How To Spot (And Fix)These Silent Dangers In The Home

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If you watch the evening news regularly, it can make you afraid to leave your own home. From the streets below our tires to the weather above our heads, there are seemingly endless risks in the outside world.

These are things, however, that are largely out of our control. Cowering at the doorway worrying about what’s outside can leave us oblivious to the risks present where we least expect them—in our homes.

While we do our best to make our homes insulated and safe for ourselves, our children, and our pets, there are many threats that go undetected. If you don’t know what to look for, these things can be surprisingly easy to miss.

The good news is there are some easy fixes for these household dangers, and we’ve gotten some expert advice to create a guide for keeping your house safe and secure. In just a few steps, you can turn your dwelling into the reassuring, comforting haven you deserve.

Risk 1: Carbon Monoxide

With more than 200 accidental deaths per year, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of fatal poisonings in the U.S. This is because it can come from multiple sources and can’t be detected by taste or smell.

Chimney flue.

“Fuel-burning appliances have the potential to cause carbon monoxide poisoning,” explains Jason Biddle, who runs The Helping Home, a website that helps seniors with home safety issues.

Biddle, a former home safety assessor, says the three biggest risks for carbon monoxide poisoning are furnace part failure, flue pipe malfunction in water heaters, and range hood backdrafts.

Part failure in a furnace can occur due to a variety of factors, including cracks in the heat exchanger.

“If the furnace is not running efficiently, then there is a higher likelihood of an incomplete combustion process,” says Biddle “This incomplete combustion process creates carbon monoxide.”

Engineer working on a furnace.

Concerning water heaters, Biddle says, “The major concern is that the flue pipe is properly venting carbon monoxide to outside of the home. If the flue pipe isn’t sealed well, then carbon monoxide could be building up inside the home.”

Finally, Biddle explains, “Range hoods can help reduce moisture, smoke, and odors while cooking in the kitchen, but many homeowners don’t realize that running a range hood fan can actually cause backdrafting and pull carbon monoxide back inside the home.”

Tips to Keep Your House Safe from Carbon Monoxide

There are two safety precautions to follow, according to Biddle: proper ventilation and fast detection.

For ventilation, Biddle says that appliances running on natural gas should vent to outside of the home.

“[Consider] scheduling regular furnace maintenance and care with qualified HVAC professionals,” he adds, “[and have] a plumber inspect the hot water heater periodically to ensure the unit is still venting correctly.”

As far as avoiding backdraft from range hoods, his advice is simple: “Install a make-up air damper that pulls clean air back into the home when the range hood fan is running.”

Carbon Monoxide detector. Chlopas

And most importantly, install carbon monoxide detectors on every floor and in every bedroom.

Risk 2: Lead

Lead is a health hazard with a wide array of effects, and it’s particularly harmful to childhood development. It can lead to irreversible damage, including behavioral disorders.

Lead poisoning has been linked to health issues like anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and pregnancy complications. In worst-case scenarios, it can lead to coma or loss of life.

Lead exposure is a danger for millions of homeowners and renters, as many older homes contain lead paint. In 1978, the federal government banned its use in homes after realizing its harmful effects.

Lead in the local water supply is another concern—the recent health crisis in Flint, Michigan, which exposed thousands of residents to harmful lead levels, illustrates this. Many homes built before 1986 used lead pipes, fixtures, and solder, increasing the risk of lead exposure.

Flint, Michigan water plant.

There have been some strides in increasing safety in this area, however. In 2014, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced lead content in pipes and fixtures from which water is meant for drinking or cooking, allowing only 0.25 percent maximum weighted lead content.

How to Keep Your Home Safe From Lead

If you find the potential prevalence of lead in your home concerning or overwhelming, there are several steps you can take.

If you’re worried about the potential presence of lead paint, request an inspection or risk assessment, which can let you know whether your lead levels need addressing and will suggest removal options if necessary.

If you’re looking to see if your water supply has been affected by lead, you can buy a testing kit from a hardware store and have the results verified by your local or state drinking authority. In addition, you can also check your Consumer Confidence Report, which rates overall water quality in your area.

Man working on pipes in a yard.

If your water tests positive for lead, make sure to flush your pipes before drinking, and only use cold water for cooking or drinking. But ultimately, it’s best to look into replacing lead-containing plumbing fixtures to further reduce risks.

Risk 3: Fall Hazards

Falls are the leading cause of home accidents for elderly residents. In 2014 alone, Americans over the age of 65 fell 29 million times, with a resulting 7 million injuries; there are 27,000 fatal falls in older individuals every year, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

One in four adults over the age of 65 experience a fall every year,” notes Biddle. “Throw rugs are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to falls in the home. Unsecured rugs can slip and slide out from underfoot, whereas heavy rugs can bunch up and introduce a tripping hazard.”

