The Ultimate Homebuyer’s Handbook
This chapter covers a number of environmental hazards relevant to your home buying effort that you need to know about. Please, note that I have not put these in order of importance or in any predefined sequence. I suggest skimming through the list to see which may be applicable to a property you are looking to buy. Also, this is not an in-depth or technically exhaustive treatment of these items. It’s just the basics of what you may need to be aware of. I’ll cover the risk factors and how you can deal with many of these concerns.
- Lead paint hazards and how to avoid them…
- Carbon monoxide risks…
- Asbestos – what to recognize, risk factors…
- Vermiculite insulation…
- Radon gas in the air – risks and options for testing…
- Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from high power lines, cell tower, and other sources…
- Problems living near windmills and radon stations…
- Chinese drywall…
- Formaldehyde in wood flooring…
- Liquid underground Fuel Storage tanks (LUSTS)…
- Proximity to hazardous waste sites…
- Recognizing and avoiding drug or ‘meth’ houses
- Out-gassing from urea-formaldehyde foam insulation
- Problems with living near highways, busy roadways….
- Air quality problems from wood burning…
- Problems with excessive exposure to Herbicides and Pesticides
- Homes near major oil and gas pipeline
Mold and Indoor Air quality
Any discussion of environmental concerns with real estate has to start with mold and indoor air quality. Due to the amount of concern with mold issues, however, I have covered this in a separate Chapter, which follows.
Lead paint and other sources of lead contamination.
Lead paint and possible lead poisoning from other sources is an important concern, both for home buyers and homeowners. (Note: the issue of lead in the water supply will be dealt with in Chapter 17). Everyone needs to be aware of how lead poisoning can occur and steps you can take to avoid this. While lead paint could be present in any ‘older’ home (or home with older woodwork), by following commonsense precautions, you should be able to avoid most problems.
The EPA has a lot of good material on lead paint, including how to minimize your family’s risk of lead poisoning. I’ve put some of this material in the Addendum – or you can follow the below links. Also, if you are buying a newer home, lead paint may not be likely concern – but lead in the soil or water could be.
BOX? As background: lead is a naturally occurring mineral that was extensively used in paints up until 1978 when it was formally banned. Lead paint was rarely used in the 1970's and, when used in the 1960’s, was largely on the exterior. That said, no one can tell if lead paint is present unless one tests for its presence. In general, the older the home, the more likely it is to have lead-based paint. Lead was also widely used as a gasoline additive until banned in 1995; engines were developed to use unleaded gasoline starting in the 1970's, so lead was on its way out from that time. Also note that lead and lead compounds have been used in a wide variety of products found in and around the home, including paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, and cosmetics.
Lead poisoning can occur in individuals of any age, but the largest risk is with children up to the age of six, or those in utero (during pregnancy). At this, age children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:
- Behavior and learning problems
- Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Hearing Problems
- For pregnancy and children in utero, lead exposure can result in reduced growth of the fetus and possible premature birth.
All young children should be tested for the presence of elevated lead. If present, however, you may need to investigate where the exposure came from. It may be from your home – but it could also be from someone else’s home, or the yard your child plays in.
While lead paint is most often found on woodwork, it was reputedly used on walls and ceilings in bathrooms and kitchens. The largest risk, according to many experts, is lead dust. Lead dust may be generated from moveable surfaces such as older painted windows or doors, or from careless renovations where the lead paint in the home is disturbed.
A few points, insofar as what you need to know as a home buyer, include:
- Under Federal Law, every home buyer must be given a pamphlet that explains the risks of lead poisoning. Much like the home inspection contingency, you are given the right to have the home tested for lead paint within a specified period. The home inspection contingency is not mandated, however; it is just customary. The right to a lead inspection is federally mandated.
- If you have young children or plan to and you have a high level of concern about lead paint, then you may want to simply buy a newer home. As the only affordable homes in many areas are older homes, this can be difficult. Common sense cautions (such as never disturbing older paint and removing lead dust and chips from window wells, etc.) can greatly reduce the risk of lead poisoning.
- If the presence of lead paint will be a walk-away factor, have the home tested before you spend the money on a home inspection and appraisal.
- Consider having a certified lead paint technician test the home for lead. They will normally use a sophisticated X-ray fluorescence machine to do the testing. In many states, your home inspector cannot legally do lead testing – and most inspectors simply will not do this as it is not part of a home inspection. You can purchase test kits from a hardware store, but I can’t vouch for how reliable these are. They may work, but I think they are less likely to provide clear results when just small concentrations of lead may be present. As a home inspector, I do not ever discourage buyers from testing for lead paint – but the safe assumption is that most older homes will contain lead paint.
- Recognize that lead may be present in the soil and can enter the home as lead dust or by other means. Homes near highways or busy roads are more at risk of having lead in the soil due to the residue from the years when lead was added to gasoline. Also, the soil around older homes may contain lead due to the flaking of the lead paint on the siding over the years. (Most of the paint used on antique homes was lead-based). I recommend that you do not plant edibles or herbs next to the foundations of older homes. You can even have your soils tested, often by state laboratories. This may need to be done by a specialist.
- Any contractor – or homeowner – who will be working around or disturbing lead paint needs to follow lead-safe practices. The information on this is contained in the EPA guide to lead-safe work practices (PDF). See their website for this information. Personally, I recommend refraining from any aggressive removal of lead paint, or alteration of the older painted woodwork (that may contain lead paint) while you have young children in the home.
- If you plan on renting your home in the future – or if you are buying a multi-family home where you plan on renting the other units –then you will want to have the rental units de-leaded – meaning, made compliant with the standards for lead paint. If you are in an owner-occupied building, you may have the right to not rent to someone with young kids (check with your attorney on this) – but if you are not living at the property, then you don’t have the right to discriminate and not rent to families with young children. If your tenant’s children are found to have elevated levels of lead, you could be paying to house them in a motel while you have the home de-leaded (which really means ripping out all of the older doors, woodwork, and windows). I won’t even go into the worst-case scenarios that can happen.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that is poisonous and can be fatal when inhaled. The statistics on this are somewhat grueling, with over 500 deaths from CO poisoning in the U.S. last year. I covered carbon monoxide issues in the last chapter when discussing smoke detectors, so please read this section. Important stuff…
Asbestos-containing Materials (ACM’s)
The home inspection does not make any determination as to whether asbestos is present, or whether materials that appear to be asbestos are, in fact, asbestos-containing. That said, I think just about every inspector will comment on the presence of certain types of ‘suspected’ asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The most visible type of asbestos is the whitish insulation found on older heating pipes, boilers, and ductwork. You should assume these to be asbestos-containing – although there are similar looking pipe insulations that do not contain asbestos (which is why home inspectors use the term “suspected” when discussing asbestos containing materials).
