Q&A: Toxins We Overlook in Old Homes

By: Elaine Vitone , Contributing Writer
In: Uncategorized, Old Houses
Bernard Goldstein, M.D., is a professor and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Before he moved to Pittsburgh (my fair city), he founded and directed the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in Piscataway, NJ, the largest academic environmental and occupational health program in the U.S. While living in the Garden State, he hung his hat in an 1870s home, and spent his days sleuthing out environmental medical cases. Last week, I asked Goldstein about the toxins that owners of old homes sometimes overlook.

What kinds of mistakes have you seen people make in terms of asbestos?

Asbestos is clearly an important issue, and it’s worse if you disturb it rather than just leave alone. Often you’ll find it behind some previous modification to the house that you’re trying to undo—in the insulation, in the tile, places like that—and the previous owners just covered it up and didn’t bother taking it out.

Asbestos gets to be particularly important when you’ve got kids around. I saw one old house where they still had the asbestos insulation wrapped around pipes in the basement. And that’s okay if the asbestos isn’t getting out, but they had a ping pong table right underneath it, right over where the kids were exercising, and it was a low ceiling. Kids breathe more per body mass than adults do, so they get a higher dose.

The same goes for us adults when we exercise. If you put your exercise equipment down in the basement, and you’ve got some asbestos getting into the air, you’re gonna breath more of it in that 30 minutes on the treadmill than you would if you were just watching TV, so you’re gonna increase your dose. So if you think you may have some asbestos in the basement but you’re not sure, then you can protect yourself by simply not putting exercise equipment in your basement and not letting your kids run around down there.

We often hear that the lead paint tends to chip, and that makes kids very vulnerable to exposure. What are some other lead-exposure risks that DIY types like us don’t tend to think about?

People sometimes make the mistake of sanding lead paint off the woodwork instead of stripping it, and that’s a great way to inhale fine particles into your lungs. I once saw a young man who had bought an old Victorian for a song and was sanding that stuff off, and he was just wearing a drug-store mask. He had incredible levels of lead poisoning and arsenic poisoning.

That’s another thing. When you’re sanding, sawing, grinding, or doing anything that tends to generate a lot of particles—anything where you can really smell that dust—you really need a much better mask than what you get at the drug store. With a surgical mask like that, you’re breathing out of the side of it, and the particles come in just as easily as if you had your mouth open. Get something from the hardware store that’s made for the job—some are good for vapors, some are good for dust, and so on.

Also, studies have shown that smokers tend to have more problems with this. If you’re kicking up a lot of fine particles and smoking cigarettes, then, in addition to breathing in those particles, you’re also transferring them from your fingertip, to your cigarette, to your mouth, and into your body.

What are your concerns when it comes to old heating systems?

They’re pretty inefficient, which is expensive and bad for the environment, so a lot of folks redo their ductwork. I worry about that, because you might do some kind of fix-it-up thing in the summer and end up blocking a flue, and then when you turn on the heat in the winter, you get carbon monoxide poisoning. And it’s not easy to diagnose. Classically what happens is you wake up in the morning with a headache and don’t feel good, so you call in sick and stay home. If you went to work you’d be feeling better, but all too often that’s not the case. You read about fatal poisonings where a person went into the emergency room and was given Tylenol and told to stay home. So if somebody tells me they woke up with the morning with a headache, one of the first things I ask is: “Has anything been done to your heating system?”

Now, I don’t want everyone who wakes up with a headache to panic. I always tell people the most likely cause of waking up with headache is what you drank night before [laughs]. But if you wake up with a headache and you’re just sort of feeling weak and miserable, and you’re thinking, Oh yeah, we just turned the heating system on yesterday, and gee, last summer we did something to the duct work You know. Be aware of it.

How about household chemicals?

I ran into a problem with that in one old house in New Jersey. There were some old cleaning supplies under the sink that had been stored there for I don’t know how many years. It had lye in it, and the lye had gotten through the container, and people got hurt by that. So if you find something and you’re not sure what it is—and particularly if it’s really old and probably has not met the same kind of safety requirements that the new stuff has in terms of packaging concentrations—don’t let you or the kids or the dog anywhere near it, because they’re the ones that are right by the ground. Get it into a plastic bag and take it to whatever center takes care of it in your community. [Call your local environmental, health, or solid-waste agency for the time and location of your area household hazardous waste collection program.]

One other thing that’s important is labeling for your containers. I’ve seen people who do a lot of cleaning and fixit-upping use a lot of solvents, and they tend to take it out of the container that it came in—maybe because they buy it in large amounts because it’s cheaper, or maybe because it’s required that you dilute it. But when they put it into another container, they don’t always label it well. Then when they don’t know what it is, they take top the top off and take a good whiff—not a good idea.

In another example, there’s at least one pesticide that has all the safety labels on it, but it comes as a white powder, and you’re supposed to dilute it up to a quart. What most people use to measure out a quart is a milk bottle. We’ve been after that particular manufacturer for years asking them to put some color in it so people won’t confuse it with milk.

Benzene is another worry because it causes leukemia. It’s found in paint and in gasoline, among other things. If you’re storing your paint cans in your attached garage or basement, and you look at it two years later, you’ll notice that it’s thick—all the solvent is gone. Where did the solvent go? It went into your home. Paint has usually less than .1 percent benzene. Gasoline has 1–2 percent, so watch out for that can of gas in your attached garage.