Buying a Healthy Home

Avoiding materials and issues that can make you and your family sick.

 

Technology and innovation have improved our quality of life over the years more than our forefathers could have ever imagined. The home building and construction industry is no exception with new innovations every few years that seem to make everything before them obsolete. 

 

As wonderful as these technologies and innovations have been some of them have been proven to be troublesome in the years following their promotion. In some cases governments at the time offered subsidies to encourage everyone to use them only to realize later on, that there were unknown negative effects from the raw materials and chemicals used to produce these Innovative products and materials. 

 

Here are five potential health issues to look out for when considering an older home. 

 

Asbestos

Asbestos is great for and has been used to make products strong, long-lasting and fire-resistant. Problem is that it has also been proven to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs). Production and use of asbestos has declined since the 1970s. Before 1990, asbestos was mainly used for insulating buildings and homes against cold, noise and for fireproofing.  Over the years asbestos has been used in the manufacturing of hundreds of materials found in the construction and finishing of a home. Some of the most common materials you’ll find asbestos in at home are: Vermiculite insulation, acoustic ceiling tiles, vinyl floor tiles, house siding, furnace and heating systems, cement and plaster. Even though these materials often contain asbestos they don’t always.  The only way to know if yours does contain asbestos is to have it tested. It’s important to note that even though manufacturing with asbestos in Canada has been illegal since 2018, Health Canada is very clear that left undisturbed and well bound, asbestos fibres are harmless. This means that unless you have serious deterioration in a material and that releases asbestos fibres into the air, there is no problem. If you are removing the asbestos containing materials though, that’s a different story. Removal of asbestos containing materials should be done by professionals, under very specific conditions and following specific protocols. Removal of these materials can be very expensive and if they are revealed in a home inspection for example, your first step should be to get a quote from a qualified professional for their safe removal. For more information regarding asbestos, the health issues it causes and Health Canada’s position on the matter, visit: www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/air-quality/indoor-air-contaminants/health-risks-asbestos.html#5

 
 

Formaldehyde

Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation was widely used during the 1970s and was banned in Canada in 1980. Formaldehyde is an odourless gas that has been proven to cause respiratory problems and disease. When urea-formaldehyde foam deteriorates because of contact with humidity, water or UV rays formaldehyde gas is released into the home. To find traces of Urea-Formaldehyde Foam insulation in your home look for a yellowish foam around the foundation, possibly around electrical outlets and other gaps that would have been shot with this type of foam insulation. There are many spray foam insulation products on the market that do not contain formaldehyde so remember that if and when you see some, it will be a yellowish colour and will be older seeing as it has been banned since 1980. For more information regarding Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation visit: 

www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/advisories-warnings-recalls/letters-notices-information-industry/canadian-prohibition-urea-formaldehyde-foam-insulation.html

 

Mould

Excessive moisture contributes to the growth of mould spores and dust mites. If a house has a leak of any kind and it wasn't taken care of immediately you may well have some mould growing. People exposed to mould can experience respiratory problems, other allergic reactions and a weekend immune system. Mould test kits are available at most hardware stores and are easy to use. Poor ventilation and excess humidity make for excellent conditions in which mould can prosper. Cleaning up small or moderate mould issues and preventing the recurrence is something you can usually take care of yourself (follow the guideline set out by health Canada by clicking on the link below). Extensive mould issues should be inspected, cleaned up and resolved by professionals. CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) classifies mould amounts as follows: 

  • Small, if there are 1 - 3 patches, each less than 1 m2 (10 square feet) in size
  • Moderate, if there are more than 3 patches or if the patches are greater than 1 m2 but less than 3 m2 (32 square feet)
  • Extensive, if the patch is larger than 3 m2

For more information on Mould, the health issues it causes, how to prevent it and clean it up visit:

https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/air-quality/indoor-air-contaminants/reduce-humidity-moisture-mould.html

 

Radon Gas

Radon gas is invisible, you can't see it, taste or smell it but make no mistake it is deadly. Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Radon is a radio active gas formed by the breakdown of uranium which is found in all soil and rock. When the deadly gas is released from the soil into the air it is in such low concentrations that it is harmless but when it is released into our well sealed homes it can be deadly. Radon gas can enter your home through any opening or crack where the house contacts the soil. Whether your  house is old or new, there are all sorts of ways Radon gas can enter your home.

 

It is surprising that we have not seen more vigorous awareness campaigns regarding Radon gas and the heath risks and concerns it represents. It is also surprising because testing and solutions are so readily available and simple. Easy to use and relatively inexpensive radon gas test kits are available at most hardware stores and there are many test labs that will come and do the tests for you (obviously more expensive). Health Canada has established guidelines on acceptable Radon gas levels for homes and should the levels in your home exceed the minimums, there are several solutions available to you that range from inexpensive  to several thousands of dollars. 

For more information on radon gas and your own copy of Health Canada’s Radon Reduction Guide For Canadians go to: 

www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/radiation/radon-reduction-guide-canadians-health-canada-2013.html

 

Water Contamination

People living in cities, suburbs and towns that are serviced by a municipal water supply system hardly ever give water a second thought except when the municipality either warns of system maintenance or in the unfortunate event of a boil water advisory, which of course is very rare. 

 

People in most rural communities however, rely on wells, and  are responsible for monitoring and maintaining their own water supply. There’s really not very much to do in monitoring and maintaining a well and because of that it’s easy to forget about it. Left unchecked though it can cause serious health problems after prolonged consumption of contaminated water.

 

The good news is that water treatment systems are available to treat against the different types of contaminants that can affect your potable water supply including ultraviolet light treatment, filters and even chemical treatments. Regular well testing (recommended annually) will ensure that you stay on top of the quality of the water you and your family consume. The most common well water tests include Bacteriological and Physicochemical but others exist as well.  As a realtor, it is surprising how often I show homes to my buyer clients where the wells have not been tested in over a decade or more, but it is standard procedure to always have the well water tested when selling a home and most financial institutions will want to see those test results before lending for the property. 

 

For more information regarding well water contamination and water testing go to: 

 

www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/healthy-living/water-talk-test-well.html

 

Home Inspection

Your best ally in uncovering these potential issues is your home inspector. Choosing this trusted professional can be a daunting task considering that in Canada there are no regulatory bodies or licensing programs that govern home inspectors. Your Real Estate Broker is a great source of referrals for home inspection professionals. The best brokers will provide you with referrals (usually 3) to home inspection professionals that:

  • Hold liability insurance against faults, errors and omissions
  • Use a recognized service agreement
  • Follow recognized building inspection standards of practices when doing their inspections
  • Provide a written report to the party using their services
 

There are self-regulating associations like the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI) that provide standards, training and professional development opportunities to their membership. Here in Quebec we have the Quebec Association of Building Inspectors (AIBQ). In Quebec most inspectors are members of the AIBQ and very few are members of CAHPI. For more information click one of the links below:

 

(AIBQ) Quebec: https://www.aibq.qc.ca/aibqeng/

(CAHPI) Canada: https://www.cahpi.ca/index.php?lang=en

 


Even though each of these potential issues can negatively affect you and your family’s health, it is quite possible that even older homes are unaffected by any of them and even if at one time they were, the homeowners may have already remedied the situation. There are also solutions to every one of these issues so don't let this information scare you away.  Be aware of the potential issues, rely on a qualified and trusted home inspector then use the links I’ve provided to find the information and answers you need, should you come across any of them.