In New York, with its countless multifamily buildings, there are certain dangers that have nothing to do with crime rates, economics, or the latest exotic imported disease. Falling bricks, short circuits leading to fires, trash piling up, and uneven, cracked pavements that present a tripping hazard can all do just as much damage to life and limb— but there can be other dangers that are not that obvious. Things like lead paint, mold, asbestos, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde can be harmless under normal circumstances, but become dangers when they are exposed, or when they accumulate in a residential setting.
Not all buildings have these problems. And hopefully, your own co-op or condo board is informed and aware of the risks and how to mitigate them. If not, you may want to have your unit inspected.
A Rogue’s Gallery of Toxins
When it comes to indoor environmental hazards, one of the major culprits is lead paint. Used mainly in older buildings, it was banned in New York City in the early 1960s when lead paint chips were linked to developmental delays, behavioral issues, and other serious health problems for babies and young children. (Lead paint was used in other areas of the country until the late ‘70s.) Even when it’s been painted over with layers of newer, lead-free paint, lead paint poses a threat when it’s disturbed — either through cracking/chipping, or during any kind of remodeling or maintenance that causes lead-carrying dust or particles to be exposed or made airborne.
“In its heyday, lead paint was promoted as the wonder paint,” says Lee Wasserman, president of the LEW Corporation, an environmental consulting firm based in Mountainside, New Jersey. “It had good durability, it would kill fungi. Homes that were built before 1950 have a 69 percent probability of having lead somewhere inside them. Those that were built between 1950 and the ‘60s, it’s 30 percent, and from 1960 to ’70, it dramatically drops off.”
Another very common substance that raises alarm bells in a residential setting is asbestos. Asbestos was widely used as a fire retardant until the late 1970s, although reports that it caused illness were issued as early as the 1920s. To this day, you can find older wooden houses with asbestos shingles.