Whether you make your home in the heart of a city or in a sprawling suburb, there are certain dangers that have nothing to do with crime rates, economics, or the latest exotic imported disease. Falling bricks, short circuits leading to fires, trash piling up, and uneven, cracked pavements that present a tripping hazard can all do just as much damage to life and limb—but there can be other dangers that are not that obvious. Things like lead paint, mold, asbestos, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde can be harmless under normal circumstances, but become dangerous when they are exposed, or when they accumulate in a residential setting.
Not all buildings have these problems. And hopefully, your own co-op or condo board is informed and aware of the risks and how to mitigate them. If not, you may want to have your unit inspected.
A Rogue’s Gallery of Toxins
When it comes to indoor environmental hazards, one of the major culprits is lead paint. Used mainly in older buildings, it was banned in the late ‘70s when lead paint chips were linked to developmental delays, behavioral issues, and other serious health problems for babies and young children. Even when it's been painted over with layers of newer, lead-free paint, lead paint poses a threat when it's disturbed—either through cracking/chipping, or during any kind of remodeling or maintenance that causes lead-carrying dust or particles to be exposed or made airborne.
“In its heyday lead paint was promoted as the wonder paint,” says Lee Wasserman, president of the LEW Corporation, an environmental consulting firm based in Mountainside, New Jersey. “It had good durability, it would kill fungi. Homes that were built before 1950 have a 69 percent probability of having lead somewhere inside them. Those that were built between 1950 and ‘60s, it’s 30 percent, and from 1960 to ’70, it dramatically drops off.”
James Stump, the owner of Seagull Environmental Training in Fort Lauderdale, adds that “Lead-based paint has been basically illegal for residential purposes since 1978, but as much as 51% of our housing in the United States is pre-‘78. The older the dwelling is, the more likely the paint is to have lead and the concentrations of lead will be higher the further you go back.”