Home Hazards and Legal Regulations

By Eric Stevenson

While we often think of homes as places safe from the dangers of the outside world, they can contain invisible pollutants that can threaten the health of their residents.  Over time, laws and regulations have been put in place to help protect New Hampshire citizens from these hazards.

Asbestos is a thread-like mineral that was once widely used for its heat-resistant properties.  Unfortunately, when asbestos crumbles, as happens when the materials that contain it get damaged or broken, it releases tiny fibers into the air that can lodge in the lungs of anyone who breathes them in.  Over time, these fibers can cause lung scarring, asbestosis, or mesothelioma.  This type of cancer affects the lining of the chest (or, less commonly, the lining of the abdomen) and is nearly always fatal.  It often goes undiagnosed for years because mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years to appear after asbestos exposure, and they can mimic the symptoms of other, less serious diseases.

In 2005, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services took over responsibility for asbestos issues from the Department of Health and Human Services.  The Revised Statute Annotated Chapter 141-E, approved in October of 2008, outlines the state’s regulations for management and control of the substance, including exposure standards and limitations.  Because of the cold climate, New Hampshire homes built before the 1980s may contain asbestos around heating elements and in insulation.  The greatest risk is posed during renovation or demolition of these homes, and contractors and other workers, as well as residents, must be aware of the dangers.  Before a building is renovated or demolished, it must be thoroughly inspected by someone who is certified to identify asbestos-laden materials.

If your home is not being renovated or undergoing construction, materials that contain asbestos should be left alone if they are in good condition.  However, if they have begun to deteriorate, they should be removed.  Owners of single-family homes are not required to report these materials as long as they are not selling the home, but they must dispose of them properly.  While New Hampshire law does not require you to use a licensed abatement contractor for this task, it is nevertheless highly recommended.  A list of such contractors can be found here.

Another potential home hazard is radon gas, a byproduct of the breakdown of uranium in the earth’s crust.  After smoking, radon gas is the second highest cause of lung cancer.   Like asbestos, radon is a pollutant that can infiltrate the air in your home, causing numerous health problems.  Unlike asbestos, radon is not linked to renovation or demolition, but rather to specific geographical areas and the composition of their rocks and soil.   A map showing the areas with the highest concentration of radon gas can be found at the NH Department of Environmental Services website here.  The gas can enter your house through cracks in the floors and walls, gaps between joints or around pipes, or through the water supply.    

In 1999, the EPA formally established a maximum contamination level for radon in the home, recommending that action be taken if the amount exceeds 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L).  Specifically in New Hampshire, radon gas is addressed in the Revised Statute Annotated Chapter 125-F that prohibits uranium mining and sets a regulatory program in place to deal with the radon gas.  Any New Hampshire resident can request a radon testing kit, though supplies are limited.  If the level in your house is high, you may need to have special ventilation systems put in place to reduce it.  The cost for reducing radon in the air is between $1,000 and $2,000, and the cost for reducing it in the water supply ranges from $3,500 to $5,000.

The health consequences of these toxins are serious.  Mesothelioma life expectancy is around 10% five years after diagnosis, and the life expectancy for lung cancer is not much better, depending on the type.  It pays to be aware of the possible presence of asbestos and radon gas in your home and the legislation in place to regulate them.