Angie's List: Have your house tested for these 3 toxins and professionally cleaned if necessary

Check your house for mold, radon and asbestos

TAMPA - Rebecca Shopp knew she had a mold problem, but like many homeowners who discover mold, she wasn't truly aware of the extent of the damage. "When it first happened I was not as concerned because it was such a small area that got moldy. But then when I had it patched and a few months later found mushrooms in the carpet, I realized it was a much larger area. When it got to the point where it was growing mushrooms then I was more concerned."

Shopp had a company come out and do a thorough inspection. What they found was concerning. "They found that it was into the wall and I had not anticipated that," Shopp said. "I knew that the floor was affected because I could tell that and that is where the mold was growing. They found that it had gone up and affected the insulation. I didn't realize there was mold in there."

Mold is just one of three toxins that can be lurking in homes, especially older homes built before the 1980s. "Consumers may not realize but there are potential dangers in your home. The common toxins we hear about are mold, radon and asbestos," said Angie's List founder Angie Hicks.

Mold is everywhere, and left unchecked, it can destroy your home. Health effects can range from general congestion and eye irritation to shortness of breath and serious mold infections of the lungs. Mold removal can present other dangers from improper ventilation to the mixing of toxic chemicals. Mold can grow at an extremely fast pace. A mold colony can form in as little as 48 hours from the initial contact a mold spore makes with a surface. "There is a minimal level of mold in every house," Hicks said. "A lot of times you might find it in your bathroom or your basement, but the key here is keeping it at a minimal level and if you find that you have more mold you want to have it taken care of right away."

Not all mold damage is covered by your homeowner's insurance policy. Check your policy because coverage and limitations vary. Tackle clean up yourself if you have less than 10 square feet of mold damage. Mike Honan is a mold and asbestos abatement contractor. "Typically," he said, "(homeowners) can remove it themselves; it depends on the situation. But the majority of the time they should seek some help because once you disturb the mold then the spores tend to spread, so we are trying to in our situation control that environment. The homeowner, in small situations if the mold is not too prevalent, can do the clean-up themselves."

Toxin number 2 - radon. Radon is a radioactive, colorless, odorless gas. It results from the breakdown of uranium inside the earth. It enters the home through cracks in floors and walls and becomes trapped inside, building up over time. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, and accounts for 21,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 1 in 15 homes in the United States are affected by high levels of radon. Radon detection kits are sold at your local hardware store for about $25. Hicks adds, "It's important to have your home tested for radon and if it reads too high you need to have a mitigation system. If you don't, it can lead to health problems."

Toxin number 3 is potentially the most dangerous. " Asbestos is a harmful toxin and it was most often used in insulation and construction materials prior to the 1980's. So if your house is built before 1980 your home might be at risk and the only way to discover whether you have it is to have your home tested," said Hicks.

Homeowners should note that older appliances opened up for repair may release asbestos fibers. Even recently made barbecue mitts, protective aprons and gloves may contain asbestos. These items should be discarded when damaged. Exposure to asbestos can cause different forms of cancer and scarring of the lungs. Proper removal of deteriorating asbestos is tricky and expensive. When work is being done in an area containing asbestos, the affected area is sealed off from the rest of the home with duct tape and plastic sheeting, and the air conditioning and heating systems are turned off. Home residents and pets are kept from the area until the project is complete.

Honan said not all asbestos needs to be removed. It's most dangerous when particles become airborne. So if it is in good condition, it should be left alone. "As long as the material is in good condition the material can stay in place. Generally, we don't recommend removal unless there is, one, a renovation occurring or, two, the material is delaminating or falling apart. In that situation you would call in the professionals. But if the material is in good condition we recommend just to leave it."

Identifying these toxins can be hard so if you have any suspicions of them in your home you should call someone to test right away. When hiring, be sure to use an independent lab to test the results so there is no conflict of interest. "You don't want the same person testing it to be the person who is actually going to fix

the problem," said Hicks.

Angie's six steps to hiring reliable help for any toxic removal:  

  • Determine if your state requires contractors to be licensed for the work you need done.
  • Hire only contractors who are licensed and/or certified to handle household toxins, and can prove their qualifications for your specific need.
  • Determine what steps your contractor will use to ensure the work won't further spread the problem.
  • If your contractor doesn't talk to you about the concerns the toxin poses, doesn't have a containment plan or isn't aware of the dangers the work can create, hire someone else.
  • Get more than one estimate for the work; require follow-up and a guarantee for the work.
  • Get and check references, using people who've worked with the professional before, and check Angie's List for even more insight.
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