Radon, lead and asbestos are toxic elements that can be found in the air, paint and construction materials of homes. They are persistent yet preventable problems that homeowners can avoid through simple testing and various precautions or mitigation measures.

A webinar on “Lead, Asbestos and Radon, Oh My!” will be offered from 9-11 a.m. Thursday, March 11, by Rethos: Places Reimagined, a nonprofit organization that promotes the preservation of historic buildings. Minneapolis architect Alissa Pier, who lives in a historic home, will lead the program.

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Participants in a previous Rethos seminar on home restoration consider the problem of repainting a ceiling with layers of what may be old lead paint. Photo courtesy of Rethos

The webinar emerged from another Rethos class that looked at sustainability in older homes, according to Rethos education coordinator Natalie Heneghan. “The whole goal of our education programs is to equip homeowners and property owners with the knowledge they need,” she said. “This class is all about demystifying this stuff and breaking it down and sending folks on their way to handle it properly, and not be too terrified of what they’re going to find in their house.”

Odorless and invisible radon

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep into homes of any age, Pier said. Odorless and invisible, it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Radon generally enters the home through cracks in the foundation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Twin Cities is in an area of the country where the potential for elevated indoor radon levels is highest.

Homeowners can buy an inexpensive radon test to determine if the level inside their home is a problem. If a home requires mitigation, Pier said, a qualified contractor can cut a hole in the basement floor and run a tube from there to the roofline. The cost ranges from around $1,500 to $2,500, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The MDH describes the three most common systems for radon mitigation on its website along with the various components of those systems. (Visit health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/air/radon/mitigationsystem.html.)

 

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High radon levels are “something we have to contend with,” Pier said. “They’re not as obvious as having water seeping into your basement. Radon doesn’t smell like anything, and because it’s invisible, it’s easier for people to not pay attention to.”

Where asbestos is found in the home

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. has not banned the use of asbestos. Government regulations forbid new uses for asbestos, but they permit products that have traditionally incorporated asbestos to still be made with it, according to Pier.

As a fire retardant and binding agent, asbestos is mixed with other materials to create tile, gypsum board, insulation for pipes and firefighter jackets, Pier said. Older homes may have asbestos in the wrapping around basement pipes, in the tile on basement floors and to a lesser extent the tile on ceilings.

Pier recommends that the owners of homes built before 1990 consider the possible presence of asbestos when undertaking a remodeling project. They can send in samples for testing at a cost of $20-$100 or hire a professional to remove and test the samples. Pier recommends paying a professional because of the risk of exposure in disturbing the materials. The professionals will have the appropriate knowledge and safety equipment, she said.

The MDH maintains a web page with a list of certified asbestos contractors. It may cost $350-$700 for a professional asbestos detection visit, but that is a bargain compared to the medical risk of asbestos exposure, according to Pier.

If the presence of asbestos in a basement becomes a problem, it may require a few thousand dollars to remove it—expensive maybe, Pier said, but just a small part of the budget for a major remodeling project. “I always say, ‘what is a hospital stay going to cost you?’” she said. “Getting a test is worth it.”

Another option in dealing with asbestos insulation around pipes is to encapsulate them with a material that prevents asbestos fibers from entering the air, Pier said. Encapsulating products are widely available at hardware stores. They work best in places where pipes will not be disturbed or disrupted, she said. However, laying a new floor over an asbestos-tile floor does not remove the potential harm since the tiles could continue to decay and release the fibers in the future, she said.

Lead paint: An ongoing concern

About 75 percent of the homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint, according to the MDH. The older the home, the more likely it is to contain lead-based paint.

Lead poisoning is a concern for both children and adults. Exposure can come by breathing in lead dust or fumes or ingesting anything that contains lead. No amount is considered safe, and it can cause permanent health, learning and behavior problems in children, and high blood pressure, kidney damage and fertility problems in adults.

Older homes may still have layers of old lead paint on ceilings, walls, doors and window frames. Pier recommends buying an inexpensive home testing kit to determine the presence of lead on surfaces that will be sanded, scraped or otherwise disturbed.

If lead is found on doors or windows, homeowners should strip them before applying new paint or finish, according to Pier. Use a nontoxic stripper, she said. Pier recommends against sanding or scraping before repainting because that could release lead into the air.

Homeowners should not have to strip lead paint from non-friction surfaces such as crown molding before painting, Pier said. Lead requires friction for release, and that makes doors and windows that open and close more problematic.

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A homeowner scrapes the paint and putty off an old double-hung window prior to applying new paint and putty to the frame. Photo courtesy of Rethos

Pier’s program is one of the more than 50 webinars Rethos hosts annually. The organization held the classes in-person before COVID-19, and it expects to offer them in-person again. However, moving them online boosted attendance to 1,200 last year—33 percent more than in 2019.

The cost of the webinar is a suggested donation of $10, or $25 for real estate agents who want to earn continuing education credits. To register, visit rethos.org. For those who are unable to attend the March 11 webinar, Rethos will make a recording available on its YouTube page.

— Frank Jossi

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