proved your point. You don’t need to freeze the reading at the highest level, i.e., over 4. Over 0.3 is given as unacceptable. When the reading hits 4, you have to put the unit outside to reset. This can take 5 minutes or more. However, according to the warning on the back of the device, these high readings can also be harmful to the unit, so take care.
A man called one day to say that he had sprayed a well-advertised air “freshener” throughout this house, one that can deal with smells from a teenage boy’s bedroom. He had such reactions that he had to leave his house and stay elsewhere. Three months had passed, and he wanted to know from me if he could ever return to his home.
Maybe, but he would probably have to get rid of upholstered furniture, carpeting, and maybe his mattress, plus have everything else cleaned, including the heating and AC system. And then there still would be no guarantee.
Sometimes, even though a person isn’t chemically sensitive, the body just can’t process one chemical. A woman told me this story: She had worked as a nurse in the operating room for years, when some chemical was added to multiple disinfectant products. Her reactions were so severe that she had to leave her job. Along the way, she worked with a chemist and testing service and they finally isolated the chemical that was setting her off, but she couldn’t return to work.
Home sellers lost prospective buyers because of plug-in room deodorizers. The buyers were (rightfully) concerned that the fragrances would never come out of the outlets, and they were unwilling to take on replacing all the outlets that had these plug-ins, nor did they know if even doing that would solve the issue for them.
A costly new sauna had a strong smell: formaldehyde. The manufacturer was cooperative, and the homeowner got a new sauna. Incidentally, speaking of saunas and sweating out toxins, a colleague recently told me that she bought an infrared pad, places her feet on that, sweats, and has an alternative to a sauna. I am not knowledgeable in this area and am only reporting to you what she told me.
Formaldehyde exposure was my introduction to chemical sensitivities maybe 25 years ago. At the time, I was working in a newly renovated office building and was also the weekend manager of a new Ronald McDonald house. For the record, I’d also had previous exposure in science labs at school.
One Friday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk and a headache started. The headache built up for three days, probably close to migraine status, and then slowly dissipated.
After this unsettling experience, the headaches came regularly. I can remember going to put trash out and the next door neighbor must have used Lysol on her garbage pails. Before I was back to my porch, a headache started, and I knew what was coming. Three days knock-out.
I got the not-unexpected responses from doctors: “Everyone gets headaches.” “Try this painkiller.” But I didn’t want any medication. I knew that something in time caused these headaches, and that something could be reversed.
I happened to hear a radio interview with an allergist and asthma specialist from upstate New York, on symptoms linked with mercury toxicity from silver amalgam fillings, which are about 50% mercury. Headaches were one of the symptoms. He said that after fillings were properly removed, he noticed that symptoms gradually let up for his patients over the next five years.
So I got my fillings removed and, in the course of looking for a doctor for chelation during the removal process, I found the name of a nearby environmental doctor in an index in a healthy living book.
When I met with him, he told me that the immediate trigger for the headaches was formaldehyde but that the deeper issue was mercury toxicity from the silver amalgam fillings. He believed that mercury toxicity was at the bottom of much chronic disease in this country.
A hundred years ago in Britain, they knew that mercury toxicity caused neurological damage in hatters, the “mad hatters.” So let’s put it in people’s mouths. That sounds like a good idea…not.
The fillings came out (like, my new car was in my mouth), he detoxed me for mercury, and, though it took two years, the headaches finally left. The last 20 years have been headache-free, and while I avoid Lysol, it would no longer set off a headache. I don’t know where my health would be today had those silver amalgam fillings not come out. So thank you for your work and for that radio interview, Dr. Alfred Zamm, retired now.
I can remember my then-dentist telling me to throw the books I was reading on silver amalgam fillings in the trash, that these fillings are safe and that he put them in his own children’s mouths.
Formaldehyde is in so many products, from furniture to pressed wood kitchen cabinets to paint to laundry detergents. It has a half-life of only about six months, so gradually levels go down, assuming there is adequate ventilation.
There are various products presenting as sealants for formaldehyde, such as SafeCoat, available from www.afmsafecoat.com. A client used my formaldehyde meter (BRAMC 5-in-1) and discovered elevated formaldehyde from her son’s newly painted bedroom. She sealed the paint with SafeCoat and at my next visit, formaldehyde levels were down over 80%.
I learned long ago that formaldehyde is a sensitizing chemical. That is, it can make you more sensitive to products that you could tolerate previously. Recently I heard this was not true, but sorry, Reader, I can’t remember why!
Interestingly, formaldehyde belongs to a group of chemicals known as aldehydes, and mold gives off aldehydes. Small world.
We have already discussed the BRAMC 5-in-1 meter which measures formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is an add-on to the standard Fike Analytical TVOC scan. See the IAQ Testing Options page for both of these.
Many building materials, from lumber to insulation to glues and adhesives to paint and on and on, and many contents, contain noxious chemicals that offgas into room air. Most of the offgassing takes place in the earlier years.
Keeping up with least toxic building materials and contents is a job in itself. Healthy home consultants work with individuals planning to renovate or build a new home.
