Home Inspection FYI

Providing Help, Knowledge and Other Useful Information To Home Owners Everywhere

Home Inspection FYI - Providing Help, Knowledge and Other Useful Information To Home Owners Everywhere

Soil Contamination

Soil at a residential property can become contaminated when man-made chemicals come into contact with clean soil. Other sources of soil contamination may be wastes that leach from operational or closed landfills, runoff from livestock manure, direct dumping of hazardous industrial waste, waste piles from mining operations, septic systems and leach fields that breach their boundaries, and storage cisterns that burst underground.

soil contamination Soil Contamination

Inspectors, as well as homeowners, should use extreme caution if they suspect that such conditions exist at a property.

How does soil become contaminated?

Contaminated particles pollute soil either by becoming attached to the soil itself or by residing in the spaces between the soil particles. Sometimes, the contamination may be from a “point source,” such as when pollutants are dumped directly on soil or buried underneath. In other cases, soil becomes contaminated as liquids or gasses from point sources migrate elsewhere, contaminating residential properties downstream. A less visible example of this is when a factory emits hazardous fumes out of its smokestacks, which then travel on the air and eventually fall to the ground farther away.

The three most widespread pollutants in urban and rural residential soils are lead, arsenic and cadmium. These elements were in widespread use in paints and construction practices in the past and persist in soils today because, as heavy metals, they do not readily break down. The following is a brief description of them.

  • The primary source of lead contamination in soil is from paint that contains lead. Paint residue falls to the ground and contaminates the soil as precipitation wears away a home’s exterior. The area with the highest contamination and of greatest concern is the “drip zone,” which extends 6 feet out from the perimeter of a home. Paint residue that fell into the soil decades ago may still persist today, even though leaded paint was banned in the late 1970s. Paint chips may also have become dislodged more recently if, for example, the home’s exterior was power-washed or sand-blasted. Lead may also be deposited in soil as demolished or abandoned structures eventually fall to the ground. Another common source of lead contamination is from leaded gasoline of years past. Soil that is close to a roadway with heavy traffic has the highest risk for this type of contamination.
  • Arsenic is another contaminant that is commonly found in residential soil. Arsenic was a widely used preservative for wood used in exterior structures, such as children’s playgrounds, walkways and gazebos constructed from the mid- to late 1900s until 2004. Arsenic is likely to have leached into the soil surrounding these wooden structures, especially in areas that have heavy precipitation. Areas with old, abandoned wooden structures on them are of concern. Arsenic was also a common ingredient in pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. It is likely to persist in the soil of historic orchards and agricultural areas where these chemicals have not been sprayed in decades.
  • Cadmium is a common contaminant that has entered the environment and, consequently, the soil at properties as a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels and municipal wastes, and from the smelting of zinc, lead, and copper.

Why is contaminated soil hazardous?

Contaminated soil is dangerous for humans and animals. People are at high risk for poisoning when they come into direct contact with soil. This may occur when a person conducts any activity in the soil, such as digging, gardening and landscaping, and when soil is tracked into the home. Soil contaminants may be inhaled when soil is kicked up in the air, such as while mowing grass. Children are at particularly high risk because of their propensity for mouthing objects and putting their hands into their mouths without washing.

Pets and wild animals come into contact with contaminated soil when burrowing, eating and drinking from the ground. Changes in soil chemistry affect creatures at the lower end of the food chain, such as arthropods and tiny micro-organisms. Consequently, this puts entire ecosystems at risk, since it may cause a ripple effect through the food chain.

Another serious hazard is that drinking water supplies may become contaminated from contaminated soil. This is of primary concern when residents rely on underground water wells and aquifers for their fresh water supply.

There is a variety of health risks associated with contaminated soil, depending on the level of exposure, the type of pollutant, and the vulnerability of the affected population. Chronic exposure to heavy metals and other contaminants may put exposed individuals at a higher risk for cancers, neural disorders, reproductive disorders, and birth defects. Other less serious side effects may occur with light exposure, such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue and rashes.


Contaminated soil also has a negative effect on plant growth and crop yields. Contaminated fruits and vegetables may be hazardous to consume, especially if they are not properly handled and washed prior to eating.

