Chapter 8

Your home is your castle, your nest, your base of operations. You expect your home to protect you, not victimize you. Many hazards are under your control, such as eliminating clutter that can cause you to trip, maintaining the home to prevent structural or other failure, and following appliance instructions and common sense in everyday living. However, some homes have built-in hazards. Others lack common safety features. This chapter reviews many of these features so that you can be aware of the risks. While some are easier to correct than others, a bit of knowledge can help improve your safety in your own home.

Lead-Based Paint

Probably the most widespread household hazard is the presence of lead-based paint. While houses built after 1978 are unlikely to be affected, houses built before 1960 were usually painted with lead-based paint. This represents 64 million homes and apartments. Lead poisoning is of particular danger to children as it causes brain damage and interferes with proper development. However, adults can also be affected. The damage from lead poisoning is not reversible, but it is preventable. Education is crucial in reducing cases of lead poisoning in both children and adults.

Children are often poisoned by eating chips of lead-based paint, but the risk of exposure is actually far greater. There can be lead dust particles in the air from any abrasion of the paint, such as scraping or sanding. Sliding windows can dislodge tiny particles, and lead dust is too small to be retained in household vacuum bags. Anything that stirs the air in an affected house can distribute lead dust on window sills, floors, furniture, and toys. Children touch these surfaces and then put their fingers in their mouths, as well as breathing the airborne dust. Soil can also be contaminated from paint chips scraped from the house years ago.

Federal legislation known as Title X, the Residential Lead-based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 has made the disclosure of lead-based paint hazards a part of the real estate industry. Buyers are warned of the hazards and given an opportunity to inspect for lead before purchasing. Informational pamphlets are available from the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD. Lead-based paint can be removed, but this can be an expensive and hazardous process. Other forms of prevention and abatement are also available. You could have a qualified lead inspector check your home for the presence of lead if you have children under six in your household. The inspector can make recommendations for abating the risks. You can also have your children's blood-lead levels checked at your local health clinic. Your health and that of your children is at stake. If you do not have children, it is still important to spread the word about the hazards of lead.

Lead in Household Drinking Water

Some older homes have lead in the drinking water due to the presence of lead solder or lead inlet pipes. While testing is the only way to tell if the water is affected, allowing the water to run for a minute before you use it can help reduce the lead levels. The lead dissolves into the water when the water stands in the pipes or faucets with lead in them, and is largely flushed away when the water is allowed to run. If you live in an older home you might wish to switch to bottled drinking water.


While asbestos has been used in many construction materials over the years, it is most hazardous when asbestos fibers are released into the air and inhaled. Asbestos is considered a carcinogen, and is responsible for many cancers from industrial exposure as well. It is no longer used in the manufacture of these construction materials, but its use was common before 1978. If you are planning to have construction work done to your home that involves demolition of any kind, you may be subject to the laws regarding asbestos removal and abatement.

Asbestos can be found in some older roofing and siding shingles, various forms of insulation, textures and paints, older vinyl floor tiles, and in the insulation on oil and coal furnaces, among other places. If it is crumbled or otherwise reduced to dust, it can be inhaled. It is not considered a health hazard if it is properly coated or enclosed. Have a professional advise you before beginning a construction project, or you may find the job shut down half-way through so a certified professional can be hired to remove the problem. This will add to your construction cost and delay completion. It is better to plan ahead than to be caught off-guard in the middle of your project.

Aluminum Wiring

Aluminum wiring was used in some homes and mobile homes as a cheaper alternative to copper wire. A problem arises when this type of wire is connected to devices such as switches and receptacles that were designed for use with copper. If you have problems with your electrical system of any kind, you should have a qualified electrician diagnose the problem. Electrical malfunctions can be caused by anything from a faulty appliance to a faulty electrical service (which should be corrected by your power company). Do not attempt to make electrical repairs yourself unless you are qualified, as the risks are life-threatening!

Carbon Monoxide

Present wherever fuel is burned, carbon monoxide is a highly toxic gas that can cause flu-like symptoms such as headaches, confusion, and vomiting. Brain damage and death can occur if levels are too high. While gas appliances are designed to be properly vented to the outside, sometimes damage to the appliance allows the gas to enter the living area of the home. Your heater or wall furnace may have a cracked heat exchanger, or your water heater or gas range may have a loose vent. If you experience any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning listed above, be sure to have all your gas appliances thoroughly inspected by a professional. Carbon monoxide detectors are available for home use, and operate much like a smoke detector.

Radon Gas

Radon gas is present in the soil in different quantities around the world. Some homes have unacceptable levels of radon in the air if they are constructed in an area with a high uranium-radium content in the soil. If you live in an area where radon is known to be a problem, consider having your home tested.


Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs, also known as GFIs)

These are electrical receptacles that have been designed to trip extra-fast to minimize the risk of electrical shock, especially where water is present. They may be installed in the receptacle box itself, in which case every receptacle "downstream" in the circuit is protected, or it may be part of the circuit breaker in your electrical panel, which protects the whole circuit. These devices have a "test" button on them, as well as a "reset" button. Sometimes they will trip under normal use, which causes the power to go off at all the affected receptacles. It is wise to check the "reset" button on any GFCI before calling an electrician to make a repair. GFCIs are usually found in kitchens, bathrooms, garages, and outdoors.

Smoke Detectors Smoke detectors are simple devices that should be properly installed in every home. If yours is battery-powered, replace the battery once a year or when the device starts to periodically "cheep." Direct-wired detectors are hooked to the electrical system of your home and do not require battery replacement. Many homes require more than one detector, depending on the design. Push the "test" button once a year. Occasionally watch for the red light that flashes about once a minute to be sure your detectors are working.

A carbon monoxide detector is also a good investment. They function much like smoke detectors in that they emit a loud warning noise to alert the occupants of the presence of this hazard. They are either battery-operated or direct wired, and should be located near your furnace as well as near the bedrooms. Smoke detectors save lives. Every home and apartment should have at least one.

Pressure/Temperature Relief Valves

Hot water heaters should be equipped with a pressure-temperature relief valve. It should have a drain pipe installed to direct the hot water or steam to the floor or outside the building. While water heaters seldom fail, a build-up of steam from a malfunctioning unit can cause a major explosion. The valve is found on the top or high on the side of the water heater, and has a little handle on it. Do not lift the handle during routine inspections, as it could allow the release of hot water or steam. Never stand in front of such a valve if it does not have the drain pipe installed; have a drain installed according to code if yours is missing.

Dead-Bolt Locks

Home security is becoming a greater concern, especially in urban or suburban areas. Dead-bolt locks are easy to install and provide greater protection against a break-in than conventional entry locks. You may need to have your door drilled to accept a dead-bolt if you don't already have one, but it is a simple procedure and can help keep out burglars.

Check the locks on your windows and sliding-glass doors while you are at it. They should have operable latches and a dead-bolt type "pin" to help prevent unauthorized entry. Of course, these devices only work if you use them. Get in the habit of checking them each night to be sure everything is locked properly.

Home Security Systems

You may be able to have a home security system installed even if your house was not pre-wired for such a system. Doors and window can be monitored, and motion detectors provide additional protection. There is a wide range of systems available, at varying cost. Call an alarm company to give you an estimate if you are interested.

Another inexpensive security feature is a motion-sensitive outdoor light. No burgler would want to stick around if a light came on unexpectedly! These lights can usually be wired into an existing light fixture box, and will shine only when motion activates them. If you come home late, you will have light for your walkway without the cost of leaving the lights on while you were gone.

Next Chapter: Country Property
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