Toxic hazards could be lurking even in a nice house in a nice neighborhood

August 09, 1992|By Sylvia Rubin | Sylvia Rubin,San Francisco Chronicle

The minute she saw the place, she loved it. A two-story 1920s wood frame house painted celadon green with a back yard and a brick fireplace. She grabbed it, not giving a moment's thought to the toxins that could lie hidden within.

Lead lurking in layers of paint. Nasty asbestos in the basement. Invisible radon gas or excessive carbon monoxide. She hasn't yet gotten around to checking for the potentially hazardous electromagnetic fields around her color TV set or for possible radiation leakage from the microwave.

Without getting hysterical about it, there are quick and inexpensive -- and some very expensive -- ways to test for health hazards in the home.

Home hazard testing kits, which are showing up in home improvement centers and mail-order catalogs, could be a hypochondriac's marketing dream come true. Or they could outsell screwdrivers in the years to come, as environmentally aware and chemically sensitive consumers find them useful.

It's too early to tell -- some of these kits aren't even on the market yet.

Home Depot, the leader in the field, has ordered about 10,000 "Home Diagnostics" kits for 48 of its stores in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia, to be available in FTC September. They will retail from $20 to $60.

"I believe customers want this," says Home Depot's Mark Eisen, who has the trendy title of manager of environmental marketing. "I think it's the wave of the future, but I'm not sure it's here today. We may be ahead of our time on this."

The Home Diagnostics kits are a line of 11 different testing kits.

Each kit measures a specific group of pollutants: Lead in house paint; formaldehyde in the air; asbestos; radon (two kits); and pollutants in drinking water (six kits for six different pollutants).

Each kit also comes with state and federal referrals, a book on toxin-free living and a technical guide about each category of pollutant being tested.

Sounds like a full day's worth of testing, reading and studying. Will there be a quiz?

"This is not a frivolous product," says Steven Shindler, president of Purisys in New York, which markets the kits. "It's targeted to health-conscious homeowners who I think will want to spend time with it."

The compact version of the Home Diagnostics kits, the Healthy House Testing Kit, is available by mail order from San Francisco-based Eco-Check. It contains six user-friendly testing devices -- for radon, lead, water impurities, carbon monoxide, microwave radiation and ultraviolet radiation -- and sells for $49.95.

Testing for potential health hazards around the house is relatively simple. Still, it will take more than a few minutes.

Easy-to-use paint testers: These are available for $10 for a kit of four.

The testers look like cigarettes with a cotton swab tip, which you rub against the wall after you've scraped down a few layers. If the swab comes up pink, it is a telltale sign of lead.

Carbon monoxide: CO is a highly poisonous, odorless, tasteless gas, produced by incomplete combustion of gasoline, kerosene, natural gas, butane, propane, fuel oil, wood or coal Too much can cause headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and other symptoms and can lead to death.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to test for excess carbon monoxide. Some testers are no-brainers, such as the CO tester in the Eco-Check kit, which is a card you stick on a wall. If the light-brown dot in the middle turns black, you've got too much.

If you suspect a gas leak or excessive carbon monoxide, call the service department of your local utility.

Water: If your water smells like an old sock and is the color of a rusty nail, you may want to test it for impurities. The use of lead, copper and iron pipes in many home plumbing systems can cause simple off-taste and odor problems, as well as more serious lead contamination.

"We get a lot of complaints about rust," says Lorraine Anderson, a water inspector for the San Francisco Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Services. "But 99.9 percent of them will clear up if you let the water run for a minute or two."

If your water smells or tastes odd, you can request a free inspection by calling your local health department's division of environmental health services.

Radon: Testing for radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas) is a little more complicated, involving assembling a paper baglike testing device, hanging it on a wall, then sealing it and mailing it off to a lab.

Microwave radiation: To test for microwave radiation leakage, pass a credit cardlike device over the door of your microwave when it is operating. If a skull and crossbones appear on the little sensor strip along the side of the card, your microwave is leaking too much radiation.

Electromagnetic fields: To test for EMFs (electromagnetic fields) created by power lines, televisions and other household appliances, Theta Sciences, a San Diego company, sells a home field sensor (the HFS-V) that gives you a needle reading of the EMFs for $99.95.

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