Minding the Risks in Old Homes

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Construction, Old House Musings

Some years ago I was helping my brother-in-law Hans replace a chandelier and some wall sconces in his new–or at least newly acquired– house. According to local lore, the house had once been used to hide runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. So it had some years on it.

Our efforts typically went something like this: I’d wait in the basement, next to the breaker box, while Hans connected the new fixture. Eventually he’d yell “Okay, turn it on,” and I’d flip the breaker switch. More often than not, this would be followed by screams of “TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!” and I would flip the breaker switch back the other way. I’d then go and check on Hans and listen while he described the shower of sparks that had erupted when the electricity had been turned on.

The problem wasn’t Hans’ electrician skills: during his college years, he’s spent his summers running a residential painting company, during which he’d removed and replaced plenty of wall and overhead light fixtures without incident. The problem was that, in this house, all of the wires looked exactly the same, covered in the same yellowing asbestos wire insulation, so Hans was, quite literally, working in the dark.

Roughly a decade hence, as I look back on our misadventures in that house, I’m not really surprised that we opted for a trial-and-error approach to wiring in the new fixtures, rather than doing something sensible like shelling out a few bucks for an electrical meter or even–gasp!–hiring a professional. That part is actually perfectly in keeping with Hans’ natural impatience and my own native recklessness. Instead, I’m struck by the fact that we were so blasé about handing asbestos, and taking virtually no safety precautions. There’s no other way to put it: we were being pointlessly stupid.

Nor was this the only time. The pipe insulation in the basement almost certainly contained asbestos, and we likewise took no precautions when moving around down there. Ditto when we went up in the attic, where asbestos was likely present in the insulation. Another threat that was likely present in the house was lead paint, which wasn’t banned until 1973.

The risks of asbestos exposure are real, but also random to a degree. Some people develop mesothelioma, the incurable form of cancer associated with asbestos, after minimal exposure. Others are exposed over a long period of time and are not adversely affected. Because of this uncertainty, it’s obviously prudent to be a whole lot more cautious than we were if you think you are at risk for exposure. Not too long ago, I wrote about the possibility of finding hidden treasure in old homes. Unfortunately, it’s likely that there are some hidden threats as well.