Environmental Issues

The following is an overview of environmental hazards found on property that can affect residential real estate transactions. It is intended to provide general information concerning environmental matters as a service to REALTORS and their associates. The contents should be used as general guidance only. It is not legal advice and not a substitute for professional advice. Laws and regulations affecting the environment are constantly changing. Specific facts alter the application of the law and you should consult with legal counsel or other professionals on any specific problem.

Residential Fuel Storage
Many rural residents need to store heating fuel on site. Any type of petroleum fuel is a hazardous substance and should be stored carefully. Fuel tanks located above ground are preferable to underground tanks because they can be monitored for signs of stress or leaks.

Currently, fuel storage tanks of 1,000 gallons or larger are regulated under New York's Underground Storage Tank Act. However, small residential tank owners are liable for cleanup costs under the state's Environmental Response Act if there is a leak or spill from their tanks. Because of this liability, it could be difficult to sell a property with an underground tank.

Contamination problems are caused by rusting tanks, leaky piping and spills or overfills during fuel delivery. A recommended practice is that homeowners replace tanks every 15 years, routinely inspect tank fittings and monitor fuel levels with a dipstick during summer months to monitor any unwarranted fuel losses. Homeowners should use aboveground tanks, if possible, and purchase quality equipment in order to minimize the risk of any significant contamination problems.

It should be noted that in many older residential areas located in cities and towns, unused underground tanks may still exist. Property owners should contact the municipal government to determine if a recommended disposal procedure has been adopted.

Asbestos is a generic term describing a group of diverse, naturally-occurring fibrous materials. It has been used in many products found in the home to provide insulation, strength and fire protection. The most common items containing asbestos are vinyl flooring, duct wrapping and heating and air conditioning ducts, insulation on hot water pipes, some roofing and siding materials, and ceiling and wall insulation in older homes.

In 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a phased ban on asbestos products. The ban is to be completed by 1996. Asbestos can be harmful to humans because its fibers may be released into the air, breathed and accumulated into the lungs. Asbestos is also linked to causing some types of cancer.

Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas which is formed from radioactive decay of radium and uranium. Radon is invisible, odorless and tasteless and special instruments are needed to detect it.
Radon is present in rocks containing uranium such as certain granites and shales. the concentration of uranium in the underlying rock determines how much radon will enter soil and ground water. Radon gas can also enter and concentrate in homes and buildings. Long-term exposure to radon can increase a person's risk of lung cancer, particularly if that person is a smoker.

Radon levels in a house are measured by several types of passive radon detectors that must be left undisturbed for a period of time. You should be aware, however, that the accuracy of these tests vary. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can assist you in evaluating the effectiveness of those devices and of radon testing companies.

Your county health department is also a valuable resource to property owners.

In a home, the living area closest to the soil surface has the highest level of radon. Radon is rarely a concern in the upper floors of high-rise apartment buildings, for instance.

Mitigation systems are easy to install - depending, of course, on the construction of the home and the radon levels involved. A qualified contractor should be employed to handle the mitigation.

Radon may also be found in water. In the case of well water, a water sample should be analyzed by a certified laboratory. Typically, radon levels in water can be reduced by 99 percent with the installation of a granular-activated carbon unit on the water line entering the house. Aeration may also be used to remove radon. This technique is more costly, but it avoids the radiation buildup which will occur with the carbon method. In either case, a qualified contractor should be employed in the installation.

Indoor Air Pollution
The average person spends very little time out of doors - statistics indicate only about ten percent. Naturally, most of the time spent inside is spent in the home. The Environmental Protection Agency rates indoor air pollution as one of the highest potential environmental health risks. However, most sources of indoor air pollution can be corrected or controlled.

Some people may develop an acute sensitivity to indoor air pollutants causing them chronic health problems. Among the individuals at risk are whose with lung disease, children and the elderly - all of whom can be adversely affected by hazardous airborne substances released from a building into the air.
This so-called "sick building syndrome" may be caused by the components of some building materials such as paints, carpeting, insulation and caulking compounds. This condition is more likely to be found in newer buildings because the release of contaminants diminishes over time.