I won’t go into the reputed health effects of asbestos, but exposure has been linked to asbestosis and higher rates of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Most of the asbestos used in materials that you may find in a residential structure is chrysotile asbestos. (See the following section on the asbestos found in vermiculite insulation.)
A few things you should know:
- Home inspectors, as noted, may point out potential asbestos-containing materials that would be considered a high risk of generating airborne particles, but they can’t test for asbestos or take samples unless they are licensed to do this.
- Asbestos was used in hundreds of building products since the early part of the 20th century. These include asbestos-cement siding, composition floorings (the ubiquitous 7 and 9 -inch composition tiles), asbestos-cement roofing (rarely found nowadays), floor covering mastics to secure the tiles, spray-on ‘popcorn’ ceilings from the 1950’s and 60’s, and literally dozens of other building materials. Asbestos was even used in drywall joint compounds up into the 1970’s. The difficulty is that no determination can be made without testing, and second, the asbestos that may be present in most of these materials is ‘bound up’ and does not become readily ‘friable’ (crushable) or generate airborne particles. These ACM’s are not considered to be hazardous. That said, they should not be disturbed. Removing older floor coverings may be possible, but it is not recommended; you will have to research this. It is a lot of work, too (better to just cover them). Flooring professionals normally will cover composition floorings and will not remove them. Older popcorn ceilings from the 50’ and 60’s should be left alone unless testing is done. The white acoustical tiles used on ceilings in the 50’s into the 1970’s looks like they could contain asbestos, but I have never found any sources that indicate any brand is asbestos-containing.
- The risk from asbestos is not from its being present but from airborne particles. The insulation on heating pipes and older boilers is considered ‘friable', or crushable, and this type will produce airborne particles, if disturbed. On the other hand, if not disturbed, it’s not a health problem – it is more of a resale issue.
So, how is asbestos regarded in real estate transactions, you may ask. Is it a negotiable issue? First, there is nothing that says a homeowner has to remove asbestos-containing materials – so usually, depending on a bunch of factors, it stays. Many authorities recommend leaving asbestos-containing insulation on heating pipes alone – assuming the material is intact and/or is well encapsulated – and is not in an area that will be extensively used. (These can be big assumptions!) If it is not deteriorated (and ideally well encapsulated) and located in a non-living space, the risk factors of generating airborne particles would be low. Also, if the asbestos insulation was plainly visible when making your offer, it would generally be tough to make this a negotiable issue.
On the other hand, when the friable type asbestos found on older (usually steam) heating pipes is loose and deteriorated, this is a concern, and the material warrants removal. Your inspector may indicate this – but this may not be an issue in post-inspection negotiations if its condition was obvious to anyone walking through the home while the home was being ‘shown’.
How the asbestos-containing materials are dealt with depends on:
#1 the condition of the material (is it largely intact or are there numerous sections of deteriorated or loose insulation?)
#2 the nature of the property (in most older homes, unfinished basements, and rental properties, the ACM’s are not removed).
#3 whether the ACM’s are located in an area that you plan to finish,
#4 the price of the home and the nature of the local real estate market. Environmentally concerned buyers in higher-end markets, I find, will have more concerns about asbestos than those buying an older home with an unusable basement.
#5 Your own level of concern. Some people simply have few concerns about asbestos-containing materials; others regard it as something comparable to nuclear waste.
#6 whether the material was clearly visible when you make your offer. (Example: I once encountered a pile of asbestos (ACM) deep in a crawlspace. The buyer negotiated to have this removed, as it was an unknown up to that point, and the buyer did not believe they should have to bear the cost of having this done).
#7 Was there evidence that asbestos-containing materials were formerly present but were removed by a non-professional (in other words, a prior homeowner). This can be a problem if remnants were left on the heating pipes. The basement may need a professional clean-up by an asbestos-removal contractor as asbestos particles were most likely left on the floor.
In most cases, from my experience, the buyers bear the removal cost. You may want to plan to have it removed and you could get cost estimates so you know what you are dealing with. In my opinion, the presence of asbestos-containing materials is very often more of a resale negative than a serious health risk. Exceptions exist.
Vermiculite is a gray, pebble-like insulation, often sold as Zonolite, that was found to contain asbestos. I, along with many homeowners, installed this in my home in the early 1980’s as it was cheap and easy for homeowners to use. Much later, it was revealed that the Zonolite brand of vermiculite from the Libby, Montana mine may contain asbestos. This insulation is no longer sold, but it is commonly found in attics. Many types of vermiculite do not contain asbestos, but roughly 73 percent of all vermiculite insulation reportedly is Zonolite from the Libby mine.
A few things about this insulation…
The actual incidence, or percentage, of asbestos in this insulation is small – roughly 2 percent according to sources in the remediation field. I know asbestos testers who have not found asbestos in the samples they have taken. It doesn’t matter, however, as there is no rational risk assessment of this material. The standard now is to have the material removed by companies that specialize in this. This is not a do-it-yourself job. Fortunately, an asbestos removal trust (Zonolite Attic Insulation (ZAI) Trust), was set up by the W.R. Grace company that will reimburse homeowners for up to 55 percent of the removal cost, up to a maximum cost of $7500 (or a maximum reimbursement of $4125). To participate in this, however, the homeowner must go through the procedures outlined in the settlement. This is clearly laid out on the website, http://www.zonoliteatticinsulation.com/faqs/ or http://www.zonoliteinsulationtrust.com. Programs like this end, so check this out.
Each state has its own regulations regarding testing and disposal, so you need to research this before beginning any removal of suspected vermiculite insulation. Although they don't recommend it, some states may allow homeowners to remove vermiculite from their own homes. Waste disposal regulations may vary from state to state, so you should check with your regulatory authorities before attempting to remove or dispose of vermiculite. The state by state regulations can be found at www2.epa.gov/asbestos/state-asbestos-contacts
In Massachusetts at least, the vermiculite issue is normally handled by the numerous companies that offer energy audits. In most cases, it will be necessary to have the material tested by a licensed tester and lab to determine if it was Zonolite insulation and not another type. I recommend contacting your energy office in your state for more information.
