Complications can happen while renovating an older home, so it’s important to know the materials that were used in the building process. Many older homes were constructed using products that contain chemicals that we now know are harmful to our health. With renovation comes the disturbance of these toxins. Even new homes can have complications when it comes to toxins, so it is best to know the hazards and standards for proper care whenever a renovation is planned.
Asbestos is a natural material that has historically been used as an added material in insulation. Prior to the 1980s, before the harmful effects of asbestos were largely known, this toxin was utilized in buildings and homes. Today, asbestos is not used in construction, but it is not yet a banned substance in the United States. When renovating a home, one needs to be aware of asbestos. If the toxin becomes disrupted and airborne, it can cause lung cancer like mesothelioma.
According to the Clean Air Act (CAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting and enforcing regulations from exposure to airborne materials that are known to be harmful. According to the list of hazardous air pollutants, this includes materials that can cause serious health effects and/or cancer.
There are rules and regulations that one must follow in order to safely and properly remove asbestos. Homeowners should never attempt to remove asbestos on their own. Due to the nature of the substance, the EPA prohibits homeowner removal of asbestos to protect individuals from accidentally exposing themselves to this carcinogen. The EPA requires a thorough inspection of the demolition or renovation area. Additionally, the work done on the asbestos contained area must be reported to a state agency.
When removing the material, safety precautions are required in order to prevent exposure. First, EPA rules require that you wet the material before disruption in order to limit the substance from becoming airborne. After removed, the area needs to be thoroughly cleaned, the material must be sealed in labeled air-tight containers, and one must dispose of the toxin properly at a landfill qualified to receive asbestos waste. Landfills also require specific requirements for sealing the material. Transportation vehicles must be labeled that the material is being moved and waste shipment records must be kept.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of asbestos is “0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA), with an excursion limit (EL) of 1.0 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period.” In accordance with, 29 CFR 1926.1101, employers must ensure that no employee involved in the construction, alteration, repair, maintenance, or renovation and demolition of structures is exposed to asbestos above these limits. Other OSHA standards address asbestos exposure in general industry and shipyards.
Along with asbestos, lead was a commonly used material in commercial and residential buildings. While also found in piping, lead was added to paint to create different colors and help freshly-painted walls dry at a faster rate. In 1978, the EPA deemed the material unsafe, especially for children, and its continued use has since been banned. Lead exposure through inhalation or ingestion can cause permanent health effects for children, specifically for their brain and nervous system development. Furthermore, it can cause long term health effects in adults such as the increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. For pregnant women, high levels of lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth.
According to the EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule, it is required that certified renovators trained by EPA-approved standards remove lead paint from any residence or commercial building. In order to detect lead in the home, EPA-recognizing test, x-ray fluorescence instruments, and paint chip sampling must be completed by a certified professional.
There is a certain process that needs to be upheld to remove lead paint. Before starting to sand and chip away paint, the painted walls need to be wet down. This greatly reduces the amount of paint dust in the air. By sanding the walls dry, the whole room would be filled with particles, so everything in the room must be covered twice by 2 sheets plastic and secured with duct tape.
Furthermore, workers should wear only High-Efficiency Particulate Air masks, (HEPA), as they are the only masks that will filter dust and fumes. Other paper or fabric dust masks will not protect from lead dust.
Once the removal is done, clean up carefully. Just like asbestos clean up, the goal is to prevent the material from becoming airborne. Post-removal, the work area should be wet cleaned so there are no materials left behind. Put the material in a 6-mil plastic bag with the help of wet clothes or a mop. This substance can be thrown away on the corner with the household trash. Continue to wet clean the area once the lead has been removed, and lastly vacuum one final time with a HEPA-filtered vacuum.
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause for non-smokers. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas present when uranium in soil, rock, and water breaks down. Since the air pressure inside your home is usually lower than the air pressure around the foundation, your home can act as a vacuum. This can then draw the radon through the cracks of the foundation.
Radon may also be found in well water and can sneak its way into your home when water is used in the shower or other household water sources. However, radon entering the home through the soil is the most common form of entry in the United States.
The EPA suggests regularly testing for radon to check for high levels. If the radon test confirms that the level is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher, action should be taken. Even if the level is lower, you might still be at risk. A qualified radon mitigation contractor is needed to properly remove radon from the space.
There are multiple methods a contractor can use to remove radon. Some prevent radon from entering through the foundation, while others reduce the amount of radon present. For example, radon reduction systems are often used to reduce levels in your home by up to 99 percent. Soil suction can prevent radon from entering by vetting it through a pipe which exits above the home where it is then diluted. Other options such as electrical ventilation fans and pressure systems with pipes that lead out of the home are also available.
Radon detection and removal is the focus of ANSI-accredited standards developing organization the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST). AARST standards outline protocols and guidelines for measuring radon, installing radon and soil gas control systems, and radon mitigation for homes, schools, and other structures of various sizes and purposes.