Sensitive individuals may wish to take precautions when building or remodeling and select products which do not have contamination potential.

Another source of pollution in homes may be from improperly combusted materials due to faulty heat exchangers in furnaces, improperly vented gas ranges and wood stoves and fireplaces.
Finally, sensitive individuals should be aware that many household products contain toxic chemicals which may pollute indoor air. Be sure to follow label instructions on paints, hobby products and solvents when using or storing them.

The hazard of lead and its effect on our health continues to gain attention from government and public health officials. The Environmental Protection Agency conservatively estimates that one in nine children under age six has enough lead in his or her blood to be at risk, and the number is significantly higher in urban areas.

The major sources of lead exposure are paint, soil and tap water. Lead was used in many oil-based paints until 1978. The paint still presents a hazard today when peeling or chipping occurs or when the surface is sanded. Painting over these surfaces with a non-leaded paint does not solve the problem: lead leaches through the new layer of paint to the surface.

Soils containing emissions from leaded gasolines are also a hazard. Lead was not eliminated from gas completely until January of 1992, and can be found in soils near heavily traveled roadways and construction sites.

Lead may also be found in tap water because of household plumbing or lead service lines linking water mains to our homes. Lead solder and brass faucets containing lead are also significant sources of contamination.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants consuming formula mixed with lead tap water and children under age six are most at risk from lead pollution.

To reduce lead exposure, homeowners should test paint surfaces, plumbing and soil with home lead test kits. Have your water tested by a competent laboratory, and install a water filter which is certified to remove lead. Never use hot water which has been in pipes longer than six hours - always flush pipes for three minutes before use. Avoid boiling water to mix baby formula as this will only concentrate the lead through evaporation. If you must boil water, flush the pipes for three minutes first. And if you are still concerned, you may wish to ask your physician about a new "blood lead test" for your children.

Electromagnetic Fields
Properties located near power lines are a new breed of public environmental concern. More than two million miles of power lines stretch across our country. An electromagnetic field (EMF) surrounds all electric lines and electrical household appliances.

At present, studies linking EMF's to leukemia and some cancers are inconclusive. However, many courts have upheld claims that they are potentially damaging, and several states have adopted regulations limiting the allowable intensity of electric fields within the right-of-way of new high-voltage transmission lines.

Again, there is no conclusive proof that EMF's - either from power lines or household appliances - are a health hazard. A local electric utility is a good resource for more information. Many utility companies offer EMF readings inside and outside a house.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent gas which is soluble in water and other organic solvents. It is used in making, among other things, plastics, fiberboard, foam insulation, upholstery textiles and paint.
Pressed wood products are probably the most significant source of formaldehyde in the home because it is constructed of wood products and resins which contain formaldehyde. Some common pressed wood products found in homes are particleboard used in subflooring, shelving and furniture; hardwood and plywood paneling; and fiberboard used in furniture and shelving.

Formaldehyde can be released as a gas, particularly in new products. These gasses decrease to undetectable levels over time. This is true of pressed wood products and ureaformaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI), which was installed in the wall cavities of some homes during the 1970's.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen, but this assumption has not been proven scientifically. However, a conservative regulatory policy has been adopted to protect the health of the general public and its exposure has been limited due to these measures.
It is clear, however, that some individuals are more sensitive to irritation than others. It is also clear that irritation diminishes as products age. Levels of formaldehyde can been measured by chemical analysis of air samples, but the usefulness of air monitoring is limited because levels change with temperature, humidity and ventilation.

Indoor formaldehyde levels can be reduced by opening windows to increase ventilation, and by decreasing the number new pressed wood products in a home. Replace pressed wood produces with those made from solid wood or non-wood materials. Reducing temperature and humidity levels will reduce formaldehyde levels as well. However, in some cases more drastic measures such as removal of paneling and subflooring may be necessary. When UFFI is the source of toxic formaldehyde, removal may be ineffective because wood frame supports may continue to emit formaldehyde absorbed from UFFI. However, with the current controls which have been placed on the use of UFFI, and with the ongoing aging of this product, the risk of irritation and contamination is diminishing.

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