“Green” does not always equate to “least toxic.” Recycled toxic products are still toxic.
Randy Fike (see IAQ Testing Options) told me that Liquid Nails (the adhesive that drywall installers often use to stick up the drywall prior to hammering) shows up in their VOC scan for indoor pollutants.
Search out “low-VOC” products, but even that raises an issue of whether semi-volatiles, which are not included in VOC scans, are present and maybe at even higher levels with no- or low-VOC products. There is plenty on-line about health effects related to SVOCs. From the SVOC perspective, regular paint may be less toxic than low-VOCs.
Notice that I have refrained from using the word “healthy” in conjunction with products. Who knows what all is in a lot of them. “Least toxic” is a safer phrase to use. I can’t guarantee that X, Y, or Z is “healthy.”
Renovation/new construction resources: These two individuals are researchers of products and have long experience in working with chemically sensitive individuals:
Marilee Nelson - The House Doctor – specialist in product selection for chemically sensitive individuals – renovation and new construction, 830-238-4589, 830-367-1197, Marileenelson11@hotmail.com – Texas
Some of my clients have made a list of materials they plan to use and go over the list with Marilee. Many times, she’ll have a better suggestion for some of the products.
Marilee is a partner in a company offering least toxic cleaning products, www.branchbasics.com. I know her to be a good researcher, dedicated, and honest, and she certainly is experienced with chemically sensitive individuals. I’ve been pleased with the Branch Basics products. I have no financial interest in this company.
Andrew Pace, Green Design Center in Waukesha Wisconsin (262) 446-6702. He has a popular podcast, check Spotify or iTunes for “non toxic environments,” with a space between “non” and “toxic” (or here ). He is chemically sensitive and has spent the last 30 years researching all these products. He's like a walking encyclopedia and super smart, according to a colleague.
Much information is available on-line about least toxic products, including at the website of Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org.
I’ve already pre-ordered Jeff May’s updated book, My House Is Killing Me, due out later in 2020.
To test for VOCs:
When we bring in new furniture, gym mats, cleaning and laundry products, flooring, etc., we run the risk that there will be unhealthy off-gassing from the item.
Who are the best folk to listen to for what are least-toxic products? Those who have significant chemical sensitivities (“MCS”, or multiple chemical sensitivities). They are our canaries. They are our warnings of what could happen to us, if our bodies went over the edge with exposure to more toxins than the body can handle. For many product choices, there are healthier options. Our job is to do a little homework and find them.
If you are in the chemical sensitivities networks, you would know the barrel analogy: We each have a barrel, and gradually that barrel is filling up with toxins. First we notice allergies, and then, with more toxins, we have “sensitivities.” As sensitivities increase, we may become very sensitive indeed, which is the condition “MCS,” or, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.
Some folk, perhaps after another chemical injury, sickness, accident, loss, etc., might go over the edge and become a “UR,” a Universal Reactor, where they react to so many things that it can be hard to figure out what is setting them off. The key, of course, is to start emptying the barrel, i.e., reversing the process before the barrel gets too filled up and there is spill-over.
There are of course genetic components here, and likely other predispositions. How efficient your detoxification pathways are may play a big part. But these are questions for your functional medicine doctor or other environmentally-attuned practitioner.
As an aside, in the electromagnetic section, EI, or Electro-Sensitivity, will be addressed. Our bodies are whole. If we are sensitive to chemicals, we are likely sensitive to EMFs (electromagnetic fields). Actually, everybody is affected by EMFs; most just don’t know it.
How do you find least-toxic furniture, bedding, etc.?
For those on a modest budget, the search may be a bit more challenging. Here are a few ideas:
For flooring, check out Lumber Liquidators. For some years now, their flooring has been formaldehyde-free.
Buy floor models, which may have largely off-gassed.
IKEA has some items which are formaldehyde-free.
Buy bare wood furniture and finish it yourself with a least-toxic stain.
Try to find a trustworthy source of used furniture, but be aware that by law they may be required to treat everything against bed bugs.
Explore a local organic/natural mattress store and get a sense of the options. Ask about requirements for them not treating a mattress with fire retardant chemicals. You may need a doctor’s note.
What about natural latex? That works fine for many, but as noted elsewhere, one environmental doctor she had some patients who developed latex allergies, apparently from their latex mattresses.
There are plenty of natural mattresses stores out there. Explore and see what organic/natural mattress stores have to offer.
So many folk have synthetic foam mattresses, with the foam being petroleum-based, polyurethane, with fire retardant chemicals. Two strikes, for those trying to avoid exposures.
That said, a colleague tested a brand new organic pillow, still in the plastic encasement, and found mold particulates on a DNA level. Since natural materials come from outdoors, does that mean that most/all might have some exposure with things in nature, such as mold? A hypoallergenic pillow may be a better choice.
For mattresses, avoid innersprings – to be discussed in the EMF section. LINK****
If you have quality vintage furniture handed down, be grateful.
As noted above, consulting with Marilee Nelson and Andrew Pace would be a good place to start. As far as interior design with least-toxic materials like mattresses, bedcovers, sheets, pillows, cushions, sofas, etc., there is Rowena Finnegan at Eco Terric, 866-933-1655, in California. Her website has lots to explore, though I have no experience with her service.