As noted, the home inspection is not formally an asbestos inspection. That said, most inspectors will note the presence of suspected vermiculite IF viewed. There are a couple of difficulties, however. First, this insulation is very often covered over with another insulation; your inspector won’t go searching for this material under existing insulation. (As my opinion only: if completely covered in a largely unused attic, how much of a risk would the presence of vermiculite be – assuming the insulation will not be disturbed?). Also, sometimes it is only present in a very small quantity, sometimes in a remote section of the attic. It was also used to insulate walls where you simply cannot see it. The experts I’ve heard talk on this recommend leaving the vermiculite in the walls alone, as it will not readily generate airborne fibers and, realistically, may not be removable.
In any case, note any type of grayish- tan pebbly insulation in the attic and ask your inspector about this.
Radon in air… (note: radon in well water is covered in chapter 17)
I won’t provide a detailed explanation of radon issues here as the EPA website provides a lot of good information on radon. The link: https://www.epa.gov/radon/home-buyers-and-sellers-guide-radon
As a brief overview: Radon is an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of the naturally occurring uranium in the soil. Unfortunately, radon tends to accumulate in homes and buildings, raising the levels to sometimes unacceptable levels. Statistically, elevated levels of radon are found in 25 percent of homes nationwide. In some regions, radon is rarely present, while in other areas, elevated levels are routinely found. Radon also will vary from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood. The street where I live has numerous homes with very high levels of radon – but a small percentage of homes do not have elevated levels. You can have high radon levels in your (soon to be) house, while all of the neighboring houses test low. The only way to tell is to have the home tested. The effect of exposure to radon gas is analogous to getting a chest x-ray. Living in a home with high radon levels could be the same as getting multiple chest x-rays every day. The health risk from this is an increased risk of lung cancer. (To date, I’ve not seen studies that link radon to other type of cancer).
Most inspection companies will offer to test for radon. Either canisters, vials, or electronic monitors can be used. Each has their advantages. Electronic monitors provide the best option as they are more tamper-proof, provide hourly results, and provide a much quicker turn-around. They are also a more expensive option, and many inspectors do not have these – or offer them for all areas. Charcoal canister or vial (liquid scintillation) test kits are also available and provide a lower cost option. Despite the knock they get, they are accurate as long as the proper test conditions are observed. They are not tamper-proof (nothing is, really) and require mailing the testing devices to a lab for processing.
Radon testing involves leaving a test device at the property for a minimum of 48 hours. Canisters can be left longer than vials, and electronic monitors could conceivably be left for a much longer period. Long-term tests can be done, but these are not used in real estate transactions as everything has to happen quickly.
A few notes regarding radon and radon testing:
When it was first discovered that homes may have elevated levels of radon, the EPA established an ‘action level’ of 4.0 picoCuries (pCi/L, a unit of radiation). This is not a danger level but an action level. In terms of real estate transactions, anything over 4.0 pCi/L usually is something where the current homeowner will normally have a radon mitigation system installed or will make an allowance for the buyer to have this done. While not a legal requirement, this is the common protocol as the listing agent and seller must disclose ‘higher than desirable’ radon levels to any future buyer of the property. Very often, a mitigation system will be installed prior to the sale; in other cases, an allowance will be made.
Exceptions to this scenario, however, can exist. In sales where the buyer is getting the property “as is”, this, in most cases, would exclude renegotiating for a radon mitigation system to address the high radon levels. For bank-owned properties and short sales, forget it. You can test for radon, but any remediation will be up to you. For the vast majority of homes, the mitigation systems for radon in air run about $1200 to $1500. Occasionally, a home may require a more elaborate or expensive radon mitigation system.
Where and when to test…
#1 You want to have the home tested for radon during your inspection contingency period. If there is no way this will be a negotiable issue, then wait until you are in the home as you will have better control of the testing premises. You could then test with inexpensive canisters. Very often, you can’t get the radon results back within the contingency period. In this case, the buyer’s agent normally will insert a clause in the Purchase and Sale document that notes that the agreement is ‘pending an acceptable radon test result’ (consult your broker or attorney for the language). This gives you more time to get the result. This is routinely done.
#2 If testing, have your inspector do this; it's short money. Don’t use the inexpensive testing devices you may get in a hardware store. You may wait weeks to get the results; this doesn’t help you when you need the results quickly.
#3 Test the lowest potential habitable or usable level of the home. The original EPA guidelines recommended testing the currently usable habitable space, not the unfinished basement. These guidelines were intended for homeowners – not home buyers. This created a lot of confusion as to where the testing should occur as real estate agents sometimes will argue we should not test in an unfinished basemen based on these guidelines. This was not the intent of the EPA as noted in their recommendations in the pamphlet they provide for guidance:
“Make sure that the test is done in the lowest level of the home that could be used regularly. This means the lowest level that you are going to use as living space whether it is finished or unfinished.”
The highest levels of radon will always be found in the lowest area of the home, typically the basement). In older homes with unusable basements, or homes with half height basements or crawlspaces, you should have the testing device placed on the lowest habitable space (typically the first floor).
#4 If you are buying a newly constructed home, make sure you test for radon. A lot of buyers have the misconception that radon will only be found in older homes or when there is a dirt basement or loose foundation. This is not the case. High radon levels are even more likely to be found in new construction, especially if there has been blasting to remove ledge. I just inspected a very nice new home where it was apparent the builder had to blast out the ledge to allow a full basement. The radon levels came in at 166 picoCuries – which is what you may find in a uranium mine.
#5 Radon is a correctable problem. If you like the home, I think it seldom warrants walking away due to high radon levels. In some towns, you can’t find a home that does not have ‘high’ (over EPA action level) radon. On the other hand, if the results are outrageously high (which is extremely rare), then maybe this is something you may not want to deal with.
Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from high power lines, cell tower, other sources….
This topic really requires its own chapter – if not a book. I’ve provided links to websites that cover EMF exposure – many created by Michael Neuert of EMFinfo.org and EMFcenter.com If you are electromagnetically sensitive – or just have a lot of concern about your exposure to electromagnetic fields, you will need to do additional research. I will note at the start that there are a lot of misconceptions about exposures to electromagnetic fields and lots of studies that indicate possible problems – and an equal number of studies that downplay the risks. I’ll concentrate on how you may want to approach this topic in your home buying search. It may not be a relevant or critical concern in most real estate purchases – but it is a topic you should know something about.
