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Is There a Killer in Your Home? Lead, Mercury, Arsenic and Asbestos in NZ

There’s a range of natural chemicals and minerals that are commonly found in New Zealand homes. Are you or your family in danger from asbestos, lead, or arsenic?

There are three important things to remember in any situation regarding chemicals:

  • Natural doesn’t mean safe
  • The poison is in the dose
  • In one form, the chemical may be safe, but in another form it can be problematic

For example, we need water to survive, but in huge quantities, it can be fatal. Formaldehyde is a big scary chemical that can be dangerous when inhaled, but it’s found naturally in things like pears, and our bodies need to consume it to survive as it helps in cell regeneration.

There are some common chemicals and elements that the media make out to be killers. You will 100% have these in your home, should you be worried?

Are You in Danger from Arsenic in Your Home?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is generally found in soil, water, air, and plants. Humans require arsenic as part of our metabolic functions, but large quantities or moderate quantities over a long period can be fatal (which Agatha Christie taught us).

In New Zealand, arsenic poisoning is rare. If you live in an area with contaminated soil, it’s advised to avoid ingesting the soil, washing all fruit and vegetables well. If you live where there was a sheep dip, orchard, timber treatment yard, scrap yard, or agricultural land, there could be a risk of soil contamination. This can be remediated if you wish but it’s generally not required.

The other common source of arsenic is in ‘CCA’ treated timber. This can include H3, H4, H5, and H6 timber, basically anything that’s susceptible to decay underground or in contact with water.

However, you don’t need to panic about timber on your property (and you should be more worried about untreated timber causing leaky homes). The arsenic in treated timber is not bioavailable- humans can’t absorb the element in that form. Studies have found that any arsenic absorbed from the soil via leached timber was not sufficient to affect or harm children or adults and naturally available arsenic was present in greater quantities.

While you don’t want to give your children a lump of treated timber to gnaw on, you don’t need to worry about arsenic; however, do not burn treated timber, as arsenic can be inhaled from the smoke and ashes and in this form, it’s dangerous.

Are You in Danger from Lead in Your Home?

In New Zealand, we used lead-based paints up until 1965. If your home was built prior to then (moreso pre 1945), it may have paint that contains lead. Even if the house has been painted since then, it’s possible the lead-based paint is still present underneath.

In general, you do not need to worry about lead poisoning, even if you know it’s present. The way that it poisons is via ingestion of paint chips or contaminated soil, so unless you, your child, or your pet, is eating soil or paint chips, there is little to no risk.

The risk is when you are removing the paint. There are a number of precautions you must take when removing the lead-based paint, such as collecting all paint debris, minimising dust, disposing of all waste securely, not burning waste, and wearing safety gear as needed. Otherwise, no need to panic about lead.

Are You in Danger from Mercury in Your Home?

Mercury is a natural chemical element. You may find it in thermometers, button batteries, thermostats, and fluorescent lamps. Generally, it is in small quantities, less than ¼ of a teaspoon, with an ordinary thermometer containing between 0.5 to 3.0 grams.

You do not need to panic unless the mercury is exposed to air (i.e. the thermometer breaks). Ironically, swallowing or touching the mercury is not harmful, but when it vaporises and is inhaled, this can be harmful.

If you spill more than ¼ teaspoon, leave the room, close internal doors but open all external doors and windows. Find a professional clean up firm to clean up the spill.

Are You in Danger from Asbestos in Your Home?

Asbestos is a mineral that is in many building products. If your home or workplace was built before the 1990s, it’s likely to contain asbestos in some form. But, don’t panic. It is only dangerous when the ‘friable’ fibres are airborne; so as long as you’re not renovating or disturbing the fibres (for example, in an earthquake), then you can relax.

However, if you intend to carry out some home repairs and you suspect you have asbestos, you need to proceed with caution. Dust from asbestos fibres can be breathed in by anyone on-site, including pets and children. The fibres lodge in the lungs and can cause incurable asbestosis or cancer.

First, get the materials tested for asbestos. In NZ, it can be commonly found in popcorn stippled ceilings, roofing materials, pipe lagging, floor vinyl, and some external cladding types. If it does contain asbestos, the test results will advise if it is friable, or non-friable. If it is non-friable, you can remove less than 10m2 following strict removal guidelines. If it is friable asbestos, it must be removed by a professional firm who are qualified to remove asbestos.

What’s The Most Dangerous Chemical in Your Home?

Ironically, the most potentially dangerous chemicals in your home are ones you probably don’t think about.

  • Bleach
  • Ammonia (in particular, when combined with bleach, this makes toxic chloramine gas)
  • Antifreeze
  • Drain cleaners
  • Air fresheners that contain formaldehyde
  • Essential oils

Keep safe out there, but take a big, deep, breath of fresh air and don’t panic.

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