Health Hazards

 

Much of what the professional inspector does in evaluating the electrical, heating and plumbing systems is relevant to the issue of safety. When these systems are not working properly, they can create serious hazards for the occupants of a home. There are other health issues associated with the home you may buy that are beyond the purview of a real estate inspector and the carpenters, plumbers, and electricians that complete routine home repairs

Methamphetamine Contamination

We are currently recommending that every buyer we work with conduct a screening test for meth contamination on any house or condo that they’re thinking about buying. Especially at high levels, there are proven health risks associated with living in a home with meth contamination. But the risk of buying a meth contaminated home in Colorado is at least as much a financial issue as a health and safety issue.

Under current Colorado law, a home (or car or office building) is defined as a meth lab if meth has been manufactured, stored, or used on the property. And if a property is identified as a “meth lab” under this very broad meaning of the phrase, the following is required:

Anyone living in the property, including the owner, must move out. Only qualified personnel are allowed in the property.

A full Preliminary Assessment by an industrial hygienist must be completed to assess the level of contamination. This assessment will typically cost $1200 to $1600.

If contamination is found in excess of state mandated levels, then:

All personal property on site must be cleaned or disposed of. Since cleaning and testing is very expensive, this generally means that everything in the house has to be trashed.

The property must be cleaned under strict state mandated guidelines. The cost will probably range between $20,000 and $50,000, but could be much more.

Final clearance testing must be completed to show that meth contamination is within mandated levels. This will probably cost another $1200 to $1600.

Imagine the consequence for a buyer who purchases a home, moves in, puts the home on the market a year later, and runs into a buyer who conducts a meth screening test and finds meth. This new home owner will likely lose everything they own and incur cleanup costs in the $20,000 to $50,000 range simply to get the house sold. And if they try to recover their losses from the prior owner, they will have to prove that the house was contaminated before they moved in. In many cases, the result will be bankruptcy for the home owner.

Screening tests for meth aren’t cheap, typically running $500 to $600. We’ve found a couple of industrial hygienists who’ll do them for $375. We’re currently splitting this cost with clients to encourage testing of every property we’re involved with.

Radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that enters the home through the soil or water and may create increased risks of lung cancer. Most homes in the Boulder County and Denver Metro area real estate market have radon levels higher than those considered safe by the EPA. In Boulder County, radon testing is a routine component of home inspections, but it is less common in other area real estate markets.

Most professional home inspectors do radon testing, typically charging about $130. Mitigation for radon problems is generally not difficult, nor is it prohibitively expensive. Typically, a pipe is inserted through the basement slab and extended outside the home. A low volume fan then draws gases (including radon) through the gravel that is under the slab, into the pipe, and out of the home. This typically costs about $800-$1000.

Several issues are a constant source of problems in dealing with radon in the home buying process. First, the testing devices that are commonly used to measure radon levels can be left in the home only for a 2-5 day period. While these devises provide accurate measurements of the radon levels in the home during this period, radon levels vary dramatically from one day to the next depending on a variety of factors, including weather conditions, whether the ground is frozen, and whether fireplaces or furnaces are operating. A home that tests above or below the EPA limits one week may not the next. Second, while radon levels in most homes in our area exceed EPA recommendations, most exceed these recommendations by marginal amounts. Especially if the seller or listing agent understands the limitations of radon testing, this can make negotiations regarding mitigation difficult. Finally, while I would certainly rely on the EPA over a real estate agent in assessing the health risks of radon, there appears to be serious scientific debate over the health risks of low level radon exposure.

My recommendation would be to test for radon and try to negotiate mitigation if the results exceed EPA recommendations. Whatever the results of these short term screening tests, run a year long test after you move into the home so that you have a real measure of potential exposure. Just because your home tests within EPA recommended levels when you run your short term test doesn’t mean that it will if you run a more reliable long term test. Check the EPA radon home page for additional information and publications.

Lead Based Paint

There is strong and widely accepted evidence that exposure to lead contributes to a wide range of health problems. This evidence led to the removal of lead from gasoline and to prohibiting its use in most paints and construction materials after 1978. Several years ago, the federal government began to require the use of a contract addendum regarding lead based paint for all sales (and rentals) of homes and condos built prior to 1978. This addendum requires that the seller disclose any knowledge of lead based paint in the house and requires that the buyer have the option of testing for lead based paint.

Despite this mandated addendum, testing for lead based paint has not become routine in our market. In part because mitigation is a much more complicated proposition than it is for radon and because buyers are concerned about having to disclose the results of these tests later want to sell the property.

A variety of tests for lead based paint are available and there are many companies offering testing services. Check out the EPA’s home page for lead issues and their list of consumer publications on lead and lead based paint. You might also want to look at the lead based paint contract addendum on the Colorado Real Estate Commission’s document list. Finally, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has updated local information on local lead testing and mitigation companies.

Asbestos

Asbestos, which was commonly used in a variety of building materials through the 1970s, can cause cancer and a variety of other lung diseases. According to the EPA, asbestos can pose serious health risks when small particles are released into the air. In homes, this tends to happen when building materials containing asbestos begin to deteriorate or when these materials are damaged during repair or remodeling projects. Most home inspectors can recognize building materials that are likely to contain asbestos. Confirmation requires taking samples of these materials and having them analyzed by a lab. In general, if asbestos materials are in good condition, the EPA recommends encapsulating the material in place, that is, laying new flooring over old asbestos tiles or sealing insulating material on pipes. If asbestos materials must be removed, the process can be very expensive. Check out the EPA’s home page for asbestos issues. Another great source of information is the web site for the Mesothelioma Center at http://www.asbestos.com/.[/expand]

Mold

Horror stories about mold in homes have become media standbys over the past couple of years, making mold an issue in real estate sales as never before. There have been a few extreme cases in which homes have been judged non-habitable as a result of mold growing within the home. However, evaluating the actual risks of mold exposure is inherently more difficult than evaluating the risks of radon, lead based paint, or asbestos exposure. In part, this is because there are literally thousands of types of molds, some of which are very toxic and some of which are generally benign. It is also because people react very differently to exposure to various molds. What is highly toxic to some may not have any noticeable impact on others. Still, while molds are present nearly everywhere in the natural environment, extensive mold in the home presents potential health problems and clearly raises resale concerns in real estate transactions. In most cases, cleaning up existing mold and eliminating the moisture on which it grows will solve the problem. Still, some mold problems can be very difficult to fix. The EPA’s site provides
good basic information on mold hazards in homes and how to deal with them.

Water Quality

The safety of the home’s water supply is a common concern when the water source is a private well. Most counties in our area used to require a test for bacterial contamination as part of the sale of homes dependent on a water well. This is no longer the case, but it is still customary for sellers to provide a “safe water test,” indicating that the well is free from certain forms of bacteria.

But bacteria are not necessarily the most common or the most serious hazard in well water. Well water may contain minerals, heavy metals, and radioactive substances that pose serious health risks and that may damage plumbing systems or appliances. Bruce Bevirt with Environmental Investigations is a good local source of information on these issues (303-642-3565).

While most buyers do not consider water quality as an issue if the home is connected to a public water supply, two issues may be worth mentioning. First, if you are concerned about chemicals such as fluoride or chlorine that are often added to water, detailed information on water content and water additives can be obtained from the city, county or private company that supplies the water. Second, since lead soldering materials were commonly used in many older homes, testing for lead in the water is something many home buyers should consider, especially when purchasing an older home.

The EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water is a good general source of information on these issues. Results of water quality tests of public water systems in Colorado can be searched by system or county at this link on the EPA site.