As a brief explanation: electromagnetic fields (or EMF) encompass the entire spectrum of the fields of energy. Visible light is part of this spectrum. EMFs include the low-frequency waves such as from power sources, radio, cell signal, TV signals, etc. These are referred to as non-ionizing waves as they do not heat up and thereby directly damage human tissues. In contrast, the frequencies that are higher than visible light, running from ultraviolet light, x-rays, up to gamma rays, are referred to as ionizing radiation Essentially, our bodies are part of and are affected by the whole electromagnetic spectrum.
For our purposes, there are three types of electromagnetic fields that we should be concerned about:
First, to quote Michael Neuret, “magnetic fields are the EMF component most often linked to serious health effects in the scientific research literature (e.g., the link between power lines and leukemia). These common magnetic fields are emitted from power lines, building wiring, electrical panels, lights, appliances, and virtually every device that runs on regular electricity.
Electric fields make up the other half of the common electromagnetic fields emitted from power lines, wiring, lights, and appliances. They are also linked to many important biological effects but have been studied less. Anecdotally, electric fields are often involved when people knowingly feel "symptoms" and discomfort from different electrical sources. Electric fields induce significant voltages onto the skin, which are easily sensed and measured.
Finally, Radiofrequency or "RF" includes the higher frequency fields and microwaves emitted by cell towers and cell phones, TV and radio broadcast towers, cordless phones, Wi-Fi and other wireless computer components, microwave ovens, baby monitors, Smart Meters and various other electronic devices.“
While the following section goes over the largest sources of EMF exposure, it is beyond the scope of this book to delve too deeply into the possible risks from electromagnetic field exposure. I will provide commonsense advice on how you can limit your exposure and risk when in the home buying process – as well as after you are in the home.
As noted, electromagnetic fields (EMF) comes in two types: ionizing and non-ionizing. “Ionizing” basically refers to the ability of the energy to break chemical bonds into ions. Electromagnetic radiation of the ionizing radiation type (X-rays and gamma rays) is a problem as it causes DNA damage. But, what about radiation from the non-ionizing electromagnetic fields?
This is where things get controversial. Because the low-frequency waves produced by cell towers are the non- ionizing, low-frequency types, the telecom industry has argued that cell signals are not a problem. Numerous studies they have done seem to support this. Numerous studies on the effect of high power transmission lines done by the utility companies have indicated that the level of exposure to the radiation from EMFs from power lines has little or no health effects. They may be correct – I’m not qualified to give a definitive answer. In terms of EMF exposure from power lines, homes with elevated electromagnetic fields from power sources may be more likely to have a wiring problem. High voltage lines may not always be a problem – assuming they are some reasonable distance away. There is a specific type of wiring problem present in up to twenty-five percent of the homes, however, that will produce elevated electromagnetic fields. I'll go into this briefly at the end of this section.
What are the reputed health concerns with exposure to electronic magnetic fields (EMF)?
There are numerous studies on the low-frequency electromagnetic fields produced by power lines and the higher frequency fields produced by cell phones, cell towers, and other RF sources (such as smart meters) that do not show these to be a significant health risk. The problem is: most of the studies funded by the telecom industry do not show a link between EMF exposure and health issues, while numerous independent studies come to very different conclusions. Scientists initially assumed that, because EMF’s from these sources are not an ionizing type of radiation (such as X rays or gamma rays that do ionize, or damage, the molecules they hit) that they would not be a risk to human health. Unfortunately, scientists then discovered that EMF’s can cause harmful biological effects, not only by heating up sensitive tissues, but by influencing or interfering with sensitive "bio-electromagnetic" processes within our cells, brains, and bodies. The human body is, in fact, a living "bio-electronic" machine, utilizing many sensitive electromagnetic processes for the proper functioning of our brain, nervous system, immune system, and other organs. To quote Michael Neuert:
“…researchers have shown that our pineal gland can sense daily changes in the earth's natural magnetic field, and use this information to help regulate our brainwave patterns and wake/sleep cycle. An example of electromagnetic interference (EMI) affecting human biology is found in the fact that artificial magnetic fields (like those from power lines) can suppress the secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland at night. This is important because melatonin is the main hormone which initiates our sleep cycle. It is also a strong antioxidant which fights cancer naturally within our bodies”.
Another problem is that, as cell phone usage has only really taken off over the last ten or fifteen years, there have been no long-term studies on the risks from cell phone usage or exposure to cell signals.
While this is a matter of much controversy, studies suggest that EMFs may be linked to a variety of health problems including leukemia, lymphoma, brain and nervous system cancers, melanoma, breast cancer, miscarriage, birth defects, Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, depression, and suicide. Anecdotally, EMFs have been associated with symptoms such as nausea, headache, fatigue, anxiety, dizziness, mental confusion, memory loss, sleep disturbance, seizures, tinnitus, changes to blood pressure and heart rate, itchy or burning skin sensations, and skin rashes. Anecdotally, there are increasing numbers of people who report "hypersensitivity" to electromagnetic fields, similar to the way that some individuals have become "hypersensitive" to chemicals due to over-exposure in the past.
Exposure to high magnetic and electrical fields from high transmission lines AND other power sources…
Transmission lines…. There have been claims that the low-frequency EMFs from high voltage lines could increase the risk of cancer, particularly childhood leukemia. Importantly, other studies have not shown this correlation. I cannot weigh in on this, as the science or proof of health effects may not be entirely settled. In terms of what to think about when looking at homes near high power transmission lines, I think the critical factor is just how close you are to the transmission lines. Electromagnetic fields decrease with distance from the source. At anywhere from 700 to 1000 feet, the level of EMFs produced by power lines should reach ‘background levels’ – in other words, there is simply is no elevated exposure. You may be able to see the transmission lines from your home or backyard, but if you are a sufficient distance (see below) away, this may not be a problem. In many states-- California and in many areas in New England,--the utility companies will come out to the property where homeowners have concerns about power lines and will do a survey with ‘Gauss meters’ to indicate the levels of electromagnetic fields that may be reaching the house. In terms of household appliances, most will produce EMFs, but if correctly wired, you should not have any elevated exposures at one to three feet away.
The issue with exposure to high magnetic fields, however, goes beyond proximity to high voltage transmission lines. Regarding this, I’ll quote Michael R. Neuert, of The EMF Center ( www.emfcenter.com).
“It is difficult to predict a safe distance from power lines because the EMFs can vary greatly depending upon the situation. The best advice is to measure with a gaussmeter to determine the actual levels of magnetic fields and the distance required in your particular case. (Special note: magnetic fields are EMF component most often linked to health effects in the studies. They are measured with special instruments called gaussmeters.)
