• Jaime Williams

4 hidden hazards in your home


The recall of more than 29 million IKEA chests and dressers that have been blamed for the deaths of three children are a stark reminder of the hidden hazards in your home. While many people are familiar with the usual suspects — lead paint (common in homes built before 1978) asbestos, mold, radon, and PCBs — they may not be aware of others.

Here are four hazards hidden that may be in your home:

The wrong smoke detectors

Most houses have smoke detectors installed (at least 96%, or 111 million, homes in the U.S. have at least one, according to the U.S. Fire Administration), but many of them could be the incorrect type — and potentially deadly.

There are two major kinds, ionization and photoelectric. Ionization are the most common, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that of all the smoke detectors in the U.S., 90%, or 100 million, were ionization. But ionization alarms, which use a small bit of radioactive material to trip the alarm when it detects small burning particles, have been shown to be less able to detect slow-burning or smoldering fires, such as those caused by the most common types of ignition sources, namely cigarettes, frayed wires from electrical appliances, and sparks from a still-smoldering fireplace.

According to Joseph Fleming, a deputy fire chief at the Boston Fire Department and fire safety consultant, as many as 30,000 people in the U.S. have died since 1990 because they relied on ionization detectors. That’s because an ionization alarm can sometimes take between 20 and even 50 minutes longer to activate than a photoelectric smoke alarm.

“My analysis of fire fatalities in Massachusetts indicates that about half of the deaths with operating alarms are due to the slow response of ionizations alarms to smoldering fires. Switching to photoelectric alarms should reduce fire deaths by about 35%,” Fleming writes in an emailed response to questions.

So why do ionization alarms get placed in homes?

Answer: They’re cheaper — typically half the price of a photoelectric smoke detector — and the battery on an ionization alarm tends to last longer, according to the NFPA. Moreover, fire damage and injury from kitchen and fast flaming fires is the highest, though smoldering fires have some of the lowest numbers of injuries, but the highest rate of death as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, says Fleming.

Moreover, because ionization alarms have such a high false alarm rate — they can be triggered by normal activities such as cooking or even showering — many people disconnect or “shush” their ionization alarms. Photoelectric alarms, which use a beam of light to sniff out larger burning particles, have fewer false alarms.

Firefighters like Fleming say that by the time an ionization alarm activates, smoke and carbon monoxide levels are likely to have built up sufficiently to disorient you and make you unable to exit your home.

So what’s the best way to protect your family — besides not smoking and otherwise fireproofing your home and holding regular exit drills?

Invest in photoelectric alarms in bedrooms and hallways, and leave the ionization alarms in the kitchen, if at all. (In 2008, the International Association of Fire Fighters recommended that photoelectric alarms be installed only and several states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine and cities like Albany, Calif., have required photoelectric alarms in new residential construction.)