Back in 1994, Natalie bought
her first house in what was then the City of York. Relying on my advice,
she retained a reputable home inspection firm to give the house a thorough
going-over before finalizing the deal.
About a month ago, while
getting estimates for a new basement floor, her contractor asked if she
knew there was asbestos covering a pipe spanning the entire length of the
Natalie was shocked because the
only mention of asbestos in the report was buried in less than one page in
the supplementary section at the back.
"I couldn't believe that
my home inspector hadn't noticed this covered E-shaped pipe, in full view
as soon as you enter the basement," Natalie said last week. The idea
that the material insulating the pipe was asbestos never crossed her mind.
Days later, an asbestos
specialist confirmed the insulation was indeed asbestos and that it was in
unstable condition due to tears in the wrapping, especially around the
pipe elbows. "I was more upset that I had been unknowingly living
with this dangerous toxic substance for over six years than I was with the
$1,800 cost to have it professionally removed," Natalie said. Within
two days, after half of the basement had been swathed in plastic sheets,
the asbestos was finally removed in plastic bags for toxic waste.
Asbestos is a fireproof
material widely used before 1975 in many building materials, from
insulation to floor tiles. Chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to
asbestos in humans can lead to a lung disease called asbestosis, a diffuse
fibrous scarring of the lungs. Where it is intact and not deteriorating,
it is said to pose little danger. Small quantities of asbestos can be
detected in indoor air from erosion of natural deposits in
asbestos-bearing rocks, from nearby industrial uses, from ceiling and
floor tiles and insulation, and from brake linings on cars and trucks.
On the back of the home
inspection contract Natalie signed with the inspection company six years
ago, a disclaimer states that no comment would be offered on environmental
concerns such as urea formaldehyde foam insulation, asbestos or radon gas.
It recommended hiring "competent specialists" to examine
"I though I had hired
competent specialists," Natalie says.
"I think such an important
clause should be on the front of their form," she adds, "not on
Had she known of the asbestos
in 1994, she could have had an independent inspection, or negotiated the
cost of removal off the price of the house.
Last week, I spoke to two
prominent Toronto home inspectors, including one from the firm that did
Natalie's 1994 inspection. They both emphasized that a $350 home
inspection is not an environmental audit, which might cost $6,000 to
$10,000 or more, including considerable laboratory work. A full
environmental audit would include things like soil contamination from
buried oil tanks, radon gas, urea formaldehyde foam insulation,
pressure-treated wood, mould, high power electrical lines and
electromagnetic fields, lead paint, lead solder in the plumbing, and
volatile organic compounds found in most household chemicals and in
adhesives used with wall-to-wall carpeting.
Home inspectors will tell you
that some of these items can be carcinogenic in certain doses, and there
may be serious health consequences from exposure to some of these products
in the levels typically found in houses. Natalie was justifiably worried
about environmental asbestos floating around in the air in her house.
The inspectors I spoke to this
week agreed there is some environmental risk in all houses. But there may
be more environmental asbestos in a home from brake linings in nearby
traffic than from any materials containing asbestos inside the house.
Inspectors will tell you that
there is a certain risk in buying any house, and the cost of a full
environmental workout is prohibitive, since some contaminants are obvious
and some are not.
Buyers should have realistic
expectations, whether the house is brand new or a century old. House
inspections cannot cover hidden environmental hazards. If inspectors point
out an asbestos-covered pipe, they leave themselves open to liability for
failing to warn about radon gas, mould, buried oil tanks, or lead solder
on the copper pipes.
Whether the home inspection
contract contains an environmental disclaimer on the back, or on the front
(where it should be), home buyers should be warned that no regular home
inspection will alert them to all possible environmental hazards,
especially the invisible ones. When contracting for a home inspection, be
aware that hidden contaminants will not be part of the job.
But buyers can ask - or insist
- that the inspector point out what could be obvious and visible signs of
environmental contamination - lead solder on exposed pipes, formaldehyde
insulation behind light switches, an unused fill pipe leading to a buried
oil tank, and especially, plumbing wrapped in asbestos insulation.