Environmental Issues in Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Environmental Issues in Your Historic House

Environmental Issues in Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you live in a historic house, you should pay special attention to some environmental issues that could affect the health and safety of your family. These issues include mold, lead paint, asbestos and radon.


EnlargeWall insulation

Grant County. Here the wall cavity insulation and wood framing has had significant water infiltration. Continuous water infiltration will eventually lead to mold. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office.

If you see mold in your basement, kitchen, bathrooms or other areas of your historic house, you should hire a professional inspector to investigate the situation. Mold can be very dangerous to children, adults and pets. Unfortunately, it can be very technical and expensive to get rid of mold correctly.

Mold can be white, brown or black — and the general rule is that the darker the mold, the more severe it is. Mold is always a result of excessive moisture. It can be caused by roof or plumbing leaks, blown-in insulation in the exterior walls or failing masonry.

Lead Paint

No historic house will be free of lead paint. However, lead paint is only a hazard if it is unstable. Good maintenance and housekeeping will eliminate most lead dust hazards. To determine if you have unstable lead paint, look for old, peeling paint that has not been encapsulated with fresh paint applied over it. Also look for excessive dust on window sills and around doors. This debris could be lead paint dust created by two painted surfaces that are rubbing against each other.


EnlargePlumbing pipes

Wood County. Here you can see plumbing pipes that have been wrapped in asbestos insulation. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office.

The heating system in many historic houses includes a boiler and cast-iron radiators. Old boilers and the original hot water or steam pipes were typically insulated with asbestos, because asbestos was the best insulating product available. The residential use of asbestos was outlawed in the United States in the 1970s due to health safety issues, but the insulation industry has never produced an insulation material that is better at insulating hot water and steam pipes.

The health safety of asbestos depends on whether the asbestos is friable or non-friable. Asbestos is friable if you can see the asbestos deteriorating, because it looks very loose-fibered. Loose asbestos fibers can attach themselves to the lining of your lungs. Non-friable asbestos is stable and not loose-fibered. You will find it wrapped on pipes and encapsulated with a covering or painted over to prevent loose fiber hazards.

Your boiler system will be more efficient if you keep stable, non-friable, encapsulated asbestos on your hot water pipes and boiler. Encapsulating this asbestos insulation will keep any loose fibers out of the air that could have a negative effect on your lungs. Some homeowners choose to keep encapsulated asbestos insulation on their pipes, but most people have it removed and replaced with fiberglass wrapping. Asbestos removal can be expensive and must be done by certified professionals.

Radon Gas

Radon gas is radioactive and is known to cause cancer. It originates in new and old house basements. Radon gas levels can vary and seem to rise when the basement walls and floors have a lot of cracks. You can have radon testing done to find out if the levels in your house are high or under the maximum allowable levels.

If you have high radon levels or plan on spending more than an hour a day in your basement, it is a good idea to have a radon removal system installed in your house. These systems can be installed for a reasonable price.