12 Silent Killers in Your Home
Your home should be a sanctuary, guarding against all the dangers and uncertainties of the world outside its walls... or at least, that's how we like to think of it. But, the truth is, there are dangers present even in the coziest of homes. And, while some dangers are easy to identify, others have a tendency to slip under the radar. This is especially true of risks and hazards that are not accompanied by sirens or the sounds of danger. This list isn't intended to alarm, but rather to help raise awareness. Here are 12 silent killers that may be lurking in your home.
Asbestos is similar to lead in that it was a widely used material in home manufacturing until 1989. Because of its high fire resistance, it was even touted as a safety feature in the past. Asbestos may still be found in older homes, in floor tiles, siding, insulation, shingles and ceiling texture.
Asbestos is also similar to lead paint in that it doesn’t pose an immediate danger, unless it gets scratched up and dispersed into the air. On a practical level, this means that asbestos tape on your home’s old furnace lines can often be simply covered up and contained. However, if those furnace lines need to be torn out that tape will be shredded in the process, releasing this silent killer into your home. Work with an asbestos abatement professional whenever you suspect the presence of asbestos in your home.
Natural Gas Leaks
In its natural state, the gas that powers your furnace is invisible and odorless. The distinctive odor many of us associate with gas leaks is added by your utility company before it reaches your home. It’s a safety precaution that was only instituted after this silent killer claimed far too many lives.
Gas buildup is highly combustible, and tends to occur in places where there is an open flame, such as around a furnace or water heater. Here’s what to do if you suspect a gas leak:
- Get everyone out of your home right away
- Move a safe distance away from your home and stay there until the situation is resolved
- Call 911 for help
- After calling 911, contact your natural gas company
Because an electric spark can ignite an explosion, remember to follow these tips, as well:
- Avoid using electric appliances, such as garage door openers or telephones of any type, and don’t turn electrical switches on or off
- Do not start up or shut down motor vehicles or any other mechanical equipment
- Avoid open flames or other ignition sources and never strike a match if you suspect a natural gas leak nearby
While a gas leak is often silent (sometimes you can actually hear a hissing or blowing sound), the resulting explosion is anything but. A ruptured gas line can literally blow a home to pieces, leaving nothing but a scorched and vacant lot in its wake.
One of the most potentially lethal hazards in your home is the colorless, odorless gas carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is a natural byproduct of any flame and is produced in sufficient quantities to be dangerous by gas appliances such as a furnace or water heater. If these devices are not properly vented, then you and your family may experience nausea, lightheadedness, paranoia, hallucinations and eventually even death. Luckily, the installation of a carbon monoxide detector can alert you to the presence of this silent killer before it becomes a life or death issue. In the meantime, be sure to perform maintenance on your mechanical appliances as needed to avoid issues such as backdraft.
Many homes contain a shocking number of potential fire hazards. This might be in the form of flammable materials stored near open flames (such as next to a water heater or furnace) but may also include less obvious items such as rags used to stain a woodworking project crumpled up and tossed aside after their use (they can spontaneously combust). Other common items that can spark or spread a fire include aluminum electrical wiring and balloon framing. Part of the danger of these silent killers is that they may be in your home for months or even years (or in the case of balloon framing decades) with no problem … until the day when a single spark flies in the wrong direction.
Disabled Smoke Detectors
Disabled smoke detectors rob you and your family of the first layer of protection against the potential tragedy that comes with a home fire. Too many homeowners have a tendency to treat smoke detectors as annoyances rather than a potentially life-saving early warning system.
We get it—having a smoke detector go off while you’re cooking dinner can be frustrating, and the low battery chirps are annoying. But if you silence the alarm by popping out the battery, it’s far too easy to forget to replace it. A much better solution is to get the proper type of alarm for a given room. Photoelectric sensors are less likely to trip when cooking, for example.
We mentioned aluminum wiring already, but it’s not the only kind of electrical hazard that might be lurking in your home. Old wiring systems such as knob and tube used wires with cloth insulators. These can pose a potential issue when the insulator begins to fray and fall off over time, exposing the live wires to casual touch. Another potential silent killer is when your home’s previous resident got in over their head on an electrical project, and left it in a haphazard or incomplete state. If you’ve recently moved into a home and see signs of “weekend warrior” electrical wiring from the previous homeowner, have a home inspector or licensed electrician check it out. Lastly, keep an eye out for animal activity, such as a rodent or bird’s nest. That often indicates you’ll find chewed or damaged wiring somewhere along the circuit.
Tippy Heavy Objects
You may be surprised by how many bookcases, entertainment centers and televisions topple and harm or even kill people in their homes. Children are especially susceptible to this risk, and toddlers even more so. For a young child just learning to walk, a bookshelf looks an awful lot like the ladder on a playset. If you have children (or furniture climbing pets) secure bookcases, dressers and other climbable items to the wall, and make sure that they are sitting level on the floor.
Cords on blinds pose a surprising risk to young children (aged 6 or under) who can potentially get wrapped up in them.
According to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, an average of two children in that age range are sent to the emergency room each day due to injuries related to window blinds. While most of these injuries are not life threatening, about 12 percent involve entanglement, and two-thirds of those resulted in the death of the child. Because the entangled child can’t breathe, they also can’t cry out for help, making these simple household items potential silent killers.
Secure the cords well out of the reach of children or replace corded blinds with safer cordless blinds.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that can enter your home through cracks in your slab or basement floor and walls. Much like carbon monoxide, it is odorless, colorless and poses a threat to your life. But, unlike CO, this silent killer is a carcinogen. According to the American Lung Association, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. The steps to address a radon problem involve mitigation rather than prevention; because radon is naturally occurring, it emanates from the Earth itself rather than from something in your home. Therefore, dealing with it involves removing it from your home and venting it to the outdoors where it will disperse harmlessly.
Before the dangers of lead were understood, it was used in everything from paint and plumbing pipes to gasoline and toy soldiers. Lead builds up in your body over time, and is most dangerous when consumed or inhaled. Old paint is the most common form of lead found in homes but it’s danger is minimal so long as it’s sealed over with new paint and not disturbed. But if it’s flaking, whether by intentional scraping or otherwise, it becomes very dangerous. If you suspect that you have lead paint or pipes in your home, get a test kit and if the results are positive, consult with a lead-certified professional. They have the training and tools required to deal with this silent killer in a safe and responsible manner.
Pools can be a great environment for entertaining. But tragically, they can also be silent killers. A combination of proper supervision and a pool fence of adequate height goes a long way towards making your pool safer for adults, but especially for children.
Even if you don’t have kids, you may have guests who bring young ones, or you may find that your neighbor’s child wanders over to take an unsupervised swim. This is the reason that many building departments require a fence or barrier of some kind around any swimming pool. Obeying these rules helps ensure that you’re not opening yourself up to a lawsuit as well as a tragedy.
Items in Disrepair
Household items such as ladders, step stools and even chairs can give way under use, creating a fall hazard that results in serious injury or worse. Loose screws, slick treads, bent legs and wobbly feet can create a situation where your ladder or step stool is setting you, your family members or a guest up for a nasty—and potentially fatal—fall. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says that around half a million people are injured while working on ladders each year, with around 300 ladder-related household deaths each year.
To prevent this, the AAOS suggests inspecting any ladder before use, and cleaning it after you’re done.