Explore websites such as the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.com and Green Guard, www.greenguard.org. Both are involved with testing all sorts of products, and their websites are highly informative. For example, every year EWG puts out a Dirty Dozen list of those fruits and vegetables that should be bought organic and those where conventional choices may be acceptable. Greenguard offers certifications for least-toxic furniture and other products and links to certified suppliers.
If there is a choice between wood products and solid wood, go for the solid wood (but not where the stain smells). I was in the Ukraine in 1993 when I learned that their furniture was solid wood, but that they anticipated cheaper wood products coming in from a neighboring country. Enter formaldehyde.
Studies have shown that dust contains all manner of allergens, chemical and other compounds. Money could be spent analyzing what’s in house dust, or steps could instead be taken to greatly reduce levels of dust, such as:
Check your vacuum cleaner. Just upgrading a vacuum cleaner can make a huge difference.
I use a laser particle counter to check vacuum cleaners by sampling the exhaust air as it discharges into room air. If the vacuum cleaner filter is HEPA quality (High Efficiency Particulate Arrester), levels should be down near zero particulates 0.3 microns or larger. Some vacuum exhaust dust has measured over 100,000 particulates with this particle counter.
A laser particle counter is a “must have” piece of equipment. The better ones still are around $2500 or more, but there are more consumer-friendly models, even some that claim to measure down to 0.3 microns, for around $200, give or take a hundred.
Look at the Dylos line of particle counters, though there are others around. Dylos was mentioned by a couple of speakers at the Healthy Building Summit, an annual conference I attend.
My laser particle counter was $2,000 about 25 years ago, and is still going strong. In addition to the vacuum cleaner check, this laser particle counter, sensitive down to 0.3 microns, also useful for:
comparing outside counts and inside counts. If the house is tight, with no ventilation, inside is likely to be significantly lower than outside. If counts indoors are significantly higher than outside, this could be a sign of carpeting and a poor vacuum cleaner, etc.
measuring room air compared to the air coming out an AC or heat vent. The biggest reduction I’ve seen in particulates came from an April Air pleated media AC filter.
demonstrating higher levels of particulates near carpeting, by hitting the carpeting and then measuring
detecting a wood stove or other sources of smoke in the vicinity, including incense sticks and candles
One physician, experiencing allergic symptoms in his rented office, was amazed to see how building maintenance’s vacuum cleaner was spewing out dust back into room air. “How do they let these vacuum cleaners be manufactured?” he asked.
Another woman called me for a mold inspection, because she was coughing a lot in her home. She called a week or two afterward to report that upgrading her vacuum cleaner had reduced her cough 80%. As I recall, she bought a Nilfisk Family Vac, unfortunately no longer offered in this country, though it is popular in Europe, from what a client outside of Paris told me.
Now, the Nilfisk GM80 is at the top of my list, but it is not great for carpeting since Nilfisk stopped offering a power nozzle. The turbo nozzle leaves much to be desired.
I was called to a 2-year-old home where the owner “knew” there had to be a mold problem, because she was on the highest level of her asthma medication. There was no mold issue, but, as it turned out, the vacuum of the cleaning service was inferior.
Perhaps the name of the vacuum sounded “clean,” so the company assumed the vacuum cleaner was doing a good job. Instead, it was carrying dust and other allergens, including dog dander, from house to house. This homeowner was severely allergic to dogs, and, after purchasing her own good vacuum cleaner and insisting that the cleaning service only use that one, within a week, she was off asthma medication.
Once I happened to be at a home when the cleaning service was there. Their vacuum cleaner was so bad that you could actually see dust spewing out the exhaust. The worker who was doing the vacuuming told me that vacuuming made her feel sick. And the homeowners were actually paying for this service, paying to have allergens and dirt from other customers’ houses spread around their house.
Particulate levels were about the highest I’ve seen at one house. The house had had some sort of renovation or concrete work a month before, and the homeowner had been breathing in construction dust for all that time.
In short order, he aired out the house, got himself an IQ Air room air purifier, a Nilfisk GM80 vacuum cleaner with ULPA filter, and a laser particle counter. Counts dropped fast.
I don’t recall the type of filter he had on his central air but that would play a part, too, in determining whether the filter was cleaning the air that passed through and whether the AC system had to be cleaned.
A book-lover was about to move to a new home. As she packed books, allergic reactions increased. She determined that these books were not coming into her new home, unless they were first HEPA-vacuumed and then put behind glass.
Remove carpeting, which is one of the worst investments in a home.
Pay special attention to the bedrooms. Are there dust collectors, such as carpeting, window treatments, bedspreads that cannot be washed regularly, pillows, stuffed animals that are not washable, pressed wood furniture? Is the home overdue for a de-cluttering?
Check the filter at your heating and AC systems with central ductwork.
Filters offer resistance to airflow, so heating and air-conditioning contractors often prefer filters that offer the least resistance, such as inexpensive fiberglass filters. These have been called “elephant filters” because they let just about everything through. At least they protect the motor from piece of paper that may get stuck in it. If your system has a fiberglass filter, the system probably needs to be cleaned.
