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Home Is Where the Heart Is -- Along With Your Health

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 14, 2000 -- Choosing a house is one of the biggest decisions anyone can make. "Kicking the tires" of a house usually includes looking at price and location. But many people don't realize the house you choose can have a big effect on your family's health.

"The very first, most important thing to look at is the quality of the outdoor air," Debra Lynn Dadd tells WebMD. "The atmosphere around the house is more important than the house itself, because you can fix the house more easily than you can fix the surrounding air." That means you should look for a house on a quiet street, away from gas stations, dry cleaners, or other sources of fumes and pesticides. Dadd is a healthy home consultant in Forest Knolls, Calif., and author of the book Home Safe Home.

Next, check for major dangers such as asbestos, which was often used from 1920 to 1972 in insulation around the furnace, pipes, or stove, and in some acoustic tile or ceilings. "This is not a danger as long as the asbestos stays in place, but if there's a leak or other damage in that area, you could face major cleanup costs," Dadd says.

Many problems are age-related, so buyers should always check the house's age if they're considering buying it, Janet Phoenix, MD, tells WebMD. "Any dwelling built before 1978 may have old layers of paint containing lead, and you should be concerned if the paint is chipping or peeling. It's a particular problem if there are children in your family, since they tend to put everything into their mouths."

"Pay special attention to places where painted surfaces rub against each other, such as windows or doors, because that friction creates a fine dust which can be hazardous to both children and adults," says Phoenix, who is manager of public health programs at the Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council in Washington, D.C.

There's no need to rule out every house built before 1978, she says. Take a sample of paint to be tested for lead content and if lead-based paint is indeed in the house, take appropriate precautions. "You may want to replace wooden windows with other materials that don't have to be painted," Phoenix says. "If remodeling or repairs create dust that may contain lead-based paint, clean it up as soon as possible using warm soapy water."

Also check for potential allergens, Phoenix says. A house that tends to be moist produces molds that can trigger allergic attacks and asthma. Dust mites and pests such as cockroaches also worsen allergies.

New homes still have issues, realtor Kathy Ging says. Modern building materials may release toxic chemicals for a considerable time. New carpets, for example, emit a host of toxic substances, including formaldehyde and pesticides. "That's why you smell that 'new carpet' smell," Ging says. "Carpet manufacturers even advise people to let new carpet and carpet pads air out for 72 hours, but most people skip this step. For young children, the elderly, and people with allergies or [weak immune] systems, hard floor surfaces such as wood or linoleum are definitely preferable to carpet." Ging is affiliated with Milestone Realty in Eugene, Ore., and specializes in finding healthy homes for such people.

Emissions from recently applied oil-based paints are another common problem in new construction, Ging says. "If possible, use paints with a low level of volatile organic compounds, which are widely available. Better yet, look for paints that emit no volatiles, which some stores do carry. After all, we spend so much time indoors, it's important to limit harmful substances in indoor air," she says. Ging recommends an index of healthy building materials and supplies, available online at https://data.oikos.com/products/.

Finding a house with problems doesn't necessarily mean it should be crossed off the list. However, it helps to be aware of ways to deal with particular problems. For example, if you buy a house with a "cottage cheese" [asbestos] ceiling, don't paint it with a roller, which could disturb the surface, Ging says. Instead, thin the paint with water and spray it on.

Be especially cautious when dealing with a house that's been bought and sold often, Dadd says. "Each time it was sold, it was probably fumigated with toxic pesticides, and that adds to its chemical burden."

And check the neighborhood for power lines. "You don't want to be under a high-tension power line, or a transmitting tower," Dadd says. "The backyard line that carries power to the house is fine, but you don't want to have the neighborhood transmission station right across the street."

A final checklist when buying a new home includes:

  • In addition to location, schools, commute distance, and other factors, health risk also should be a major part of the home-buying decision.
  • The quality of the outdoor air in the neighborhood is critical, since it's a factor you cannot control.
  • Asbestos, a component used in homes prior to 1972, also can be a major health hazard.
  • Lead-based paint, used prior to 1978, is a hazard for children and adults if it is chipping or peeling.
  • "Moist" houses tend to grow molds, which can affect allergy and asthma sufferers.
  • Houses with roaches and dust mites also can worsen allergies and asthma.
  • New carpets contain harmful chemicals and should be aired out for three days.
  • New oil-based paints also emit harmful chemicals right after being applied.
  • High-tension power lines in the immediate neighborhood may be a health risk.
  • Houses that have been bought and sold often may have a higher amount of harmful chemicals.