The Radon Debacle

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The Radon Debacle

On a recent home inspection the radon test came back high at 7.3 pCi/L (picocuries of radon per liter of air.) The EPA has set a national action level of 4 pCi/L (picocuries of radon per liter of air) for indoor air. The average indoor radon level is estimated to be about 1.3 pCi/L, and about 0.4 pCi/L of radon is normally found in the outside air.

The property seller had the home tested for radon when she bought the house three years ago. The level at that time was 1.6pCi/L, well within the acceptable range for radon in the air.

So what happened?

Problem one! The home-owner had an indoor foundation drain system installed. The system consisted of a series of floor drains around the perimeter of the inside of the basement. Radon that was trapped below the floor was now released into the environment. Additionally, new windows, insulation and a ridge vent were installed along with bathroom exhaust fans as per the recommendation on her last home inspection. This increased the energy efficiency of the home and but created a high negative air pressure area in the living space. The exhaust fans and ventilation system were actually “drawing” air out of the basement and subsequently radon was being pulled out of the ground and into the living space.

Problem two! The owner heats her house with oil. There is approximately 250 gallons of home heating oil setting directly over a floor drain. A drain tied to a sump pump that discharges to the front yard right in front of a storm drain. Can you imagine if that tank ever leaked and all that oil was pumped outside?

Problem three! A radon mitigation system works by soil suction and pulls radon from beneath the house and vents it to the exterior. In order for that to work, the new foundation drain system will have to be filled in with concrete. That solves the oil into the drain scenario but leaves her with the original problem of water in the basement.

Recommendations: Fix the gutters and drainpipes along with improvements to yard grading. Install flashing behind the gutters to keep them from leaking and extend the drainpipes three to ten ft. away from the house. Slope the yard significantly away from the foundation and if necessary install a curtain drain around the exterior of the home.

Fill in the drains and install a radon mitigation system.


Oil tank by foundation drain

Conclusions: Everyone did their respective jobs properly. The windows, insulation, ventilation system, exhaust fans, and foundation system were all done professionally. But the house needs to be treated as a whole unit. If you change one system in the home it could affect other systems. In this case a floor drain led to radon problems and a potentially disastrous oil spill. The foundation drain installer doesn’t know that. The energy efficiency team that did the windows, insulation and ventilation systems did not realize that the increased “tightness” of the home would lead to poor indoor air quality which is a whole other story.

So who is supposed to know how the home works as a system? A really good Home Inspector does. The next time you plan a major renovation, consult with a professional Home Inspector to make sure the systems you are installing are working in harmony with one another.

Michael Quigley, President of D&M Home Inspection Company






Why are my floors crooked?

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Why are my floors crooked?

The one word answer would be water.  Water is dripping behind the gutters causing compaction of the soil and the eventual sinking of the foundation.  The more water that collects in one area, the more the foundation sinks in that area leading to 45 degree foundation cracks. This compression of the soil also leads to reverse yard grading adding even more water to the foundation perimeter.  The center of the home where the columns and beam are located are not subjected to this soil compaction, and consequently do not sink. The overall effect is the center of the house ends up higher than the sinking perimeter causing the uneven floor problem. Undersized beams and joists and over spanned support columns can also add to the problem.

How to fix this problem!

  1. Make sure to add gutter flashing. Flashing is tucked up under the roofing drip edge and over the back lip of the gutter. Also extend drainpipes as far away from the foundation as possible.
  2. Re-grade your yard, that is, treat your yard like your roof and slope the yard and water away from the house.
  3. Cut back overhanging tree branches to limit moss accumulation on the roof and to encourage solar drying.
  4. Follow the 18” rule.

 The 18” rule! 

One, the roof overhang or soffit area of the house should be 18” and two the distance between ground cover and siding should be 18.” Together this helps to prevent water from splashing up on the siding causing wood decay and helps to prevent the foundation from sinking and causing bowed floors.

Three, the distance between the siding and fully grown shrubs should be 18”to allow for solar drying. You should be able to walk between your house and fully grown shrubs.

Four, the distance between a finished basement wall and the interior of the foundation wall should be 18” to allow for natural ventilation and drying of the foundation wall.

Following the 18” rule could drastically reduce problems of wood rot, mold growth, foundation sinking and wood boring insect damage.

A deleaded house

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Home Inspection tips from D&M Home Inspections. A deleaded house does not always mean a lead free house. Lead can almost always be found on, Exterior: Basement windows, porch ceilings and columns, exposed trim at old storm window locations and the soil surrounding the home. Interior; Tops of doors, cabinets, basement staircases and basement windows. Also, Just because lead paint was no longer produced after 1978, doesn’t mean people stopped using it in 1978. If you are purchasing a home and are concerned with lead paint have all surfaces and soil tested.