Another area that can lead to falls is the staircase. Biddle says there are a variety of factors that increase the risk of falling up or down the stairs, from clutter left on the steps to poor lighting.

Toddler climbing on the rails of a staircase.

“[Many older homes] rely more on lamp lighting than overhead can lights, [which] can make it difficult to see that last step or safely navigate to the bathroom in the morning while still shaking off sleepiness,” he says.

Tips for Avoiding Falls in the Home

Biddle suggests several steps you can take to avoid the risk of falls. “Try to remove all throw rugs if possible. At the very least, find an effective non-slip rug mat to keep them in place,” he says.

In addition, he suggests picking up any clutter that could lead to falls on stairs (or anywhere in the home, for that matter).

Man about to step on toys on the stairs.

Finally, he adds, “Use natural light as much as possible, and install additional lighting to help illuminate dark areas of the home.”

Risk 4: Window Blinds

Parents know that childproofing a house is paramount to keeping their little ones safe. But amidst all the sharp edges, staircases, and choking hazards, there’s another potential risk that warrants attention: window blind cords.

According to a 2017 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 17,000 children were treated for injuries related to blinds, and 271 lost their lives (mostly from entanglement in the cords) over a 26-year period.

Young woman opening blinds. Shimabukuro

“We’ve known about this problem since the 1940s,” Gary Smith, PhD, senior author of the study, told CBS News, “The findings of [the 2017] study confirm that children continue to die from strangulation on window blind cords. This is unacceptable.”

How to Avoid Window Blind Injuries

These dangers have led to calls from safety advocates like Parents for Window Blind Safety to impose government-mandated guidelines for safer blinds. The Window Covering Manufacturers Association is initiating a voluntary process with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), requiring that all blinds sold commercially must be cordless or feature inaccessible cords.

In the meantime, the CPSC offers several tips to help avoid a needless tragedy with your child.

Obviously, the most ideal option is installing cordless blinds. If you do have blinds with cords, make sure they aren’t accessible on the front, side, or back. If your blinds have looped chains or nylon cords, use tension devices to keep them from hanging loose.

Little girl looking at and touching blinds.

Most importantly, the CPSC recommends, “Do not place cribs, beds, and furniture close to the windows because children can climb on them and gain access to the cords.”

Risk 5: Radon

Radon is a point of contention between politicians, safety advocates, and the scientific community, all of whom argue about its potential risk.

It helps to first understand what radon actually is: It’s a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and it is commonly found in rock, soil, and, occasionally, well water. So why does that present a danger in the home, why is it so debated, and how can it be detected?

X-ray of a pair of lungs.

Øyvind Birkenes, CEO of Airthings, a Norway-based tech company that develops products that can monitor radon levels in the home, says, “There will always be debates when it’s not simple to understand proof. At Airthings, we follow the vast majority of scientists and research at the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, and agencies all over the world that have found a clear correlation between radon and lung cancer.”

The EPA estimates that 21,000 people per year pass away from lung cancer due to radon exposure in the United States. Exposure occurs if the gas enters the home (often through cracks in the foundation or other openings). The entry point acts like a vacuum for the gas due to the difference in air pressure inside your home and the soil pressure of a house’s foundation.

“When we breathe in the radon gas and the alpha particles hit the cells in our lungs, there is no form of protection, and the radiation causes cell mutations,” Birkenes says. “These cell mutations are the cause of cancer.”

As far as radon risks, it’s all about levels: “The EPA has set an action level of 4 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air). At or above this level of radon, the EPA recommends you take corrective measures to reduce your exposure to radon gas,” Birkenes says. “…If your long-term average is above 2.7 pCi/L, [the World Health Organization recommends] you take action to reduce the radon level.”

How to Check Your Home for Radon

Given the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that “1 out of every 15 homes in the United States have a level of radon that needs to be reduced,” it’s a good idea to test your house.

Aerial view of a suburb.

In addition to the aforementioned Airthings radon detectors, you can start off by getting a test kit from your local hardware store or from the National Radon Hotline.

If you have a level between 2 and 4 pCi/L, it’s time to consult a contractor to have them make repairs so radon gas doesn’t reach dangerous levels inside your house.

An Ounce of Prevention

As we’ve illustrated, it’s important to remain vigilant about detecting silent dangers in our homes. It’s easy to ignore these at our own peril, given the multitude of distractions of modern life, which is why having the right information is so important.

Disaster kit.

Always remember that potential hazardous issues like radon and lead can also be region-specific. In 2016, Vox compiled a comprehensive lead exposure risk map; the EPA has a map showing estimated indoor radon levels across the country (though the resource is intended to aid organizations in implementing radon-resistant building codes in specific areas, not to diagnose individual homes).

Access to information is key in identifying risks and takes the guesswork out of what can be a scary and intimidating process. With just a few simple steps, you can arm yourself with the proper facts, and take the proper precautions, so you can sleep peacefully in your home.

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