10 hidden dangers at home

Philip and Ivana Lipscomb had their heavy plaster ceiling collapse at their home in Rodgers Forge.  Water damage to the ceiling from before they purchased their home caused the caused the nails to come loose letting the ceiling fall.

We like to think of our home as a safe haven where we can rest, unwind and enjoy times with friends and family.

But there's danger lurking where you least expect it.


More than half a million Marylanders suffered injuries that required hospital treatment in 2010, the most recent year statistics are available. Although health officials don't keep count of where those people were hurt, doctors and rescue workers say many injuries happen at home.

However, the good news is many home dangers can be avoided. "A little bit of prevention can keep something bad from happening," said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the state's Environmental Health Bureau.


Matches, sharp knives, pesticides and swimming pools pose obvious hazards. But other dangers are waiting where you might least expect them.

Here are 10 often-hidden household hazards:

1. Loose rugs and carpet

Falls are the leading cause of injury requiring hospital care, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Every day, more than 80 Marylanders age 65 and older are treated in local emergency rooms because of injuries from falls, according to officials with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"This is a very serious problem," said Joyce Dantzler, chief of injury prevention with the department. "Maryland seniors go to the hospital for falls more than any kind of injury."

Among the common culprits are loose carpeting and small rugs. "If they aren't taped down or have a backing so they are secure, get rid of those," Dantzler said.

2. Cracked or loose plaster ceilings

At first, Ivana and Philip Lipscomb didn't pay much attention to the small crack on the living room ceiling in their Rodgers Forge rowhouse.


But one day in late January, they noticed the crack had grown, extending the entire length of the room, and the ceiling was sagging. The couple decided to tackle the repair project the very next day.

They never had the chance. That next morning the Lipscombs were awakened by a crash so loud that their neighbors heard it.

"It sounded like a bomb," Ivana Lipscomb said. "We all jumped. The kids started screaming."

They ran downstairs to find the entire living-room ceiling lying on the floor. "I was freaked out when I saw the thickness of the ceiling and the nails," she said. "If my kids were under the ceiling, they would be dead."

Since the incident, the couple has learned of a number of incidents of plaster falling from the ceiling.

Michael Cleary, owner of Five Arches Plastering, says that while it is unusual for an entire ceiling to collapse, it isn't unusual for pieces of plaster to fall from a ceiling if it is damaged by water. Homes built between the 1920s and the 1940s are particularly at risk because the plaster was applied using straight nails, he said.


"What you really want to look for is any sagging in the ceiling," Cleary said. "It's usually pretty obvious."

3. Lint build-up in the clothes dryer

Linda Hutchinson of Catonsville has had the misfortune of experiencing two dryer fires.

One occurred more than 30 years ago while she was living at home with her parents when delicate clothes in the dryer overheated and caught fire.

The second fire occurred in her own home one evening several years ago.

"I just happened to go over to open the dryer [and] this flame just came out," she recalled.


She rushed to get her children out of the home and called the Fire Department. "It got really, really hot, and it just flashed," she said.

Hutchinson was fortunate that firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it could do extensive damage. She learned that lint clogging the exhaust had caught fire.

Capt. Bruce Schultz, who oversees the fire marshal's office in Baltimore County, said lint build-up is a common cause of dryer fires. To help prevent a problem, the lint filter should be cleared before each use and the exhaust tube cleaned two or three times a year, he said.

"Over the years, you get a lot of lint built up," he said. "You need to be checking the lint trap in the dryer and where the discharge is."

4. Lead paint

Despite decades of working to eliminate lead exposure and mandated testing of children living in areas with a high percentage of old homes, lead remains a significant health hazard, according to Mitchell. More than 300 children in the state are diagnosed with lead poisoning each year, he said.


Lead paint was commonly used in homes built prior to 1950, and it wasn't banned until 1978. Although in the past, families in older rental homes were most at risk for lead poisoning, today most families at risk live in owner-occupied homes, according to health department reports.

