Air Quality: Hidden Hazards In Older Homes

Air Quality: Hidden Hazards In Older Homes
April 3, 2024 Sabine Schoenberg

Homeowners of older homes often say “My indoor air quality is good. Outside air is constantly coming in from our leaky windows and doors.” Is this true? Does this improve indoor air quality? Let’s take a closer look: Does “leaky” mean the air quality in older homes is good? Or, is the truth closer to the Title: “Air Quality: Hidden Hazards In Older Homes?”

To many, older homes have a unique charm with their nooks and crannies, fireplaces, moldings, and more. It’s been a while since I lived in an old home. First observation: I had forgotten just how much dust shows up in old homes.

Is the dust simply a harmless nuisance? Or, are there potentially hazardous particles to be aware of?  Is the dust compromising indoor air quality? Why is there so much of it?

Two Dangers In Old Homes

It turns out dust is not just a nuisance.  There are real air quality concerns to be aware of.  The particles in dust in old houses are of concern. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that old building materials can contain lead and asbestos. As materials are worn through normal living, potentially hazardous environmental contaminants often float into dust and affect the air quality inside old homes.

Homes built and painted before 1978 likely have lead paint. You will find lead on windows & doors, stairs, railing, banisters, and more.  As old paint deteriorates, lead particles become airborne. Air quality is compromised.  The particles eventually settle as dust on surfaces, from where they can also be ingested (mainly true with small kids) and inhaled. Doctors tell us that prolonged exposure to lead dust can lead to lead poisoning and other serious health issues.

Similarly, asbestos, once celebrated for its fire-resistant properties, is now recognized as a carcinogen. Many older homes were constructed using asbestos-containing materials such as insulation, floor tiles, and roofing shingles. As these materials degrade over time, they release microscopic fibers into the air. When inhaled, over time they can cause lung diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Immediate Remedies to Improve Air Quality

Maintenance over the years matters. Are painted surfaces in good shape? Have they been painted post-1978 so that the lead paint is at least somewhat encapsulated? Has asbestos been removed by certified professionals to at least remove exposed asbestos? These are important questions each homeowner of an old home should ask. Neglected homes present a much higher risk factor. When it comes to Air Quality: Hidden hazards in older homes like lead and asbestos must be understood.

House Cleanings & Maintenance

Regular cleaning and dusting are the immediate must-do’s for your and your family’s health. Reducing the accumulation of dust particles is the goal. Using single-use dust cloths that “grab” dust particles is key to avoid particles from going airborne.

I good vacuum with a Hepa filter is also essential since you want to avoid the disturbance of dust without capturing dust particles. Anything else will worsen air quality.  Consider a robot vacuum to vacuum larger areas in your house more frequently, if not daily. This then frees you up to handle corners and other hard-to-reach areas. If your old home has been retrofitted with a ducted HVAC system, change your air filters every quarter with a quality (!) HEPA filter. Finally, consider a stand-alone air filter from a reputable brand like Dyson. While they may seem expensive at first glance – how much is your and your family’s health worth to you?!

Home Renovation Must-Haves

Eventually, old homes tend to get substantially renovated.  There is always a lot of focus and attention on bathroom & kitchen styles.  But use this opportunity to integrate health-focused installations, such as an air-filtration system. Stand-alone HRV systems like Zehnder which was incorporated in the Greenwich House as seen exclusively on SHG Living are the very best option. Atmos Air might also be a good option to add to an existing ducted HVAC system. Post COVID it should be clear to everyone that good, clean indoor air quality matters. Understand air quality issues, the hidden hazards in older homes, and, most importantly, address them.