How can you tell if soil at a property is contaminated?

There may or may not be visible indications of soil contamination. One obvious sign of lead contamination may be paint chips around the exterior of the house, if the paint is known to be leaded. Apparent discolorations in soil and strong odors are other indications that the soil may be hazardous. Another possible clue of contamination may be if vegetation fails to thrive in a certain area of soil, although this depends on the vegetation and whether the soil’s natural content is hospitable to such growth.


One of the first things to consider when trying to determine if soil is contaminated is the history of the land. If the land or adjacent areas have ever been used for agriculture, industry, mining, waste disposal or gas dispensing, then there may be a lingering problem. If there have ever been wooden structures on the property prior to the late 1970s, then the land has a higher risk for lead and arsenic contamination.


The only sure way to tell if soil is contaminated is to sample the soil and have a certified laboratory test it.  A certified local soils engineer or professional should be employed to conduct soil sampling. Exhaustive testing may be exorbitantly expensive, however, but tests for the most common contaminants are usually affordable. Sampling for lead, arsenic and cadmium is usually less than $100.

What are the options for remediating contaminated soil?

Complete soil mapping and remediation can be a prohibitively expensive venture. Many contaminated industrial and commercial sites qualify for grants based on their “brownfield” status.  However, this does not necessarily apply to residential sites. Local authorities should be consulted to see if there is financial assistance available. Funding may be provided for remediation procedures, depending on the level of risk to the surrounding community.  excav Soil Contamination

Soil remediation methods include the following:

  • Excavation is the most comprehensive and expensive method of remediating soil. After contaminated soil has been identified, it may be removed from the property and transferred to a landfill for disposal. New topsoil is tested, trucked in, and distributed throughout the property to replace the old soil.
  • “Soil blending,” whereby contaminated soil is mixed with fresh soil, results in a mix that has a lower concentration of contaminants and meets local guidelines for acceptable pollutant levels.
  • The soil can be excavated, treated, and then replaced, after it has been deemed safe. Various methods for treating soil may be employed in situ or after excavation. These include applying aeration, heat and/or water, or treating it with chemicals that change the hazardous substances into ones that will biodegrade over time.
  • Bioremediation is a process whereby specific plants or fungi are utilized that naturally break down hazardous materials.
  • Problem areas may be covered or paved over so as to avoid exposure when excavating or treating soil is not an option. This is not a long-lasting solution, although it does help to inhibit the contaminants from spreading further.
  • “Capping” is a procedure whereby problem areas are covered by more than a foot of new topsoil. This may be an adequate temporary solution but, eventually, plant roots may penetrate into the contaminated soil.

What precautions should be taken with soil that is or is suspected to be contaminated?

It is important to take special precautions with contaminated soil, especially when remediation techniques are not feasible.

  • Hazardous areas should be partitioned off, and direct exposure should be minimized.
  • Children’s play areas should be situated away from areas that may be hazardous, such as around the drip zone of a house, or near roadways where gasoline deposits may have accumulated.
  • Shrubbery may be planted around the drip zone of a house to discourage traffic in that area. Consider covering bare soil with mulch if grass will not grow on patches of contaminated soil.
  • Edible gardens should always be located away from hazardous areas. Building raised garden beds with clean topsoil minimizes the possibility of plants growing in unfit soil. Gardeners should always be sure to wash their hands thoroughly after working in the soil, as well as washing vegetables that will be consumed. Special attention should be paid to scraping root vegetables that have come into direct contact with contaminated soil.
  • When mowing grass or working in areas with hazardous soil, wear personal protective equipment, including clothing that adequately covers exposed skin, a dust mask or respirator to prevent inhaling contaminated dirt and airborne particles, and protective eyewear.

Soil may become contaminated in a myriad of ways, and special caution must be taken to minimize the associated risks.  InterNACHI inspectors who suspect that soil or groundwater at a property is contaminated may want to recommend that their client have such conditions investigated and evaluated by a qualified soils engineer or other professional.

Soil Contamination

Crib Safety Tips and Information

Crib Safety and What You Need To Know

Defective cribs, especially hand-me-down and homemade models, can pose serious hazards to young children, including strangulation, entrapment and overheating.

