Region 1: EPA New England

Staying Healthy Indoors: Toxics


Asbestos is a mineral found in some older construction materials. It was used in shingles for roofing and siding, pipe and boiler insulation. It was also used in floor tiles, ceiling panels (including acoustical tiles), coatings, gaskets and some vermiculite insulation, and in brake linings and disc-brake pads of older and some imported vehicles. Asbestos containing materials in good condition do not pose a health risk, so the safest, easiest and least expensive option may be to leave it alone. When construction materials break down, are damaged or disturbed, tiny fibers of the mineral can be released into the air. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause serious lung damage, including lung cancer.

Action you can take:
If you decide to have asbestos removed, hire a state-certified asbestos abatement professional to remove any asbestos from your home. Do NOT do it yourself! Look in the phone book under “asbestos” for professionals in your area. Hire a professional mechanic to maintain or repair any vehicle parts that may contain asbestos.

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Photo of a gable end of a building

Lead, once widely used in many different materials, is still found in many older New England homes. It was added to paint before being banned in 1978. Lead paint that is chipping, peeling or in high use areas (like window sills, doors, or stairways) can form dust. When this lead, contained in dust and paint chips, is breathed into the lungs or eaten, it poses a risk to children. Toys may also pose risks. 5 staying healthy indoors: toxics Some old toys contain lead or lead paint, and toys can pick up lead from contaminated soil or house dust. Lead was also used in older pipes, solder and plumbing fixtures that can corrode and release lead into drinking water. Exposure can result in lower intelligence in children and has been associated with behavioral and attention problems. It can lead to kidney, liver, brain and nerve damage. At very high levels, it can cause seizures, coma and even death. In addition, lead exposure can contribute to osteoporosis, can cause high blood pressure and heart disease, especially in men. Lead exposure may also lead to anemia.

Action you can take:

  • Get kids tested for lead by their doctor or health care provider.
  • If your home was built before 1978 test it and the soil in your yard for lead paint hazards and their source.
  • Wash children’s hands before they eat; wash bottles, pacifi ers, and toys often.
  • Wash floors and window sills to protect kids from dust and peeling paint contaminated with lead - especially in older homes.
  • Run cold water until it becomes as cold as it can get. Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula.
  • If you, or a family member, suspect exposure to lead, have a health professional test your blood for lead levels, and follow up as recommended.
  • For information on how to test and/or remove lead in soil

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Photo of boys holding fish.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause damage to the brain and central nervous system. The primary route of human exposure is eating fish that have acquired and accumulated mercury in their tissues. Some commercially available fish, especially large fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, tend to have higher levels of mercury. Canned light tuna has lower mercury levels than albacore, fresh/frozen tuna and canned white tuna. Get more information at: Mercury can also enter the body by breathing vapors from broken mercury thermometers, broken fluorescent bulbs, or spilled liquid mercury. In addition, some people may unknowingly expose themselves to mercury (also called azogue or vidajan) through cultural and spiritual practices. These practices, which include sprinkling or burning mercury, release mercury vapors into the home. Exposure to mercury may result in irritability and mood swings, changes in vision, hearing or speech, and memory and mental problems. It can also cause serious kidney damage. Children exposed to mercury, either before they are born by the mother’s exposure or as very young children, may have developmental and learning delays and disorders.

Action you can take:

  • Avoid exposure to mercury!
  • Pregnant women and children should limit or avoid eating fish with higher mercury levels.
  • Check local fish advisories with your state health department to find out which fish have higher levels of mercury in your area.
  • Find alternatives to mercury containing products such as digital thermometers, or substitutes in cultural and spiritual practices.
  • Take precautions when cleaning up spills.
  • For more information, go to:

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Drinking water contaminants

Photo of two boys filling a water container.

Clean drinking water is necessary for good health. High concentrations of bacteria, synthetic chemicals and natural contaminants in drinking water all can pose a threat to your health. Public water supplies are monitored by the government and the vast majority are safe and dependable. Every year, water suppliers are required to send a water quality report to the households they serve. In the rare case when there is a problem with the public water supply, the supplier must alert, either by mail or through the media, everyone who might be affected. If you have a private well, in most cases it is your responsibility to have it tested. You should consider testing it anually to ensure the quality of your drinking water.

Action you can take:
Find out about the quality of your drinking water. If your water comes from a public water system, read your water quality report carefully. If you have a private well, have it tested!

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Pesticides and toxic household products

Exposure to some household chemicals, such as pesticides, may cause harm to children, pets or the environment. Always carefully read and follow all instructions on product labels regarding use and storage.

Examples of household pesticides include:

  • cockroach sprays and baits
  • insect repellents for personal use
  • rat and other rodent poisons
  • flea and tick sprays, powders, and pet collars
  • kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers
  • products that control or kill mold and mildew
  • some lawn and garden products, such as weed killers staying healthy

Examples of household chemicals include:

  • disinfectants and cleaning supplies
  • cosmetics
  • medicines
  • paints and stains
  • air fresheners
  • swimming pool chemicals

By their nature, many pesticides may pose some risk to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms. At the same time, pesticides are often useful because of their ability to control disease- causing organisms, insects, weeds, or other pests. The pesticide label is your guide to using pesticides safely and effectively. It contains pertinent information that you should read and understand before you use a pesticide product. Poisoning from household chemicals may have a range of effects from mild distress like nausea or dizziness to more serious harm including injury to the lungs, or damage to the nervous, reproductive, endocrine and immune systems. Health effects depend on the toxicity of the product and the amount and length of exposure. EPA regulates pesticides in the United States under the pesticide law (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act). Before EPA allows a pesticide to be marketed for use in the U.S., EPA carefully reviews scientific data on the chemical to understand its toxicity and any potential concerns for human health and the environment. EPA periodically re-evaluates older pesticide chemicals to ensure that they conform to current health and safety standards. EPA also sets healthprotective standards on the amount of a pesticide residue that may remain on food if pesticides are applied to a crop. All pesticide product labels carry a signal word of “danger,” “warning” or “caution” to indicate relative hazards to people (from higher concern to lower concern). EPA requires certain pesticides to be in child-resistant packaging. It is important for parents to take precautions to keep all pesticides and other household chemicals in secure places safely out of the reach of children and pets.

Action you can take:

  • Try to use the least toxic and environmentally friendly options available for the job.
  • READ THE LABEL before you buy, use, store or dispose of household pesticides and chemicals.
  • Wash fruits or vegetables to remove dirt, chemicals, bacteria, and chemicals.
  • Eat a variety of foods, from a variety of sources to obtain a better mix of nutrients and reduce the likelihood of exposure from a certain pesticide.
  • Always wash your hands after using any chemical product.
  • Store pesticides and toxic household products in their original containers in high, locked cabinets, away from the reach of children.
  • If you suspect poisoning, call POISON CONTROL at 1-800-222-1222.
  • For more information on using pesticides properly, visit EPA’s web site at

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