Topic 19.8: Indoor and outdoor environmental hazards

Learning Objective

After successfully completing this topic, you will be able to explain the various environmental hazards associated with real estate.

Water supply

Well water quality

Owners whose potable (drinking) water supply comes from a well, rather than a public water supply, must be concerned about groundwater contamination. The contamination could result from leaking underground tanks, pesticides, other waste products. Perhaps the lot was originally from a farm where fuel tanks were stored. Well water should be tested to ensure that it is safe for human consumption. If a test shows issues with the quality of the water, the seller should notify environmental authorities for further testing. The owner has a duty to disclose the contamination to potential buyers.

Well water quantity

In some areas that have been affected by draught the level of the water table might require expensive drilling to get adequate supplies of water.

Public water quality.

The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the public water supply. While the act is supposed to protect against contamination, owners and licensees should stay current on any potential issues regarding drinking water.

As many as 63 million Americans have been exposed to potentially unsafe water during the past ten years according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Drinking water crises made headline news in cities like Flint, Michigan and East Chicago, Illinois. These problems caused a substantial loss in property value to the residents of these areas. The owner of property must disclose problems to buyers or face significant damage claims in court.

Septic tanks

View of sewage drainage pipe from house entering a cement septic tank.

Florida has an estimated 2.7 million septic tanks that are causing serious environmental problems. Many of these tanks were poorly designed causing leakage into the aquifer. A major problem is the groundwater levels that rise and fall, especially from rising tides in coastal areas.

In Lee County, an inspector discovered that more than 90 percent of the drain fields in old septic systems were less than 2 feet above the high-water table. In addition, the filtration of the soil does not remove nitrogen, which goes into the groundwater. Many experts link septic tanks to algae blooms and red tide in coastal areas.  

Buyers should order a septic tank inspection before purchasing a home to reduce future issues.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals composed of thin, needle-like fibers. Because of its fire-retardant properties, it was used as insulation in many older buildings. Asbestos products also include vinyl asbestos tiles, asbestos cement, asbestos roofing felt, asbestos adhesives, sealants and coatings. Friable asbestos is quite dangerous because it is easy to break or crumble, and is found on old asbestos pipe insulation and talcum powder. Nonfriable asbestos is found in vinyl tiles and asbestos siding, and is not a hazard if left undisturbed.

Exposure to asbestos causes cancer, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although asbestos strengthens and fireproofs materials, it is banned in many countries, but not in the United States. Buyers of older properties should have them inspected for asbestos.

Radon

Radon is colorless and odorless. It presents significant health risks to building occupants.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. You can’t see or smell radon. Radon enters a building from the ground through openings like plumbing pipes and cracks in the slab. Off-grade homes are not as susceptible to radon.  Most areas of Florida are lower risk areas for radon. Higher risk areas include Miami-Dade County, Hillsborough County, Alachua County north to the Georgia line, and Leon County.

Testing is the only way to know level of exposure. A buyer should fix the home if the radon level is higher than 4 picocuries per liter of air. Florida law mandates that a radon disclosure be given to buyers. The disclosure informs the buyers about the gas and its effects, but does not require a test.

Required Radon Gas Disclosure
“RADON GAS: Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that, when it has accumulated in a building in sufficient quantities, may present health risks to persons who are exposed to it over time. Levels of radon that exceed federal and state guidelines have been found in buildings in Florida. Additional information regarding radon and radon testing may be obtained from your county health department.”

Lead paint

Lead paint was used in homes built before 1978, when the practice was outlawed. Lead is a highly toxic metal that may cause a range of health problems, especially in young children. When lead is absorbed into the body, it can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, like the kidneys, nerves and blood.

Lead may also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and in extreme cases, death. Some symptoms of lead poisoning may include headaches, stomach aches, nausea, tiredness and irritability. Some children who are lead poisoned may show no symptoms.

Both inside and outside the home, deteriorated lead-paint mixes with household dust and soil and becomes tracked in. Children may become lead poisoned by
• putting their hands or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths,
• eating paint chips found in homes with peeling or flaking lead-based paint, or
• playing in lead-contaminated soil.

The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Disclosure Act

The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Disclosure Act requires that sellers and real estate licensees disclose known information about lead hazards in houses and apartments that were built before 1978. In addition, sellers must 
• give buyers and renters a federally-approved pamphlet titled Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home, and
• give buyers a 10-day period to conduct an inspection for lead-based paint hazards.

Mold

Molds are common in buildings and homes. Mold grows where there is a lot of moisture, such as around leaks in roofs, windows, or pipes, or where there has been flooding. Mold grows on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, and wood products. Mold can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery.

Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can lead to symptoms such as stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes, or skin. Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions. Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath.

Mold growing in homes and buildings indicates that there is a problem with water or moisture. This is the first problem to address.
• The only way to deal with mold in carpet, insulation, ceiling tiles, drywall, or wallboard is by removal and replacement.
• Clean and dry the area as you can still have an allergic reaction to parts of the dead mold and mold contamination may recur if there is still a source of moisture.
• Clean up and dry out your home thoroughly and quickly (within 24-48 hours) after any flooding. Dig out mud and dirt. Use a wet vacuum to remove remaining dirt. Scrub cleanable surfaces (such as wood, tile, stone) with soapy water and a bristle brush. Thoroughly clean all hard surfaces (such as flooring, molding, wood and metal furniture, countertops, and sinks) with water and dish detergent. Dry surfaces quickly and thoroughly after cleaning. If you have a fan, air conditioner or dehumidifier that wasn’t affected by flooding use it to help the surfaces dry after you finish cleaning.
• Mold growth can be removed from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup (8 ounces) of bleach in 1 gallon of water to kill mold on surfaces. Never mix bleach with ammonia or other household cleaners.

The Florida Department of Professional Regulation licenses mold assessors and remediators. Mold assessors may not do the mold remediation. Mold assessors may not accept fees or kickbacks from mold remediation companies for referring business. It is illegal for an unlicensed person to work on mold remediation.

Wood-Destroying Organisms

Wood-destroying organism means arthropod or plant life which damages and can reinfest seasoned wood in a structure. Some examples include termites, carpenter ants, powder-post beetles, old house borers, and wood-decaying fungi (dry rot).

The DBPR licenses individuals and companies who provide inspection and extermination services. Most of the contracts for real estate transactions in Florida are contingent on a clear WDO (wood-destroying organism) inspection report. Neither the company nor the inspector can have any financial interest in the property inspected nor can they be associated in any way with the transaction or be party to the transaction other than for inspection purposes.

When an inspection for wood-destroying organisms is made for purposes of a real estate transaction and either a fee is charged for the inspection or a written report is requested by the customer, it must be reported using a specific form. The notice of inspection must be posted on the inspected property at a place designated in the report.

Termite inspector in residential crawl space inspects a pier for termites.

The inspector must disclose
• any active infestation seen (subterranean termites, location return air duct area in hallway),
• any evidence of WDO which does not qualify as damage or as a live organism (subterranean termite wings, location: kitchen floor in front of sliding glass doors),
• damage, whether extensive or minor, caused by WDO),
• obstructions and inaccessible areas (attic Area – Reason: Entire attic area inaccessible due to A/C ductwork and other conduit blocking entry access in garage ceiling), and
• any signs of a past wood-destroying organism treatment (patched drill holes observed in foundation block indicating that a subterranean termite treatment has been performed).