Government manufacturing standards set in 1973 have greatly improved crib safety, yet defective cribs continue to be responsible for the highest child injury rates of any nursery item. In fact, approximately 50 infants each year are killed and another 9,000 are injured in crib-related accidents in the U.S. Crib safety is key to prevent an avoidable tragedy. So parents should check their child’s crib to ensure against the following defects:young baby 300x263 Crib Safety Tips and Information

  • Screws, bolts and hardware may not be missing, broken or loose.
  • Slats cannot be more than 2-3/8 inches apart, which is about the width of a soda can, and none of them should be loose or broken. Older cribs are especially prone to this defect.
  • The corner posts cannot extend more than 1/16-inch above the headboard and foot board for good crib safety.
  • The mattress must be firm, and it should fit snugly inside the crib so that it does not easily release from the posts.  This prevents the baby from getting stuck between the mattress and the crib.
  • Check the overall condition.  Look for any sharp points or edges (such as those on protruding rivets, nuts, bolts and knobs), and any wood surfaces that have splits, splinters or cracks.
  • Lead paint was outlawed in the United States in 1978, so painted cribs made before this year should be tested for lead, or avoided altogether.
  • There should be no decorative cutouts in the headboard or footboard in which the baby’s head or limbs could get trapped.
  • Decorative knobs and cornerposts should not be higher than 1/16-inch so that a baby’s clothing cannot catch on them.
  • The baby should sleep in a sleeper, as opposed to a blanket. Soft bedding and blankets are suffocation hazards.  They may also cause the baby to overheat, so it’s best to remove all pillows, comforters and quilts from the crib.
  • If the crib has ribbons or bows, make sure they are tightly fastened, and no longer than 8 inches.
  • Mobiles are for looking at, not touching.  Their parts present a choking hazard and can cause the baby to become entangled. Make sure your baby cannot reach the mobile, and when he is old enough to crawl, the mobile should be removed from the crib. While newer mobiles are designed so that they cannot be reached, the risks still exist for older mobiles, homemade mobiles, and mobiles not specifically designed for cribs.

Crib Safety Recalls

Cribs that were manufactured between 2000 and 2009 may be included in a voluntary recall issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in June 2010. Seven firms will provide consumers with free repair kits to remedy more than 2 million defective cribs, and they advise consumers not to attempt to fix these cribs using homemade remedies. Consumers should contact manufacturers directly to learn the appropriate remedy for their crib safety.  These manufacturers are listed below, along with the number of cribs they recalled.

  • 750,000 Jenny Lind drop-side cribs distributed by Evenflo, Inc.;
  • 747,000 Delta drop-side cribs. Delta is also urging parents to check all fixed and drop-side cribs that use wooden stabilizer bars to support the mattress. The company says the bars can be inadvertently installed upside-down, causing the mattress platform to collapse;
  • 306,000 Bonavita, Babi Italia and ISSI drop-side cribs manufactured by LaJobi, Inc.;
  • 130,000 Jardine drop-side cribs imported and sold by Toys R Us;
  • 156,000 Million Dollar Baby drop-side cribs;
  • 50,000 Simmons drop-side cribs; and
  • 40,000 to 50,000 Child Craft brand (now Foundations Worldwide, Inc.) stationary-side cribs, and an unknown number of drop-side cribs.

Portable Crib and Playpens FYI

  • Never leave the side of a mesh playpen lowered because a baby can become trapped and suffocate.
  • When your child is able to sit or get up on all fours (or when he reaches 5 months), remove any toys tied across the top of the playpen.
  • When your child can pull himself to standing, remove any large toys that could be used as steps.
  • Check the top rails for tears and holes because teething children often bite off chunks of the covering. If the tears are small, you can fix them with heavy-duty cloth tape. If the tears are large, you may need to replace the product.
  • Make sure that there are no tears, holes, or loose threads in the mesh and that openings are less than 1⁄4 inch across. Make sure the mesh is securely attached to the top rail and the floor plate. If staples are used, make sure they are not missing, loose, or exposed.

FYI, parents should ensure a safe sleeping environment for their young children by learning about crib safety and the defective conditions commonly found in cribs.


