Two Problems You Can’t Ignore: Lead and Asbestos

When it comes to buying an older home, some problems are annoying while others can pose a serious threat to your health. If you don’t like the color of the walls or the style of the kitchen, you can fix them. If the house contains lead or asbestos, the damage to your health can be devastating.

The biggest risks often occur during major renovations, so if you’re buying a fixer-upper, take note. When you cut into walls or ceilings, you can inadvertently release chemicals or materials into the air that would otherwise have remained contained.


Before the 1960s, lead was considered a pliable-yet-strong, corrosion-resistant metal that allowed people to do all sorts of wonderful things. It was used to make pipes, line ship hulls, and improve house paint. When health authorities realized the dangers of lead poisoning, they began restricting its use, but not before lead was all over the place, including most homes.

Lead poisoning can cause headaches, stomach aches, and anemia in adults, but the more serious consequences occur in children because lead poisoning can affect the development of the brain, nervous system, and digestive organs. If left untreated, it can be fatal.

In 1978, the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint, but some contractors didn’t want to throw away what they considered perfectly good supplies, so this paint occasionally made its way into houses through the early 1980s. All these years later, some older homes still have traces of lead in and around the property in the soil and trapped under layers of newer paint.

So, does this mean you should not buy a house built before 1978? Not at all! It means you should read the disclosures your Realtor gave you carefully (which you should do anyway) and consult with someone who is certified to test for lead if you plan to renovate.


Asbestos is another dangerous material that, if inhaled, can be deadly. People who smoke are at especially high risk. Like lead, asbestos was believed to be a miraculous material, in this case, because of its fire-resistant qualities. It was used in insulation, flooring, roofing, siding, popcorn textures on ceilings, the mud to cover sheet rock, and more. However, when health authorities realized that the little fibers in asbestos could be inhaled and become lodged in your lungs, asbestos fell out of favor. No one wanted lung cancer or mesothelioma (asbestosis). A bit of sad trivia is that asbestos used to be found in masks used by racecar drivers—this is how actor Steve McQueen got asbestosis and died.

The symptoms of asbestosis don’t show up right away, but eventually can include chest pain, painful coughing, shortness of breath, and unexplained weight loss, among others.

In 1989, the Environmental Protection agency banned most asbestos-based products. This was great for new homes, but clearly didn’t make the asbestos disappear from existing homes. So, if you plan to buy or renovate a house built before 1990, I highly recommend getting an inspection by a qualified inspector. This is not a DIY project. Drilling into walls or ceilings with asbestos can make it “friable,” or crumbly and easy to turn into dust that can be inhaled. Remediating friable asbestos can be time-consuming and expensive.

Asbestos and lead that remain contained or “encapsulated” are not dangerous. Because of the potential dangers of both lead and asbestos, the laws governing abatement are lengthy and specific. If you disturb more than four square feet of surface area with lead or asbestos, you’re required to follow protocols to safeguard the environment (not just in your house but your neighbor’s). This means capturing every bit of material that isn’t encapsulated, like all the run-off water if you power wash your house. Think about that for a moment.

Even if you make the house completely safe, if at some point you decide to sell, you’ll need to disclose the presence of lead or asbestos. This is more important than most disclosures because liability can extend to the future homeowner’s long-term health.

Buying an older home comes with a few risks, but the upsides often outweigh the downsides. The important thing is to be aware of the risks so you can address them.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.

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