From a health standpoint, the purpose of the filter is to stop dust from reaching the AC coils. AC coils are a site of condensation. If they are clean, who cares? The water drains off properly. If they are dirty because of an inadequate filter, air by-pass around the filter or leaks in ductwork, mold can grow.
Pleated media filters are preferred. These come in different widths, and the wider widths are superior, such as 3, 4, or 5 inch widths. Sometimes there is space, with a little sheet metal work, to slide one of these filters in at the unit, before the coils. Even if there is no space, a shelf could be inserted in the return at the unit, with some sheet metal work.
Many houses have electronic filters, which are fine until they get coated with dust, and then they stop working. An electrical engineer colleague measured some form of electromagnetic stress measurable throughout the house when the electronic filter was running. They are not recommended.
In addition to having a good filter, the filter must fit snugly, so that there is no air by-pass; that is, all air must go through the filter.
For more information, see the Air Conditioning page. LINK*****
Other dust concerns
A cluttered house - even if the cluttering is unique vintage collectibles - is hard to keep clean. Streamline possessions, provide adequate storage, keep surfaces as easy-to-clean as possible, have a good HEPA vacuum cleaner, possibly a quality room air purifier such as the IQ Air, and practice routine housekeeping.
Leather furniture is easier to clean than upholstered furniture.
Avoid dusting methods that spread dust. Superior microfiber cloths may be used, or damp-dusting. Avoid feather dusters. Retire the broom.
This subject rarely comes up in an inspection, since clients tend to be more health-conscious. Occasionally there is a renter complaining about smoke or fragrances seeping into their apartment from a neighboring apartment. Unless there are regulations against indoor smoking, sealing up holes between the two units may be the extent of what can be done. Sealing off outlets from the wall cavity is often helpful. Check for energy-saving outlet products at a home supply store. Sometimes there may be a ventilation option as well.
A laser particle counter will easily pick up on smoke.
At one home, I did my measurements of particulates in the air and then, later, the client’s son used the counter to do his own measurements. Numbers had increased dramatically. The rise was traced to the father, who had gone into the bathroom, closed the door and opened the window for a smoke.
At another home, I measured indoor vs outdoor air particulates and again, later, one of the children used the meter to measure. Counts outside had gotten much higher. Someone in the neighborhood likely started up a wood stove.
The indoor levels were much higher than outside levels, like 100,000 to 15,000. Someone had burned the toast or fried something for breakfast. These particle levels are another reason to have an exhaust fan to the outside over a stove, and to use the fan when cooking.
Many candles give off high levels of particulates, as with chalk. Dust-free versions of both are available.
Sometimes people send me tape samples from dark discolorations up around and on the ceiling, because they are concerned about mold. More likely, these discolorations are smoke particulates, from either a smoker or burning candles.
Ozone is used in fire restoration procedures, but I spoke with the owner of one of these companies. He told me that clean up from a fire or a smoker was never 100%. I had queried him about continuing health issues from a client who had bought a house previously owned by a smoker and had put much money into renovations. She raised the issue with me about whether air from the wall cavities could be making her ill. This smoke damage contractor confirmed the possibility, stating that he would never purchase a home owned by a smoker, because the smoke chemicals remain in the wall cavities.
Short of this client selling or gutting the house, her only other option might be positive pressure, to minimize air being sucked from wall cavities. See the Ventilation page. LINK****
Quality laser particle meter – from about $2500-$3500. These typically read down to 0.1 micron particles and up to maybe 10 microns. My old meter, $2000 at the time 25 years ago, reads to 0.3 microns.
On-line there are assorted particle counters that are not as sensitive. They might read to 5 or 10 microns, so assume that the 0.1 micron number would be much higher.
A story: When I was a teenager, I lived in a house that was close to a neighboring house, where the owners ultimately exchanged their lives (via cancer) for a pest and weed-free yard. One night, after the owner had sprayed something or other under my bedroom window, I woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe, like my lungs wouldn’t work. I ran down to the front door, threw it open, and took in fresh air. Then (what did I know about anything then?) I went back to bed.
A client told me of an exchange she had with a neighbor who was continually spraying herbicide on her plants and lawn. The client remarked that she, the neighbor, could be killing herself with all those chemicals. The swift retort was, “I don’t care about that. I care about WEEDS.”
Many of my clients over the years have been harmed by pesticides and have had to work with environmental doctors for detoxing as best as possible. Formaldehyde exposures (which I’ve had) are apparently easier to detoxify from than pesticides.
There are hundreds of pesticides, including past pesticides, so testing typically addresses the most common current ones in use. If needing to call in a pest control operator, look for one using organic methods. If an organic company is unavailable in your area, the next best thing would be an IPM (integrated pest management) company, where the use of pesticides is theoretically the last resort.
When I looked at three for-sale houses in my 55+ community, there was a bottle of Raid on one porch. “Thanks for the warning,” I thought to myself and moved on to the next house. Raid smells can last a long time. Years back, I took a course to become a pest control operator and recall the instructor saying that home owners could buy products over the counter that pest control operators had to be licensed to use. The course was taken for enhancement, not that I was planning to become a pest control operator.