Should I have my house tested for radon.

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If you are having a home inspection, you should always test for radon. If you already own a home and you have never tested for radon, test kits are available in most hardware stores. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America (behind cigarettes)

Read The Label

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  If You Are Painting

—  Try to use low or zero VOC paints.

—  A John Hopkins University study found more than 300 toxic chemicals and 150 carcinogens are present in paint.

—  They include acetone, ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, lead, pentachlorophenol, cadmium, and xylene.

If You Are Carpeting

—  Use 100% Wool or other natural fiber organic carpet.

—  Use carpet padding with jute or felt.

—  Regular carpet can have hundreds of different chemicals including formaldehyde, 4-phenylcylohexene, styrene, toluene, benzene, xylene, pesticides, and anti-fungicides.

—  Formaldehyde is in the glue that holds the different color scraps of carpet padding foam together.

—  There is more formaldehyde in the padding than in the carpet itself.

If You Are Adding Cabinets

—  One of the biggest sources of chemical pollution indoors is new cabinets.

—  The biggest release of formaldehyde from cabinets happens in the first six months. It can take up to ten years for cabinets to finish emitting formaldehyde.

—  Use real wood cabinets.

—  Formaldehyde is used in construction because it is a good anti-microbial.

—  Just for fun, look up the correlation between Aspartame, and Formaldehyde.

Don’t Mask the Mold Smell With Fragrance

—  Are you using a “plug in” to cover up mold odor? As many as 600 separate chemicals may be used in a single fragrance formula.

—  The most common ingredients in fragrance are toluene, formaldehyde, acetone, benzene, and methyl chloride.

—  The bulk of chemicals in fragrances are petro-chemicals similar to gasoline.

—  The chemicals in fragrance are neurotoxins that suppress the immune system

How Safe Is Your Lawn?

—  Of the thirty-four most commonly used lawn chemicals, eleven cause cancer, twenty cause nervous system poisoning, nine cause birth defects; and 30 cause skin irritation.

—  Pesticides attach to the bottom of shoes and are tracked into the house. Since pets and children spend more time in contact with floors, carpets and other dusty surfaces, they have potentially more exposure. (Bong,Jennifer-Children at Risk)

Before April showers flood your basement.

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This winter was hard on houses. Gutters and drainpipes took a beating.  Before it starts to rain, here is your to-do list.

1) Tighten up gutters.

2) Re-attach drainpipes.

3) Extend drainpipes away from the house at least 4 ft.

4) Remove tree branches from the roof, and inspect roof for damage.

5) Return snowblower and shovels to neighbor.

Mold and the Salem Witch Trials


From the desk of Michael Quigley at D&M Environmental Solutions, Mold Remediation and Home Inspections.

Keeping families safe…one home at a time

Since it’s October and the season for witches, I thought I would pass along some stories about mold that may have caused the Salem witch trials.

The Salem Witch Trials
(The Ergot Epidemic)

“In her book, Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History, Mary Kilbourne Matossian (a history professor) presents overwhelming evidence that the population of Europe was held down for 500 years by endemic mold-induced food poisoning called ergot or ergotism. Although most sources attribute this long epidemic to fungi in the genus Claviceps, she also gives credit to the genus Fusarium. Both genera infected rye kernels before and after harvest, producing toxic, long-acting alkaloids (e.g., ergotamine).

In northern Europe the poor, who lived on rye bread and little else, were the most affected. Women miscarried and children died frequently. Those who survived childhood had chronic illnesses, gangrene, and mental disturbances. Their hallucinations and seizures were interpreted as witchcraft, possession, or divine inspiration. No one knew that their diet was responsible for their misfortune. Not until wheat and potatoes began to replace rye did the epidemic abate.

Wealthy households were never affected as much as poor households, because their servants prepared the grain as gruel, boiling it over a fire for about a half hour, which broke down the toxin. They also enjoyed a more diverse diet, including meat and white bread.

Ergot was responsible for the low birth rate and high death rate in Europe from perhaps as early as 1250 to 1750. It even provided occasion for the Salem witch trials, because the early settlers of Massachusetts planted rye, ate rye bread, and experienced hallucinations and seizures just as the Europeans did. Even as late as 1945, ergotism was still retarding the population growth of Russia.

As a strong influence on population and quality of life in Europe for half a millenium, mold had a massive effect on the course of history. (Matossian’s book is fascinating! You can buy it for $23.90 from Books Now by calling 1-800-266-5766, ext. 1494.)”