The strongest magnetic fields are usually emitted from high voltage transmission lines — the power lines on the big, tall metal towers. To be sure that you are reducing the exposure levels to 0.5 milligauss (mG) or less, a safety distance of 700 feet may be needed. It could be much less, but sometimes more. You must test with a gaussmeter to be sure.
It's even more difficult to predict a safe distance from neighborhood power distribution lines — the type typically found on wooden poles. For example, homes with a nearby transformer will sometimes have higher EMFs because the transformer is a hub, and the power lines carry more electricity for a group of homes. The issue is complicated by the fact that there can be stray electricity flowing in the metal water service pipes of the neighborhood, increasing the magnetic fields from both the power lines and from the buried pipes!
Thus, there is no reliable safety distance for neighborhood power lines. In general, a magnetic field level of 0.5 mG will be reached somewhere between 10 and 200 feet from the wires. But you cannot tell by simply looking up at the power lines. You have to test on-site with a gaussmeter to be sure.
If the electrical power lines are installed underground, the magnetic fields may be just as strong, or even stronger. This is because the power lines could actually be closer to you when only buried a few feet down, rather than up 20 or 30 feet overhead. For neighborhoods with buried power lines, you must always test with a gaussmeter.
Power lines also emit electric fields. The electric fields from high voltage transmission lines (metal towers) can be very strong outside near the wires and extend for over a thousand feet. However once inside the home, the building structure usually provides some shielding, and the electric fields from electrical wiring and cords will usually be much stronger than that from the power lines.”
On this, I’ll note that I’ve had the voltage stick I keep in my shirt pocket start ringing when inspecting homes near power lines – but usually just when I am on the outside of the home. It's disconcerting, but the electrical EMF fields may not pose as much of a concern as the magnetic portion of the EMF field as they are easily shielded by trees and the home’s walls and ceilings. The magnetic fields that penetrate through the walls are not easy to shield.
Exposure to EMFs from power sources within the home….
One of the authorities on problems with EMFs, Karl Riley, found that, when conducting studies to identify the sources of high EMF levels in homes and schools, most of the time the problem was not from the transmission lines or the power lines outside the home. Instead, bad wiring practices (specifically, an improper grounding of the ‘neutral' wires) were the source of the problem. Some of these practices can be spotted by the home inspector – but others are concealed from view. I’ll note at the end of this section having a further evaluation by a specialist in this area.
Exposure to RF waves from cell towers, other sources…
Exposure to electromagnetic fields from cell towers is another area of concern. Cell phones communicate with nearby cell towers mainly through radiofrequency (RF) waves, a form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum between FM radio waves and microwaves. Like FM radio waves, microwaves, visible light, and heat, they are forms of non-ionizing radiation that do not directly damage the DNA inside cells. Again, the stronger (ionizing) types of radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light, are thought to be able to cause cancer.
Cell towers that are a good distance away may not pose a significant risk of exposure to harmful EMFs. The problem is, you may find cell tower installations in buildings where you did not even know they were present. There are over 300,000 cell tower installations in the United States. Many now are disguised as chimneys, trees, or just boxes on commercial buildings.
BOX/HIGHLIGHT I once inspected an old church and was ascending the interior ladders in the tall steeple when I found I was surrounded by the large cables from the cell tower installation inside. I can only wonder what my exposure was for that day! In any case, I didn’t know the cell tower was even there before ascending the steeple. What about the neighbors to this church?), Where a base station is installed on top of a building where people live or work, how many people who work or live next to this are aware that there is a cell site close by – and the high levels of EMF radiation that they are subjected to every day? UNBOX
To quote Michael Neuert again:
It is also difficult to predict a safe distance from cell towers. For example, cell towers are designed to transmit most of their radio frequency (RF) energy horizontally. Some areas below the tower may have lower levels than locations farther away that are more in line with the vertical height of the antennas.
The exposure from a cell tower will depend on the type of antennas, the number of antennas, how much the antennas are actually being used, the time of day, etc. The distance needed to reduce exposures down to the General Public Precautionary Level of 0.010 microwatts per centimeter squared (μW/cm²) is often around a quarter of a mile (1320 feet) or more. Due to the uncertainty, on-site testing with a broadband RF test meter is strongly recommended.
A German study reported that people living within 400 meters (1312 feet) of cell towers had over 3 times the normal rate for new cancers (City of Naila 2004). In an Israeli study, the relative risk for cancer was about 4 times greater within 350 meters (1148 feet) of the cell tower (Wolf et al. 1997). Based on findings like these, a minimum safety distance of 1/4 mile (1320 feet) might be considered prudent.
RF exposure from other devices…
Low frequency (which doesn’t necessarily mean without biological effects) RF signals will also be generated by numerous sources, including radio and TV stations. Again, it's proximity that is a concern: you may get more exposure when sitting right in front of a TV than you would from exposure to the signals reaching the home from a tower some distance away. Micheal Neuret also expresses concern about living next to police and fire stations as these use a higher frequency cell signal that may be more difficult to shield within the home.
Electromagnetic and RF radiation inside the home...
The levels and quality of the electromagnetic fields in the home are also concerns to be aware of. Cell towers get all of the attention regarding possible effects from RF exposure. These may not be the things you should be the most concerned about, in my opinion - again assuming you are not in close proximity to the tower. I’ve read that you get more radiation from cell phones when a weak signal is present – so one could argue that having more towers and stronger signals may be a plus Your exposure to low-frequency RF waves is much higher when you are actually using a cell phone than what you will get from a cell tower located some distance from your home.
Importantly, a wireless router in your home will also vastly increase your exposure to RF electromagnetic frequencies. A wireless router basically is a low powered home-based cell tower. RF fields are also emitted from other wireless and electronic devices including cell phones, cordless phones (maybe even higher levels than cell phones), TV/radio broadcast towers, Wi-Fi, wireless computers and components, baby monitors, microwave ovens, radar, etc. There have recently been concerns raised about the electromagnetic fields generated by smart meters. I’ve talked to people in this field who dismiss this concern, but cautions are still in order if your living space is directly adjacent to these meters (see the list of ways to decrease your risks at the end of this section). These may be behind the walls of your condo unit, so you need to look for them.