Regarding pesticides in food, check out the annual Dirty Dozen list from Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org, also mentioned above. This list gives you the fruits and vegetables to avoid, with the highest levels of pesticides, and the conventional produce that you could eat with the least risk for pesticide exposure.
A landscaper told me long ago that eating conventional carrots was like eating Malathion. I had a summer job on a lawn crew once, and he kept me away from the Malathion. He is deceased, and I wonder if from cancer.
Check out www.beyondpesticides.org. This group has been around a long time and gives you the resources needed to check out specific pesticides, plus lots and lots of other information.
Testing is limited to the most commonly used pesticides, because there have been so many chemical pesticides over the years. If you were concerned about pesticides in your home, water, or ground, call your health department for information about testing.
A scan for pesticides in the air will likely not be as useful as testing dust for pesticides, because many pesticides are semi- or non-volatile. Dogs and children playing in the grass can track in lawn pesticides.
Testing typically does not include chlordane, a termiticide outlawed years ago. The half life of chlordane is something like 50-100 years, so it can last just about forever. As one inspector put it, “Great product, just destroys your liver.” Don’t quote me on health effects, but one of my clients said that his home had tested positive and both children had liver dysfunction.
Call your local health department for information about testing. Also check out www.toxfree.net for a consumer’s test. Dr. Richard Cassidy has been offering this testing for almost 20 years, as well as participating in research relating to several areas of health effects, including breast cancer, lymphoma, immunological, and neurological effects.
Asbestos. This 2012 blog post provides the historical background for asbestos in the country: Why Isn't Asbestos Banned in the United States?. The EPA tried to get a total ban on asbestos in 1989, but failed. Under the Clean Air Act, most spray-applied asbestos products were banned.
Review the wealth of information for the homeowner and others at www.epa.gov/asbestos.
Asbestos can be found in various materials in an older house. Rule out the presence of asbestos prior to disturbing original and old building materials. Hire a licensed a certified asbestos inspector, especially before purchase of an older house. Lab testing will be required.
Such asbestos-containing materials may include: vermiculite insulation, textured walls and ceilings, roofing and siding materials, vinyl floor tiles, lining in some old ductwork, more, as well as automobile clutches and brakes.
Should old asbestos tiles, siding, etc., be removed or covered over? Opinions vary here. On the one hand, it may be less hazardous to cover over old asbestos 12”x12” tiles and siding than to have it removed. If the old tiles are “friable,” i.e., in poor condition and crumbly, asbestos remediation is required.
On the other hand, if you know that asbestos materials have been covered over, is that a disclosure item when your house is put on the market? That’s a question for your real estate agent and attorney.
I recall once, when I owned a pre-purchase franchised inspection company previous to my current company, that in one attic, the insulation was labeled, let’s say “fiberglass” because my memory fails on this, but the new homeowners later sent a sample out for analysis just to be safe. Even though asbestos was not listed on the label, the sample came back positive for asbestos, and the franchise insurance company ended up paying for asbestos remediation in the attic.
There was liability because the inspector wrote “fiberglass insulation in the attic,” essentially guaranteeing that the insulation was fiberglass, even though the report itself excluded asbestos and recommended an asbestos inspection. From this vantage point, I don’t know why the insulation manufacturer also wouldn’t have had liability, because they neglected to mention the asbestos on their label. Well, that was a long time ago.
Another story relates to a toilet overflow onto carpeting in a finished basement. The carpeting turned out to be glued to asbestos floor tile, and homeowner insurance paid over $10,000 for an asbestos removal job.
If there is – or was – an old boiler/pipes or oil/wood furnace/ductwork, there would be an elevated risk for asbestos insulation. If so, and the insulation no longer is present, ask what happened to it? Was it properly removed, with post-removal testing done? Did a homeowner rip it out himself, contaminating the house with asbestos? Having an asbestos test done would be in order.
If you want to check for asbestos yourself, search on “home asbestos test.” There are labs and other services offering such tests to homeowners.
You don’t want asbestos fibers stuck in your lungs, so wear a properly fitted P100 or N95 respirator and goggles in the suspect area. Change clothes. Don’t track dust from a contaminated area to a clean area. Don’t sweep dust up.
This same warning goes for fiberglass insulation. Under a microscope, asbestos looks like tiny glass rods. Again, avoid the risk of inhalation. It may not be out of order to treat fiberglass removal as you would asbestos removal. There used to be an organization called Victims of Fiberglass. When I did a search on that name, nothing came up – but plenty came up relating to dangers of fiberglass exposure.
We’ll be talking about vacuum cleaners in the Particulates section below, but here’s a clue. One of the best vacuum cleaners is the Nilfisk GM80, not only for residential use but also used in lead, asbestos, and mold remediation.
Call in a certified asbestos inspector for something with legal consequences.
There are several tests listed on-line for homeowners to rule out (or in) asbestos prior to disturbing old building materials. Search “homeowner test asbestos.”
