Air quality issues that impact older homes

Older homes are charming. Many older homes feature architectural elements and details rarely found in newer homes. But older homes can also have unique air quality challenges that, left alone, offset their charm. Insulation may contain asbestos. Lead-based paint may cover the walls. And aging fireplaces, chimneys, and leaking pipes may further compromise the air quality in that charming old house. Here’s an overview of the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) challenges that afflict many older homes, and what to do about them.


What it is:Asbestos is a mineral fiber that provides heat insulation and fire resistance in a variety of products in older homes.1 Between 1930 and 1950, asbestos was often used as insulation. Asbestos was also commonly used in roofing and siding, vinyl flooring, insulation for hot water and steam pipes, and elsewhere in the home. Many asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were phased out of new-home construction by 1980.

How it can hurt you:Breathing airborne asbestos fibers leads to an increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal cavity), and a condition called asbestosis, which is scarring in the lungs.2 Symptoms of these diseases often do not appear for 20 to 50 years after exposure. According to the World Health Organization, 125 millionpeople worldwide are exposed toasbestos at the workplace.3

What to do about it:Asbestos products that are in good condition are not considered a serious hazard. However, over time asbestos products may become damaged or deteriorate to a point at which the asbestos fibers can be released into the air. In most cases, asbestos that is in good condition should be left alone. Any asbestos that is more than slightly damaged should be inspected and repaired or removed by a trained, certified professional.4

Lead paint

What it is:Lead is a naturally occurring metal found deep in the earth. Before the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint in 1978, it was commonly added to paint to speed drying and increase durability.5 Lead paint is also moisture resistant. Many popular paint pigments, especially white and bright red, included lead. Millions of homes in the U.S. still contain lead paint.

How it can hurt you:Lead is toxic. Exposure to lead can affect almost every organ and system in the human body. Even at very low levels, exposure to lead can cause cognitive and behavioral problems, anemia and other problems, especially among children. Among adults, lead exposure can result in cardiovascular problems, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.6

What to do about it:Like asbestos, products painted with lead that are in good condition are not necessarily dangerous. But as lead-based paint ages and deteriorates, it can peel, chip and become airborne dust. This is especially a concern during renovations. If your home was built before the ban on lead-based paint in 1978, you might want to consider having your home tested for lead by a qualified professional. Lead painted surfaces can often be covered (with wallpaper, for example) or encapsulated. Components containing lead paint, such as windows and doors, can be removed and disposed of by a trained and certified professional.

Old plumbing

What it is:Plumbing pipes that were installed before the late 1940s were often made of lead, which is toxic. But old pipes made of galvanized steel, another popular material until the 1960s, will eventually begin corroding and leaks will occur. If the hot water pressure in an older home is low, chances are galvanized steel pipes have started to corrode.7

How it can hurt you:Leaking water from cracked pipes can damage structural elements and floors made of wood. Water seepage or leakage also creates a fertile environment for mold and mildew to grow. Molds are tiny microscopic organisms that feed on moisture. Exposure to mold can cause an allergic reaction in some people, and some molds are toxic.

What to do about it:It’s critical to inspect your plumbing systemregularlyand look for any signs of water dripping or leaking or any corrosion or soft spots. Whenever a problem or potential problem is discovered, it’s important to take action immediately to fix the problem. The goal is to replace old pipes before they begin leaking.


What it is:Homes built before the 1950s typically have masonry fireplaces and chimneys. As they age, these chimneys and fireplaces can become cracked and can leak gases and smoke into the house. Also, creosote (a flammable tar) can build up in the chimney, eventually creating a fire hazard.8

How it can hurt you:Cracked chimneys can leak carbon monoxide into the home. Carbon monoxide is a potentially lethal gas, but even at less-than-lethal levels, it can cause brain and organ damage. Fireplace smoke leaking into your home also contains fine and ultrafine particles that can affect yourlungs and heart.

What to do about it:Consider relining older chimneys with clay tiles, cement (known as cast-in-place), or metal. A chimney liner will contain combustion products from the fireplace or combustion appliances and direct them safely outside. If you plan to continue using the fireplace in an older home it’s also a good idea to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

In addition to the air quality dangers outlined above, there can be other potential hazards in older houses. By being aware of the range of dangers in older homes, and by taking corrective action when necessary, you will be able to enjoy all of the charms of a vintagehome without unnecessary exposure to the dangers that come with it.

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