1. Lead Paint
You have probably heard about this one- lead is bad for you, and many research studies have shown it negatively affects brains and so many more things. But, what you really need to know is lead paint is only a big deal in older buildings because lead paint was banned in the US in 1978. The manager of the building should disclose if there is lead paint, and it can be dealt with easily by making sure it is properly painted over, so it doesn't chip off and get spread around your apartment, which is the only real way it can get into your body. Lead paint is always dangerous, but it is a bigger deal if you have small kids or pets who like to lick things - generally adults don't do that. Read more about reducing your exposure to lead here. The EPA also has some great resources.
You wouldn't eat moldy food (except for delicious cheese), so why live in a moldy apartment. But really, mold can cause allergy symptoms or respiratory problems, making it dangerous to live with. You can't always see mold just by looking, so pay attention for a funky smell, black dust, or signs of water damage throughout the apartment. These could be signs of mold hiding in the walls or ceiling. Laws vary about if a landlord must treat mold, but if you suspect mold, talk to them about it and try to make a deal to have it treated before you move in.
3. Carpet and vinyl flooring
This one should be more obvious as you walk through an apartment. If you aren't sure if the floor is vinyl or not or want to know how old the carpet is, ask the landlord, they should know. While this isn't as easily fixed as some of the others on the list, if you are deciding between apartments and one has old carpet or vinyl flooring and the other doesn't, opt for the carpet free and vinyl free place. Chemicals in vinyl called phthalates have been linked to a variety of health concerns including cancer, and old carpets trap dust and particles that will continue to pollute the air in your home. Even newer carpets have some health hazards in the carpet padding from recycled foam that contains toxics like flame retardants.
When we say ventilation, we are talking about how to get air flowing through the space. This could be about actually having a fan or vent in your kitchen and/or bathroom, but it could also be as simple as being able to open multiple windows and create a cross breeze that would clear stale air (or smoke if you are prone to burning toast like I am) from your apartment and getting clean air in quickly. Clean air helps remove dust, smoke, and smells from the apartment. It is also just good for you.
Similar to lead paint, asbestos is common in older buildings. Its use dramatically decreased in the late 1970s, due to findings showing it causes mesothelioma, a type of cancer. It is still common in many buildings (and assumed to be in all buildings built before 1981). The landlord must disclose if there is asbestos in the buildings, but the laws beyond that vary from state to state. Asbestos is most risky if it is disturbed (like during remodeling or construction) when it can splinter off and get into the air. There are ways to remove it or cover it safely (often called abatement, which should be done by a professional) to ensure that you are not at risk. Learn more from the EPA.
While this may seem only like an annoyance, noise, especially at night, has actually been linked to various negative health outcomes, especially cardiovascular disease. (1) This is because our bodies have been evolutionarily trained to respond to noise, so we would know if someone were going to steal our food in the middle of the night, or something like that. Even if you don't completely wake up from the noise, your body may still be on high alert. Before committing to an apartment, go check out the neighborhood at night, ask the neighbors, and try to get a feel for how loud the unit will be throughout the day and when you would be home. If you have options, the unit with less noise is the better choice for your health.
Just like noise, light matters. In this case, we are talking about both natural light during the day, and as little artificial light as possible at night. During the day, you want as much natural light as possible. This is better both in terms of energy use and is crucial to getting adequate Vitamin D. At night, you want as little artificial light as possible because artificial light can mess up your circadian rhythm. Besides making you tired, messing up your circadian rhythm has been linked with developing breast cancer and obesity. (2) So, bottom line, look for a place with lots of natural daylight and one that doesn't get a lot of artificial light at night. If you do have lights outside that may affect how dark the apartment gets, consider adding blackout curtains.
For many reasons, you should try to avoid apartments with signs of mice, cockroaches, or other pests. Besides causing you to jump up on a chair and call for help, many of these pests have been shown to cause different diseases. Dust mites and cockroaches are known to be bad for asthma. (3) If you notice this before you sign a lease or officially move in, you can ask the landlord to have this addressed before you arrive.
9. Neighborhood layout (aka the built environment)
What is in the neighborhood is just as important to your health as the apartment itself. Can you walk to places like a grocery store, go for a run, or hang out in a nearby park? Are there safe bike paths? How will you get to work? Think about these things because they all affect how you will live in your new home. If it is difficult to get to stores with fresh fruits and veggies, chances are you won't be eating as well. If you don't have safe sidewalks, you probably won't walk as often. Think about all of these things and determine which are most important to you when finding your new home.
10. Outdoor space
Similar to the neighborhood you live in, access to outdoor space shapes how you will go about your life. If you're looking for an apartment, you might not have your own backyard, but is there shared outdoor space you can spend time in? If not, is there a nearby park or coffee shop with a patio where you can get some fresh air and spend some time outside. These things promote healthier lifestyles and help clear your head too.