Why is lead paint a concern? Because lead, like mercury, is neurotoxic and can be particularly harmful to young children, affecting the IQ. While the more common lead exposure is hand-to-mouth, inhalation can also lead to lead poisoning.
Children should be checked regularly for lead, especially up to age six. Lead circulates in the blood for about a month before it gets stored in tissue.
Why lead paint? Lead paint is more durable than regular paint. It also cost more so would more likely be found in more upscale old homes on windows, doors, base molding, radiators, bathrooms, kitchens, red floor paint in basements, and outside paint. If outside paint is in deteriorated condition, lead particulates will likely be in the soil around the house. Food plants, especially tomatoes, should not be planted next to the house. The soil may need to be replaced.
Lead paint was ruled against in 1978, but painters were allowed to use up their supplies.
With lead, as with other common pollutants, there is much information to be had on-line. Check in at www.epa.gov/lead. The EPA is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Lead can show up in unexpected places – such as in the gold rims of old wine glasses.
If windows are older, and if lead paint is in the runner area, the likelihood of lead in dust is elevated. When the window is raised or lowered, lead dust may be released. Every once in a while, a client has had lead removal on vintage windows, and every time I check with a LeadCheck swab (see below), the swab is still positive for lead.
All licensed contractors are required to take courses on lead. The objective of these courses is that contractors should be aware of where lead could be and how not to make things worse and inadvertently spread lead dust all over the home. One homeowner took out old windows with lead paint himself and piled them in the backyard, where his little boy played with the windows. The child tested positive for lead exposure.
Lead paint in poor condition is another source of exposure. A painter should know better than to scrape off lead paint. At one old house, the young boy amused himself by peeling paint off his closet door. You know what color the detector turned when I tested the paint: red for lead.
There is a red flag in the last sentence, something I didn’t know for a long time. Any inspector is supposed to be licensed for lead testing before they even use a simple LeadCheck swab at someone else’s house. It’s best to hand the LeadCheck swab to the client and show them how to do the testing.
Testing for lead paint
LeadCheck swabs: These are easily available on-line, as well as in some home supply stores. Two glass ampules are inside a cardboard-like tube. You press on the ampules to break them. A liquid mixed with a powder. Squeeze until the liquid starts to exit at the end of the tube, which has a cotton tuft on it. The liquid will be yellow. Rub the swab on the surface to be tested. If positive for lead, it will turn red. There is a quality control test that comes with the swab, to confirm that the liquid was working.
These swabs are about three or four dollars each. You can get 2 or 3 tests out of each by dripping a few drops of the solution onto a QTip swab, and rubbing that on a suspect surface.
Some old red paint on basement floors contains lead. In such a case, the swab would not work and a different testing modality would have to be sought. Or, just assume the old paint has lead.
I recently ordered a Scitus Lead Test Kit, for about $1 a sample, and will see how that compares with LeadCheck.
LeadCheck and Scitus tests are for homeowners. A different technology is used for professional lead tests, such as for a pre-purchase inspection. That inspector would use XRF-technology, or X-ray fluorescence, using a radioactive gun. I had taken a lead inspector course, and when the instructor described the test, one woman remarked, “I’m out of here. I had breast cancer.”
With XRF testing, you know that the paint is positive for lead, but you don’t know which layer(s) of paint. As a general statement, if lead paint is covered over with layers of other paint, it should not be a concern.
Testing for Lead in water
NATURAL GAS, PROPANE AND OIL
Most of us know that we have to get off fossil fuel, given the fast-approaching specter of irreversible climate change. Check out Hope Jahren’s book, The Story of More, 2020 for an overview of how we got to climate change and where to go from here.
Here we’re looking at natural gas and propane. There are some sensitive folk who can’t do any of these and need to live in an electric house.
Aren’t electric houses expensive to run? Do a Google search for “Nate Adams electrify everything.” There are energy-savings ways to get off fossil fuels. Nate knows how to do this.
There are three potential concerns with gas-fueled houses and appliances:
Carbon monoxide – discussed above;
Gas leaks, natural gas and propane
The meter I’ve used for the past 25 years is the TIF 8800, with an updated model sold at grainger.com, for $332 (as of August 2020). That’s a tried and true detector, sensitive, and with on-site calibration by turning a knob.
The TIF can be used to look for leaks in vehicle exhaust systems.
Since the TIF measures methane and other combustible gases, as well as natural gas and propane, I use it sometimes at drains. The TIF always registers something, due to methane given off by bacteria in the drainpipe, but sometimes the reaction is more significant, pointing to sewer gases.
Awhile back, I added a second meter, a digital gas detector: RPI 721 Combustible Gas Leak Detector, also from Grainger. This meter stopped working before a year was up. That’s how I learned that Grainger has a one-year warranty, and they sent me a new meter.
I would also note that two other RPI meters were replaced. One didn’t work from arrival, and there was no sound on the second. Grainger sent replacements for each one. Maybe that says something about the quality and durability of this meter, but it’s been so useful to me – and I don’t know a lower cost alternative – so I hang in there.