Crib Safety

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Defects in Older Buildings

Defects in older buildings. While you can’t predict the lurking dangers or defects in an unfamiliar home, its age offers clues about what you can expect to encounter. Older homes, especially those that have remained in the same hands for much (or all) of their lifetime, are often plagued by a common set of defects that potential home buyers may want to learn about.

Some of the more prevalent issues and defects of older homes are as follows.

  • Defects with Lead Paint. Lead is a toxic metal that was once commonly used in the manufacture of household paint and plumbing fixtures, and as an additive to gasoline. While it has long been prohibited in new construction, lead-based paint and plumbing that weren’t removed remain serious defects and may present a significant health hazard. Homes constructed prior to 1978 may contain lead paint, which
    housing news 300x171 Defects in Older Buildings can be ingested by small children or contaminate surrounding soil and vegetable gardens. The defects are  easily identifiable by its alligator-like flaking pattern. Lead pipes, too, were used in homes up until the late 1940s, and they may allow lead to leach into drinking water. These defects can be identified by their dull gray color and the ease by which they can be scratched by keys or coins.
  • Asbestos insulation defects. This insulation can increase the chances of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma and was used in homes between 1930 and 1950. Asbestos insulation should be left undisturbed until it can be removed by a qualified professional, as its fibers can be inhaled when they are airborne, creating a significant health hazard.
  • Older homes were not constructed to meet modern energy efficiency requirements. They may suffer thermal losses from single-pane windows, defects such as insufficient or compressed insulation, leaking duct-work, and inefficient heaters and other appliances. It should be noted, however, that older homes better capitalize on natural sources of lighting, heating and ventilation through the use of design features such as exterior shutters, shade trees, and thick, heat-retaining masonry walls.
  • Buried oil tanks were often abandoned and forgotten after homes switched to newer fuel sources. Today, these tanks pose a safety hazard to homeowners and their neighbors, as their contents may leak into surrounding soil. Disposal guidelines vary and may call for removal of the tank or filling it with sand or gravel. Soil testing may be required to investigate whether an abandoned fuel tank has leaked underground.
  • Defects with obsolete electrical componentspose a fire and safety hazard, such as:
    • Defects with aluminum wiring. From about 1965 to 1973, single-strand aluminum wiring was sometimes used in place of copper branch-circuit wiring inwelldeep Defects in Older Buildings residential electrical systems due to the escalating price of copper. After a decade of use by homeowners and electricians, weaknesses were discovered in the metal, which led to its disuse as a branch wiring material. Although properly maintained aluminum wiring is acceptable, aluminum will generally become defective faster than copper due to certain qualities inherent in the metal. It can be identified by its color or the labels “CO/ALR,” “aluminum” and “AL”;
    • Defects with knob-and-tube (K&T) wiring.  This was an early standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings from about 1880 to the 1940s. While codes do not require its removal, K&T wiring often suffers from unsafe modifications, old age, overheating, and lack of a ground wire. It can be identified by its characteristic porcelain insulating tubes;
    • Defgects due to a lack of ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Homes built before the 1970s may not have been equipped with GFCI protection, which guards against overloads, short circuits and ground faults; and
    • Defects due to a lack of grounded receptacles, which provide a safe path to ground for stray electrical current. Most major appliances, such as stoves, refrigerators and computers, have three-prong plugs and require three-slot or grounded receptacles. Homes in the U.S. built before 1962 were not constructed with three-slot receptacles.
  • Defects with wells, cesspools and septic tanks are common. They were used before homes and buildings were connected to public sewer and water systems. If they were abandoned and not removed, these elements pose hazards related to their deterioration and collapse.
  • Radon is a naturally occurring gas that has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. It usually enters the home through cracks in the foundation, a common problem found in vintage construction. Radon cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, so concerned homeowners should consult with their InterNACHI inspector about radon testing during their next scheduled inspection.


Older construction often suffers from predictable defects and obsolete components. Homeowners may want to enlist the help of their inspector to explore essential upgrades that will eliminate health and safety hazards in their homes.  Inspectors may want to present their clients with

Estimated Life Expectancy Chart.


Defects and More Information About Them