As a general comment, I believe the overall levels of exposure to RFs and EMFs should be a concern. This is one of those topics where there is limited but damning evidence that EMFs are a significant concern versus the research from the government and ‘official’ sources saying, basically, ‘we don’t know’. I won’t wade into this here; I’ve provided links to websites on electromagnetic fields. I will say that the issue of exposure to EMFs from cell phones and from electrical fields within the home is not something typically subject to evaluation during the home buying process. I don’t know any inspectors who would offer this and, to be honest, one would need to test for EMFs after you have moved in, as the electronic equipment you may bring with you would also count. Your wireless router could be the source of EMFs. In many homes, the electric and magnetic fields will also carry added RF frequencies due to the use of dimmers, fluorescent lights, computers, Wi-Fi, Smart Meters, etc. (This is referred to as “dirty electricity”).
What can you do as a home buyer…?
So what can you do to find a home without high levels of electromagnetic radiation due to power lines or RF radiation due to cell towers or other sources?
- As it isn’t always possible to find where the closest cell tower is, visit antennasearch.com to find out where the towers and antennas are in your area and how close they are to your home or place of work to locate the closest tower. Cell towers located at least 700 feet from your home may not pose a high risk of elevated electromagnetic fields. You may, however, find a concealed tower nearby that you did not know existed, especially in urban areas.
- If you want to know your exposure from the magnetic fields from a power line, you may be able to have your utility company visit the property and test for EMFs from power lines. They would not, however, test for or look for problems within the home. An option would be to simply avoid living close to high voltage power lines.
- Consider having an electrician who is knowledgeable about EMFs and associated wiring defects examine the home’s electrical system and measure for elevated electromagnetic fields with a gaussmeter. This may be a more likely source of EMF problems. Improper wiring practices, bad connections, or other faults may produce high levels of EMFs. A wiring defect, whereby the neutrals are grounded or improperly routed, is one of the more common sources of electromagnetic exposure within the home. Home inspectors may be able to spot when a neutral wire in a subpanel has been improperly grounded, but not when this has been done within junction boxes.
- Certain strong sources of magnetic fields — electrical panels, transformers, refrigerators, pump motors and other common sources — can be shielded with MuMetal® type alloys.
- If you are concerned about a nearby cell tower, you need an RF test meter. If you are knowingly sensitive to electric fields, you need a body voltage meter. If you are concerned about the potential health effects from a variety of EMF sources, you may need several test meters to detect all three types of EMFs — a gaussmeter for the magnetic fields, a body voltage meter for the electric fields, and an RF meter for the radio frequency fields.
- If you are electromagnetically-sensitive, you will need to be especially cautious about where to live and what you can do to shield yourself from EMF exposure. I should note that Electromagnetic Sensitivity (ES) is a health condition where people report heightened sensitivity and troubling symptoms related to EMF exposure. This condition is often verified when, by simply removing or turning off the EMF source or moving the person away from the EMF source, the symptoms disappear, but reappear later when the exposure is reintroduced. Anecdotally, the incidence of electromagnetic sensitivity is steadily increasing, especially with the proliferation of wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi computer wireless, DECT cordless phones, and Smart Meters.
People with Electromagnetic Sensitivity are often very affected by the normal EMF levels found in a typical home or work environment today. Thus, special measures are often needed to reduce the exposure levels even further. See ElectroMagnetichealth.org for information on the distances recommended for specific EMF generators.
- Get rid of fluorescent lights. Use low wattage incandescent bulbs in your bedroom. Obviously, don’t leave your cell phone on and nearby when sleeping. Same for your computer. Same for your cordless phone. Same for your wireless router, if present in or near the bedroom. Turn things off at night.
- Research your options for shielding yourself (and your home) from high levels of EMFs. I’ve included a number of links where you can follow up on this. (Note: Michael Neuert provides consulting services for homeowners in northern California. Contact at (707)578-1645).
Problems living near windmills, radar stations….
I – like most people – think windmills and alternative power sources are a good thing (not necessarily the answer to our problems – but what is?). Also, a lot of arguments made against windmills simply don’t hold (kill birds—yes, but not as many as claimed)--too expensive, don’t work all of the time, etc.) Overall, however, wind turbines have proven to be economically viable and are generally accepted by most of the public.
But- there’s always a “but.” There have been complaints from homeowners living near large wind turbines who reputedly suffer migraines, insomnia, dizziness, and a general discomfort from the constant low-frequency noise, termed ‘infrasound,' produced by the blades. Numerous residents of Falmouth, Mass., as detailed in an NBC report in 2012, found it almost impossible to live in their homes due to the effect of the nearby wind turbines. The difficulty is that some people living near large wind turbines experience the effects and others don't. Studies have also been mixed on whether the effects are real or significant – but it certainly has been real for those who have been experiencing the effects.
I cannot comment on the science. It appears that some people are more prone to problems than others AND that the nature of the topography and site makes some properties more prone to wind turbine effects than others. In any case, you don't want to buy a home that you will be miserable in.
As far as what you can do, I recommend that you not live in close proximity to large wind turbines. (How ‘close’ is ‘close’?) Most are sited some distance from homes – as they should be. You will also need to do your own investigations. There is no easily available test for infrasound, and the wind may also not be blowing when you are looking at the property. Talk to the town health officials, neighbors, and other local sources regarding complaints about windmills made by homeowners in those towns. Look at the overall evidence carefully, as some complaints have proven to be groundless.
Chinese drywall" refers to an environmental health issue involving defective drywall manufactured in China, imported to the United States, and used in residential construction between 2001 and 2009, affecting "an estimated 100,000 homes in more than 20 states." Most of this was the Knauf brand (although most ‘Knauf' drywall was domestically produced and did not experience the problems of the Chinese manufacturer). Almost all of the defective drywall (or reports of problems) was from the southeastern states, particularly Florida. A lot of this drywall was shipped in due to the hurricane damage in these years and the need for extensive reconstruction. I have not seen nor heard of this in New England or states in the west or northern regions, although I’m sure it could have been used somewhere.
The problem arises from excessive levels of hydrogen sulfide in the drywall that outgases due to the humidity and high temperatures. Not only did this stuff smell bad, but it also corroded copper pipes and other metals, including the copper coils located inside air conditioning units. The sulfide could also damage electrical wiring, gas piping, and fire alarm systems.
What to do: Be aware of this issue if you are buying in the southeastern states. Ask whether there was any history of this material being used. This would most likely be found in new construction or homes renovated due to storm damage. If found to be present – or used and replaced already – research whether the piping, air conditioning, or other systems were repaired or replaced.
To research this further the below place is a good start.
Formaldehyde in wood flooring
Formaldehyde is found in numerous building materials due to its ‘binding’ properties and low cost. It is also found in household products like glues and paints, dishwashing liquids, and fabric softeners, even cosmetics and some medicines. It is hard to escape exposure to formaldehyde. That said, short-term exposure can lead to irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Exposure to concentrated or chronically high levels can reputedly lead to respiratory issues and nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.