I didn’t want a meter that had to be sent out for calibration. A representative from a large gas company told me that their gas detectors are sent out monthly for calibration. I doubt there is any such requirement for a small propane company. A client told me that when a representative from a propane company was called in to check for leaks, his detector didn’t work, and he used hers.
The TIF is more sensitive. It tells me a leak is present, and from the reaction from the TIF, I generally can tell if the leak is small or large. But I don’t know what “large” means, because the detector is not digital.
The TIF measures combustion gases, beyond propane or natural gas. I turn up the sensitivity knob to where the ticking just starts to get faster. Since the calibration doesn’t seem to hold when calibrated indoors (rather than outside), I periodically also check the calibration by holding the sensor up to my mouth and exhaling into it. If there’s no response from the TIF, I turn up the sensitivity knob.
Outside levels can be compared with indoor levels but more than gas leaks might be measured. Calibration is done outside. At several houses with gas or oil, the meter started ticking faster upon entering the house. Piece of cake. The gas or oil.
But then I did the same exercise at an all-electric house, and the same thing happened. The ticking speeded up. So what IS the meter measuring upon entering a house? The answer might differ from house to house.
The RPI is digital, so the size of the leak can be quantified, i.e., whether it is under or over 500 ppm, 3,000 ppm, or over 10,000 ppm (parts per million). That’s useful information. Every month I find an assortment of gas leaks, with several over 10,000 ppm.
One woman, 10 years with fibromyalgia, had a vintage stove in her kitchen that was spewing out gas 24/7, over 10,000 ppm. Possible connection with the fibromyalgia, do you think? Other folk have developed MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities), reportedly stemming from exposure to natural gas leaks.
I’ve said to more than one mold or EMF inspector: “You may be the only environmentalist to cross the threshold of that home. Wouldn’t it be a shame to leave behind a 10,000 ppm gas leak, when it would have taken you 10 minutes to check?”
I used to own a pre-purchase franchise on Long Island and just shook my head when the man who bought my franchise told me that New York State dropped the requirement for inspectors to use combustion gas detectors or moisture meters in pre-purchase inspections. Whatever were they thinking … but no doubt it has to do with money and liability issues.
If a gas leak is found, the gas company or a plumber should be called right away. One would think that a gas detector would be an instrument that a plumber would have, but no, not typically. The plumber uses the soapy water test. That is, spray soapy water on the pipe joint, and see if it bubbles.
And the gas company typically uses a less sensitive detector that is set more for asphyxiation or explosion than for health issues. The gas company representative may not confirm the leaks the more sensitive TIF finds. A plumber may have to be called in to fix them. Even if he can’t detect them, the homeowner might say, “Humor me. Just treat the joint as if it has a small leak and fix it.”
I have had clients who couldn’t tolerate gas stoves or even gas in the home. With any gas stove there should be an exhaust fan that discharges to the exterior. If it is too noisy for a homeowner, find one that is quieter.
Homeowners insurance generally does not cover oil spills from tanks, just maybe from a pipe break. If you have an oil tank, look into supplementary insurance. Clean up costs can be huge.
Within two hours of a leak, representatives of several governmental agencies arrive at the scene. If the oil got into the ground water, the oil has to be siphoned off. This whole operation could cost $100,000 or more, and you will pay, even if through a lien on your home.
When I lived on Long Island, letters from Nassau County went to all homeowners. The county wanted buried fuel oil tanks shut down properly, i.e., emptied first. They weren’t requiring homeowners to check for oil leaks, because that would have been a disincentive to shutting them down. But Long Island has a single water source, an aquifer under the island. If that water gets contaminated, that’s a big concern.
My dad wasn’t into reading about healthy lifestyles, but common sense told him that you don’t use poisons above your water supply, so he never used pesticides or herbicides on the property, not when they moved to Pennsylvania, either, and had a well. Pop was an early “organic” gardener.
Years ago, I spoke with a homeowner who had had an oil spill on her property. Her message? “Never buy a house with an oil tank.” I also spoke with an associate who was an engineer with the health department and asked if he would buy a house with a buried oil tank. He said that, yes, he would, but he would want the tank pulled before agreeing to the purchase, and he would want to be present while they were taking up the tank, to make sure there were no spills under it. New owners own oil spills.
A quick on-line search on “health effects exposure to petrochemicals” brings an avalanche of information, addressing everything from asthma and neurological issues to leukemia.
I once rented a cottage and only several years into the lease did I learn that there had been an oil spill in the basement. This same engineer from the health department did not think it was a good idea for me to remain in the cottage. Fike Analytical VOC scans were not on my horizon at that time but no doubt the old oil spill would have been detected.
GASOLINE AND CAR EXHAUST
Many houses have attached garages. Years ago, there was an article in the New York Times about a study comparing levels of vehicle exhaust fumes in the garage with levels in the house. As I recall, over 80% of homes with attached garages also had car fumes in the house. When you build your new house, plan on a detached garage or a properly managed attached garage.
That said, there are things you can do to help compensate for having an attached garage with vehicle storage in it:
Move all gas cans to an out-building or storage box away from the garage.
Put weatherstripping around the door between the garage in the house.
Seal up any access holes in ceilings and walls, where gas might spread upwards.