The first step toward addressing the hazard is to determine whether lead paint is in the home. Homeowners can purchase test kits and the Maryland Department of Environment maintains a list of accredited lead paint inspectors.

5. Extension cords

Extension cords pose a dual threat because they present both a tripping risk and a fire hazard. Baltimore County Fire Capt. Ron Evans said fires can begin when the cords are not used properly.

"The problem we find is they are not used for the right purpose," he said. One common mistake is plugging large appliances into cords that are too small or hooking small cords designed for indoor use with large cords designed for outdoor use.

The small cords become overloaded and hot, igniting flammable material around them, Evans explained. Homeowners should always make sure to use the right cords for the right appliances, he noted.


6. Faulty electrical outlets or switches

Light switches and electrical outlets can wear out over time, creating an unseen fire hazard within the walls of a home.

Evans said he has responded to calls from homeowners who smelled an unusual odor and never knew the outlets or switches were burning until the firefighters pulled away the wall plates.

Although an unusual odor might be the first clue of a problem in an electrical outlet, a homeowner might notice a problem in a switch if it seems unusually loose, Evans said.

"If you have a loose switch, it's time to replace that switch," he said.

7. Carbon monoxide


Colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide is truly a hidden hazard. Between 1999 and 2004, 46 Marylanders died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to state health department statistics.

The gas is a byproduct of combustion and can build up in a home if furnaces, hot-water heaters and space heaters are not working properly.

The easiest precaution to take to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to install detectors on every level of a home, safety experts said.

Jessica Kurrle credits multiple detectors in her home for helping her family escape serious injury. She said a carbon monoxide detector in the basement began to go off intermittently in her Timonium rancher last summer.

Kurrle said she first thought the batteries in the alarm needed to be replaced. When new batteries didn't solve the problem, she bought a new detector. But when that one also sounded, she called the Fire Department.

Firefighters found dangerously high carbon monoxide build-up in the basement and evacuated the family. Inspectors said an attic fan was pushing carbon monoxide from the furnace back into the basement.


Kurrle said the family's upstairs carbon monoxide detector never sounded. Had she not had multiple detectors, "we would not have noticed it at all," she said.

"It's absolutely imperative wherever you have combustion sources to have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors," said Mitchell of the state's Environmental Health Bureau. "It's one of the easiest ways of saving lives."

Health officials also recommend having furnaces checked and serviced each year.

8. Radon

Radon occurs naturally in the soil, but if it becomes trapped in a home, it poses a long-term health hazard.

Radon is second only to smoking as the leading preventable cause of lung cancer in the United States, Mitchell said. But on the plus side, he added, "It is easy to detect, easy to measure and easy to fix the problem."


Because radon is a heavy gas, it tends to build up in the basement or lower level. The solution is drilling a hole, inserting a pipe and installing a fan to remove the gas.

Mitchell said all homes should be tested for radon. "Radon levels can be very, very different, even in houses right next to each other," he noted.

9. Mold and allergens

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For those who suffer from allergies and asthma, mold and mildew can pose significant health hazards.

Air needs to circulate in a home, but if moisture becomes trapped, mold and mildew can grow. "You often can smell it before you see it," Mitchell said. "For people with allergies, it can significantly increase asthma symptoms in people who are sensitive."

Mold and mildew can be eradicated by eliminating the source of the moisture. Homeowners may need to have leaky basements or drainage systems repaired.


10. Clutter

One of the most prevalent dangers is also one of the easiest to fix. Clutter, especially paper, not only presents a fire hazard but poses a tripping hazard and, in severe cases, such as hoarding, it can impede rescue workers.

"A lot of times, we'll see housekeeping issues," said Schultz of the fire marshal's office in Baltimore County.

Common dangers include combustible materials stored too close to stoves, furnaces and water heaters. A minimum of three feet should be kept cleared around those appliances, he said.