Indoor Air Pollution

By Pat Logan

June 24, 2011 4 min read

Dear Pat: I am planning to do some remodeling on my house. With children, I am concerned about indoor pollutants, such as lead, formaldehyde and asbestos. What should I know about these before starting? -- Chris V.

Dear Chris: You have identified three common indoor pollutants. The period that your house was built is often a good indicator of which of the above are likely present, but not always. Your builder may have kept some old building materials around or used some materials salvaged from an older house.

Lead exposure is dangerous, especially to children and pregnant women. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage in children and can stunt fetal growth. It also can cause elevated blood pressure, impaired muscle coordination and damage to the nervous system in adults.

The primary source of lead in a house is lead-based paint. Lead was used as a drying agent and pigment in oil-based paint. Modern water-based latex paints do not contain lead. If your house was built before 1960, there is a more than 50 percent chance that heavily leaded paint was used.

The best method to test paint you suspect of containing lead is to send a sample of the paint to an Environmental Protection Agency-approved laboratory. Contact your local health department for the names of approved laboratories. There are some do-it-yourself test kits available, but they may miss low lead levels.

The laboratory will tell you what size paint sample it needs for testing, but a 2-square-inch piece is typically required. The lab will send a bag and sample collection procedures to you. Generally, you use a clean putty knife to scrape off the sample piece.

If the test results show that lead is present, there are several remedies. If it is woodwork that can be removed, do that and replace it with new wood. If not, the best method is to contact a professional trained in removing lead-based paint. Just painting over it with non-lead-based paint is not a long-term fix.

Formaldehyde is used in many building materials, furniture, carpeting, etc., in homes today. The formaldehyde gas emissions are highest in new building materials, so it is most likely not a major problem in an older home. If you have just remodeled, though, the gas levels can be elevated.

Formaldehyde gas is more of an annoyance than a serious health threat. The emissions from the new building materials or furniture will decrease over time. Increasing the fresh air ventilation in your home can help until the materials age a little and the formaldehyde outgassing subsides.

Asbestos is particularly dangerous. Exposure to it can lead to lung cancer and skin, eye and respiratory irritation. Asbestos was commonly used in older homes for duct insulation, pipe coverings, textured paints and floor tiles.

If the asbestos-containing material is not deteriorating, it is probably not a current threat. You still should have any materials suspected of containing asbestos tested by an approved lab. It is best to let professionals remove the sample to avoid exposing your family to it.

If asbestos is found, the professionals will either seal it or cover it. It can be sealed with materials that bind the asbestos fibers together. Pipes and other small items can be covered with a protective film.

Pat Logan's weekly column, "Here's How," appears at

Like it? Share it!

  • 0