Set up negative pressure in the garage by running an exhaust fan after a vehicle comes or goes from the garage. The exhaust fan is set to run for an hour or so.
Cars in attached garages are not the only issue. Off-gassing of pollutants also comes from:
Gasoline in cans
Move these items over to an out-building or a storage box. Donate unused containers of paint and solvents to a toxic waste collection center. See what your town’s guidelines are for disposal.
To test for gasoline, car exhaust:
Read about the Fike scan, here on the Indoor Air Quality Testing Options page.
A TIF Combustible Gas detector, model 8800X, available at grainger.com, for about $320, can be used to compare outdoors/indoors and locate sources of gas escape in the garage, such as from leaking gas cans, lawnmowers, etc.
Sometimes there are new detectors listed on eBay but I’d be careful buying a pre-owned one – there are a ton listed. Two of the weak spots in a pre-owned one are the special batteries and the sensor tip, assuming the rest of the meter is sound. Both are available separately on eBay.
If you do decide to check out the used meters, zoom in on the photos to check for signs of wear. The prices for used meters are right, for sure, but you have to assume they have a lot of miles on them. What is the return policy and rating of the seller?
CARBON MONOXIDE (CO)
Carbon monoxide, as you have heard, is a deadly killer. It has no odor and the buildup can be insidious. Take precautions, such as:
Check the locations of your carbon monoxide detectors. Because CO is slightly lighter than air, meter should be placed on or near the ceiling. Why plug-in detectors are sold is something I don’t understand.
A story: In a small utility room, I detected a gas leak, and the homeowner immediately called the gas company. The representative repaired the gas leak and then checked the hot water heater. Levels of carbon monoxide were elevated, and I asked why the nearby CO meter didn’t register any alarm. His response was that the whole room would have had to fill up with carbon monoxide, at least down to the level of the outlet, before that meter would have gone off.
So he shut off the gas service until the reason for the carbon monoxide was found and corrected. The homeowner later told me that a dead raccoon was found in the chimney… in Brooklyn, but not too far from the water.
Some people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning by turning on their cars in the garage, perhaps to warm up the car, perhaps to answer phone, and then have forgotten that the car was running. Place a carbon monoxide detector on the ceiling of the room next to the garage interior door.
As with all smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, change batteries annually and confirm that the detectors are working.
Testing for Carbon Monoxide
There are an assortment of hand-held carbon monoxide meters on Amazon, as well as other suppliers. Consumer versions are under a hundred dollars, but a professional meter would probably run a few hundred.
Some meters come with a probe to test inside a furnace exhaust, such as the Carbon Monoxide meter from Test Products International, for $398, from South Korea, available at grainger.com.
Most folk would be aware that ozone is an air pollutant outside but might be confused about use of an ozone generator inside. Because ozone can harm delicate lung cells, an ozone generator should not be used when anyone, any pet, or any plant, is present in the house. If returning to a house where an ozone generator is running, turn off the generator and open windows to air out the house before staying in the house.
On-line, you will read both that ozone kills mold and that it doesn’t kill mold. What is correct? Michael Pinto, a mold expert, gives a good overview at: Ozone Generators and Interior Mold Remediation: A Recipe for Disaster (April 2015). Pinto refers to an EPA document on air purifiers. As I recall, there is one italicized line in the entire document: Ozone is harmful to lung tissue.
Long ago, a mold remediation project manager told me that they stopped using ozone at job locations after they had to replace someone’s upholstered living room furniture, because the ozone had degraded the foam.
Again a long time ago, Berkeley Analytical, an environmental lab, studied the effects of ozone on tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke was chosen because it represented various classes of compounds. Results showed that some more toxic compounds that weren’t present before were formed by interaction with the ozone.
That said, I can think of at least one client who believed that use of an ozone generator, with a fan behind it to send the ozone on its way, was responsible for her being able to remain in her home.
Ozone can also change moldy smells, maybe buying a person time before either remediation or moving. One chemically sensitive man said that he credited ozone with making his RV tolerable to him so that he could travel. As we learned from Berkeley above, what other worse chemicals may be being produced by the ozone, only there is no associated smell?
Every cell in the body needs oxygen, but two individuals sleeping in a bedroom with the door closed and no windows opened are using oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. Do you think they might awake in the morning feeling a bit sluggish?
Elevations in carbon dioxide are one issue that ventilation should solve. Ventilation is addressed in another tab. But what if these two individuals can’t address mechanical ventilation right away? They could leave the fan on for the heating and air conditioning systems. More oxygen would be brought into the bedroom and carbon dioxide cycled out.
Another option is to open a window. A colleague was visiting, and we decided to record the rise of carbon dioxide in my small office with the door closed. Levels went up, up, up. Then the window was opened, and down went the levels of carbon dioxide.
Occasionally I have recommended that the homeowner get a basic carbon dioxide monitor and place it in their offspring’s bedroom. Seeing with her/her own eyes might be the only way to convince someone holed up in a cave.
Testing for Carbon Dioxide
The BRAMC 5-in-1 measures carbon dioxide.
There are assorted less costly carbon dioxide measuring devices on Amazon.