What Lurks Within Those Walls? Buildings of All Ages Can Contain Hazardous Materials

Hazardous materials can haunt any property. While lead paint is considered a potential problem only in structures built before 1978, contemporary projects can be dogged with the discovery of radon in the interior air or water. And brand-new residential communities have been constructed in recent years on reclaimed hazardous materials (“haz-mat”) sites, just as abandoned industrial buildings have been reclaimed to be converted into trendy lofts and condos.

A most-pervasive, potential problem for New England properties may be radon, which is a radioactive, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, occurring naturally underground in a wide range of materials from granite to limestone. As an indirect decay product of uranium or thorium, radon is considered a health hazard due to its radioactivity. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that the average radon exposure rate indoors not exceed 4.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). All six New England states test positive for radon, in concentrations that vary widely by location.

Tom Hilditch, CPM, a property manager with Dannin Management in Brookline, Massachusetts, has had experience with radon. “We had a Boston-area property where the issue of radon cropped up and got the association involved. This can come up when there’s a unit being sold, if radon is part of the inspection process. In this case, it was a mid-rise, very high-end building with about 50 units in a variety of floor-plan layouts. A buyer was interested in a unit and in the inspection process, they discovered radon in the storage room, which is at ground level, immediately under the unit for sale. They had set up a device for a few days to get the radon reading. This building’s ground level sits on ledge rock. With this report from the inspector, the buyer insisted that some remediation tale place.”

As it turned out, there was no quick fix, Hilditch explains, “We had to run a 3” pipe from the base-level storage room up the stairwell; drilling cores through the concrete slab of each landing… for seven stories. The pipe was designed to draw from a vent installed in the storage-room wall at floor level… it ran up to roof level, where a fan was put in to pull the air up. It was several thousand dollars for the association—that was not a planned expense.”

Compounding the problem of hazardous materials lurking in residential structures are materials that were once considered ordinary—and “safe”—but are now highly regulated as potential health hazards. Hilditch has been involved with heating-oil spills, which can set off a domino effect of destruction. He relates, “One building we were involved with was an urban high-rise, built in the 1960s, and one day, the oil delivery truck accidentally kept pumping after the tank was full. It left two inches of oil [in a basement storage area] and everything that it touched is considered ‘haz-mat’ and has to be accounted for. We had to call in Clean Harbors, since they specialize in environmental clean-up. Even after they were done, the association still had to deal with a smell.”

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