(Source and more info:

Bad Rye and the Salem Witches

In the late 1600s, the Puritan settlement of Salem in Massachusetts toppled into chaos when accusations of witchcraft began to appear. Two young girls, aged nine and eleven, were said to have fallen victim to fits “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease,” including screams, strange contortions, and throwing objects. The village doctor, unable to explain the symptoms, suggested that witchcraft may be afoot in Salem. Others in the settlement began to exhibit similar inexplicable behavior, and shortly the accusations began to fly.

The infamous trials that followed left nineteen people hanged to death, and scores of others imprisoned under suspicion of supernatural wrongdoing. Today, few would suggest that those punished were actually guilty of witchcraft, but the true cause of the errant behavior in Salem’s citizens is still a mystery. One theory– perhaps the most intriguing yet offered– suggests that the community’s rye crop may have been partially to blame. Moreover, such maladjusted rye may have played a role in many of history’s mysterious events.

Salem, like many other communities in the past and present, harvested rye as part of their grain crops, and it was a staple in their diet. But it turns out that rye grass is susceptible to a particular fungus called Claviceps purpurea which infects the edible portions of the plant. During the ergot stage of this fungus’ development, a cocktail of interesting alkaloids are present which will cause problems with circulation and neurotransmission when ingested by humans. A woman named Linnda Caporael was the first to suggest that Ergot of Rye may have contributed to the madness in the Salem trials.

Ergot poisoning, or ergotism, can cause a distressing array of side effects. The initial symptoms are usually gastrointestinal in nature, including nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Shortly thereafter the sufferer may experience a gamut of symptoms caused by ergot’s influence on the central nervous system. These usually start with relatively benign sensations such as headaches, “pins and needles,” and burning/itching sensations on the skin; but the the experience can escalate into spasms, convulsions, unconsciousness, hallucinations, and psychosis. In severe cases, the body tissues experience physical side effects such as loss of peripheral sensation, swelling, blisters, dry gangrene, and sometimes death.

Wheat infected with ergot, this menagerie of nastiness is caused by two characteristics in the Ergot of Rye: Clavine alkaloids, which cause convulsive symptoms; and ergotamine-ergocristine alkaloids which restrict blood vessels and starve the limbs and brain of oxygen.

Ergot poisoning has been problematic throughout history. In the Middle Ages the disease was known as “St. Anthony’s fire,” and it was responsible for countless limbs lost to gangrene and many deaths. Entire villages were sometimes known the suffer such symptoms, and it is now believed that these outbreaks were caused when a village bakery used ergot-contaminated grain. Monks of the order of St. Anthony the Great became skilled at treating the condition with balms that stimulated circulation, and they became skilled amputators. The cause of the disease was not isolated until the late seventeenth century, and it did not become widely known until the 1800s. Before that time, epidemics of ergotism were often seen as a punishment from God.

Today historians are speculating that some other bizarre events of the past may be due to ergot poisoning. For instance, an affliction known as “dancing mania” which struck Europe from the 14th to the 17th century may have been caused by the troublesome fungus. This phenomenon caused groups of people to dance through the streets of cities– often speaking nonsense and/or foaming at the mouth– until they finally collapsed from exhaustion. Sufferers often described wild visions, and continued to writhe after falling to the ground. Some also suggest that Kykeon, a popular hallucinogenic drink from ancient Greece, may have been made from ergot-infected barley.

Given the conditions, the idea that the Salem witch trials may have been fuelled by ergot poisoning is quite plausible. The season had been warm and the growing area was swampy, a combination which creates an ideal environment for Ergot of Rye to develop. Also supporting this hypothesis is the fact that symptoms characteristic of ergot poisoning occurred in Connecticut in the same year. The ergot poisoning in Salem could not have been severe, however, otherwise more dramatic side effects would have occurred. Salem was a community stricken with inequality, fear of the native Indians, bitter disputes over land, and sexual repression; It is likely that Ergot of Rye was merely a catalyst in an already volatile situation, and mass hysteria took care of the rest.

Of course there are alternate theories regarding the cause of the Salem Witch Trials. Some have suggested that Salem residents may have suffered from a form of encephalitis spread by birds, or possibly Huntington’s disease. Both are possible, though there is insufficient evidence to make any confident conclusions.

In addition to its colorful, trouble-making past, Ergot of Rye has had some influence in medicine in modern times. Because it causes strong uterine contractions in women, it has been used historically to induce abortions. Also, Dr. Albert Hofmann– the “father” of LSD– discovered the infamous mind-altering drug while experimenting with ergot. Although ergot itself contains no LSD, the two substances have much in common.

Further reading:
Wikipedia: Ergotism
Wikipedia: Dancing Mania

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