A couple of years back, it was reported that batches of laminate flooring coming from China had levels of formaldehyde six to seven times the allowable limit. There was much outcry about this (and rightly so). The flooring imported now is perhaps better?
In terms of your buying decision, it is important to note that formaldehyde outgases. Newer homes, very tight homes, and newly renovated homes may show higher levels of formaldehyde – but this should diminish fairly quickly, especially if you can ‘air the building’ out. In terms of your renovations, choose products with low or no formaldehyde and ventilate aggressively post-renovation. This should not be, in my opinion, a walk-away or significant long-term issue for most people. For those who are chemically sensitized, even residual levels could be an issue.
Liquid underground Fuel Storage tanks (LUSTS)
This refers to underground fuel oil tanks and does not refer to underground propane tanks. (If propane tanks leak, the gases would simply enter the air and not contaminate the site). The tanks we are concerned about are the underground tanks used to store fuel oil. Underground tanks were sometimes used to store gasoline on older estate and farm properties. Most often, underground tanks were used to store fuel oil for heating the home.
Unfortunately, these tanks sometimes leak, spilling fuel oil into the ground and sometimes into the basement. Putting metal tanks underground and filling them with oil was not, in retrospect, a very good idea. The cost to remediate the site from a tank that has been leaking can run into the tens of thousands –- or hundreds of thousands of dollars. BOX? As an example of what can happen: back in the late 80’s, I inspected a home in an upscale suburb. The home was gorgeous and fairly priced. The only glitch was that there was a reported underground tank in the yard. My buyers were going to buy the property as is, but I urged them to make the owner have the tank removed first. When I heard from them a few months later (as they were looking to buy a different home), I found out that the seller did agree to remove the tank – and unfortunately found that it had been leaking for some time. The formerly lovely yard was reportedly now a pit ten- feet deep and around 75 feet in diameter due to the removal of the contaminated soil. UNBOX
I should note that most of the underground tanks have been removed by now, and the majority did not leak. I used to see evidence of underground tanks commonly back in the 80’s – but less so now. While most have been removed, a few tanks are still out there in rural areas; I encountered one in the winter of 2018. The recognition of the potential for huge remediation costs and the liability for real estate professionals created a situation – at least in my area – where agents will not even take a listing if a home has an underground tank – and many mortgage and insurance companies will not cover these properties if a known tank is present.
That said, who can tell what may be buried out in the yard? Many homeowners have purchased homes without knowing that an underground tank was present. I inspected a home a couple of years ago where there was evidence of an underground tank in the recent past – and no history of this having been removed. The owner also tried to conceal the evidence of the tank. For their own financial well-being, my clients ‘walked’ and found another home.
Another problem that is found more often: the copper fuel lines from above-ground tanks in basements will sometimes corrode out and leak oil below the slab. It has been mandated in Massachusetts for several years that homeowners must have these lines upgraded to an approved type not subject to corrosion – but I still see them. Unfortunately, your inspector can’t determine if these lines have been leaking. Not all states may require that these fuel lines be upgraded – but you should plan on doing this as soon as you take possession.
What to do: Don’t buy a home with an underground fuel oil tank as you will still find them in many areas. Older farm and estate properties may carry the largest risk of hidden tanks. These properties were more likely to have these tanks originally – and very often the tanks were left in place without the current owner even being aware of their existence. Also, check with the town and the fire department as they may have a record of tanks being present – or having been removed.
Your home inspector is not responsible for finding underground fuel oil tanks – although one may see clues in the basement. A number of possible clues that may indicate an underground fuel tank would include: dual oil feed lines that come out of the foundation or floor slab, old oil gauges on the wall, pipes coming out of the ground in the yard (although a number of pipes are found that have nothing to do with underground tanks). I recommend that you walk the grounds. Look for pipes; look for coffee or other cans that may cover the fill pipes; look for dead vegetation. Lastly, you may want to engage a company that uses a ground scanning radar to identify fuel oil tanks. A good web site on finding these tanks is http://inspectapedia.com/oiltanks/Find_Buried_Oil_Tank.php
Hazardous waste sites…
There are numerous hazardous waste sites throughout the country, and more than 10,000 hazardous waste sites dot New England’s landscape; and in Massachusetts alone, more than a third of the towns have lost all or parts of their drinking water to toxic contamination. Note: A lot of these sites have been capped and may pose a minimal risk at this time.
This concern is not dealt with by the home inspection. Some inspection companies offer an assessment by Environmental Data Resources. They have databases of known contamination sites and will issue a report on sites within a set distance of the home. Another website to check is the EPA site:
You may have a high risk of finding unknown or unreported contamination sites in rural or sparsely populated areas where there may have been little or no oversight over what was dumped into the ground. It is likely, moreover, that there are more known and unknown contamination sites in areas where fossil fuel operations have been present.
What you can do: When walking the property, check for old barrels, dead vegetation concentrated in one spot, discolored puddles on the ground, etc.
Drug (or meth) houses…
Houses where methamphetamine (referred to as meth or crystal meth) was used or made are found in many areas of the country – especially in rural areas. Properties where meth was made are likely to be contaminated.
There are a number of things to look out for so you don't inadvertently buy a meth house. Homes that have housed meth (or other drug users) but were not used to produce meth may also contain chemical residues, but at much lower levels than homes where the meth was actually made. I would advise avoiding these – or have them tested by a qualified lab. Do your research on potential contamination.
A few things that would indicate a high risk of the property being used to produce meth include:
- Small, often isolated rural homes that are in serious disrepair – or appear to have recently been fixed up. (Meth houses may have been spiffed up by a flipper or the owner’s relatives; these may appear to be a super bargain – so be careful).
- Strong smells of ammonia and other chemicals. It will often smell like urine.
- Packages of drugs, vials, or containers in the house or yard. Pseudoephedrine, found in cold medicines, is the key ingredient for homemade meth.
- Broken down doors, windows covered, damaged interiors (or all of these recently replaced) could indicate a former drug lab.
While testing for meth residues is possible, I advise avoiding any house where you even suspect methamphetamine was produced. Check with the local police department, also, as they would normally know of properties where meth was produced.
(Out-gassing from) Urea formaldehyde foam insulation…
This is one I can dispense with fairly quickly. Urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was commonly installed in the late 1970’s into the early 80’s. While most installations had no problems, a small percentage of installations were faulty and outgassed high levels of formaldehyde. Occupants of these homes sometimes became chemically sensitized, such that they could not tolerate exposures to any level of chemicals in the future. Due to this problem, UFFI was banned as an installation material.
Fortunately, it was found that the formaldehyde quickly out-gassed, such that even the problem installations had no detectable levels after a passage of time. This became a non-issue, eventually. The problem we now have with UFFI installations is that the insulation turned to dust and settled in the walls, making this less than optimal from an energy standpoint. As an environmental hazard, this should not be a problem.
Note: Some of the below items fall under the topic of Indoor Air Quality (covered in chapter 15). I will include them in this chapter if the exposure comes from sources outside the home.
Problems with living near highways, busy roadways….
A number of recent studies indicate that living near highways and high-traffic roads carries a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those living twice as far away, largely due to the effects of ultra-fine particles.
As noted by author Cory Herro in the Think Progress website, “the worst air quality in the United States can be found within about 5 football fields of any highway — where 1 in 10 Americans live. Millions of Americans breathe this air every day. And as a result, they suffer from an increased risk of cardiac disease, according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University and Boston University.
The study, slated for publication in the journal Environment International, looked at “ultrafine” pollutants from car exhaust rather than the larger pollutants that are traditionally the focus of air quality research. Researchers found that high concentrations of ultrafine particles — 500 times smaller in diameter than the width of a human hair — are just as toxic as larger particles. While larger particles settle in the lungs, smaller particles enter the bloodstream, causing inflammation and elevated cholesterol levels. Chronic exposure can cause dangerous plaque buildup in the arteries and eventually lead to heart attack or stroke. Researchers controlled for age, gender, body fat, and health indicators such as whether someone smoked — meaning that they were able to isolate the increased cardiac risk as being connected to people’s proximity to highways.
Doug Brugge, one of the researchers and a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine, has emphasized the unique danger of super-tiny airborne toxins for years. “Most of the mortality, most of the economic impact [of these particulates] are coming from cardiovascular disease,” he told Tufts Medicine in 2012. “It’s not primarily asthma or lung cancer.”
The above puts it clearly: try to avoid living near highways, when possible. I will also note that, in some areas of the country with predominant winds from one direction, your exposure may be far less if your home is on the upwind side.
Air quality problems from wood burning…
In terms of buying a home, I won’t note the general cautions on the potential for indoor air quality problems from using a woodstove or fireplace. You can choose to use a wood stove or fireplace. But in terms of poor air quality from exterior sources, there are two potential problems I can think of – one of which most of us would ignore and the other, as something to avoid.
In the first case, a number of regions and localities where wood is widely used for heating can suffer from high levels of particulates from the residue from woodstoves during certain types of wintertime conditions. A few of the nasty things in wood smoke are benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In enclosed valleys where homeowners heat extensively with wood, the air quality may at times be very poor – especially during temperature inversions.
People love their fireplaces or woodstoves. Most adults in good health can tolerate a certain amount of air pollution. You can also take steps to minimize the production of particulates by using good stoves, proper burn techniques, dry wood, etc. You can also improve the indoor air by proper filtration, tightening the house, and the use of effective indoor air purification devices. If a temperature inversion occurs in your area, people with compromised immune or lung systems should stay indoors or take steps to limit their time outside
What you can’t control is having an upwind neighbor who has an outside wood burning furnace or boiler, where the stove is constantly bathing your house in smoke. This is unusual, but I once dealt with a homeowner who was having problems due to a neighbor running an outside wood-fired boiler all winter. Every room in the home smelled like wood smoke. Conceivably. you could have the same problem if a close by (and upwind) neighbor burns wood extensively. As none of this may be apparent during the non-heating months, you may want to ask questions of the seller about any air quality problems they may have had at that site. There may some recourse by having the town require the neighbor to shut this down or take steps to reduce the smoke. But in rural areas, there may not be a lot you can do other than encouraging your neighbor to take measures to deal with the problem. Also, this may only be an issue if the offending home is close to your property, and no landscape shielding is present.
Problems with excessive exposure to Herbicides and Pesticides in rural areas.
While anyone can be exposed to herbicides and pesticides – a lot of the potentially bad stuff is sold to homeowners – you will want to reduce the risk of excessive exposure to chemicals due to factors you can’t control. I will note that if any property you are looking at has a reported history of contamination from any source, you will need to be very careful. But what you can’t always control is the high amounts of herbicides and pesticides you may be exposed to by living in an area with industrial agriculture.
As you may know, our industrial agricultural system utilizes large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Those who live in localities with industrial agriculture are often exposed to high levels of chemicals with reputed health risks. These include glyphosate (sold as Roundup® by Monsanto) and atrazine. In my opinion, these are a disaster for the environment, both for the long-term viability of the soil and for the public's health. As it relates to buying a home, I recommend being aware of these issues and how you can limit your exposure. Unfortunately, homeowners (especially the poor) can’t just get up and leave their homes and jobs in agricultural areas.
Pollution from fracking sites, pipelines
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, uses high-pressure slugs of chemicals, water, and sand to crack shale formations deep underground, unlocking methane gas trapped therein. By utilizing this technology. natural gas (methane) can be produced where conventional drilling would be uneconomical. While the oil-bearing shales of the Bakken formation in North Dakota have gotten the most press, numerous areas of the country, including the Marcellus shale formations in Pennsylvania, have been extensively drilled.
In the ideal scenario, the fracking procedure would not allow gas to enter the wells of nearby properties, and the severely contaminated liquids used to crack the rocks to allow the gas to flow out would stay deep underground when injected back into the earth.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. A reported 20 to 40 percent of the liquids used in the fracking procedure don’t stay underground. Drillers typically inject the liquids into old, dried out wells, or other deep sites. But even when the wastewater isn't bubbling up to the surface, there is evidence that shows that injection isn’t always permanent. The film “Gas Land” shows burning water coming out of faucets in Pennsylvania homes where deep fracking wells are located. The highly toxic wastewater reportedly is commonly discharged onto surface waters, contaminating the land and streams.
Then there is Oklahoma. In portions of Oklahoma, an effect of the reinjection of the wastewater from fracking operations has been an increase in the number of earthquakes that have resulted in significant damage to homes and homeowner possessions. While these are not severe quakes, they are occurring in areas that have never suffered significant earthquakes. To limit this, Oklahoma had to limit the reinjection of wastewater in populated areas. Damage from earthquakes, you should know, is excluded from homeowner insurance policies in most states, unless put in as a ‘rider’.