Abating Lead and Asbestos

Learn how to safeguard your family from toxins when remodeling an old home.

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From the plumes of plaster particles released during the first phase of demolition to the fine wood powder coughed out by floor sanders at the end of the job, dust is a fact of life in remodeling. That’s why respirators are just as essential for construction workers and do-it-yourselfers as safety goggles and gloves. But that protective gear won’t prevent toxins from contaminating the house and yard, where they can remain long after the work is completed and your family reoccupies the space. Two old-house dangers, in particular, require additional precautions:

Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that’s both an excellent insulator and a strong fire retardant. The material was widely used in the production of pipe insulation (1930 to 1950); “vermiculite” wall insulation (1920 to 1990); floor tiles; textured “popcorn” ceilings; and roofing and siding shingles (generally until the 1970s). When asbestos was discovered to greatly increase the risk of serious lung diseases, including cancer, its use was eventually banned.

In many cases, the material is perfectly harmless if left undisturbed. A construction project can release its fibers into the air, so the safe approach when remodeling is to bring in an asbestos-abatement contractor to seal off the area with plastic, don protective suits and respirators and wet the fibers down before carefully removing, bagging and hauling them to a hazardous waste collection site. “Don’t touch the stuff yourself,” says Knickerbocker Group’s Marcus Golding, the construction manager responsible for the renovation of Blog Cabin 2012. “A lot of homeowners want us to remove it — or offer to take it out themselves after hours — but we don’t work that way. We leave it to the experts.”

At Blog Cabin 2012, asbestos shingles (a precursor to aluminum and vinyl siding) had been installed over one exterior portion of the back wall. The cost to hire an abatement contractor to remove 8 square feet of siding totaled $2,300, and Marcus estimates that most residential jobs fall within the $1,000 to $3,000 range. “It’s money well spent, for your family’s health and so you can sign the disclosure forms someday when you sell the house, stating that any known asbestos has been safely removed,” he says.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of asbestos in your home, refer to the EPA’s Asbestos website for information

Lead Paint

Lead was a primary ingredient in residential paint until its use was banned for such purposes in 1978. Any home built before that year may contain lead paint — the older the house, the more likely the contamination. Ingesting lead — whether a baby puts a paint chip in her mouth or anyone breathes in dust created by sanding paint in preparation for repainting — is a severe health hazard. Lead can cause brain damage in youngsters and reproductive problems in adults, along with a host of other illnesses.

An April 2010 federal law requires anyone doing work on a pre-1978 home to hire a certified lead-safe crew that follows certain safety precautions, such as sealing the work area with plastic and using HEPA vacuums to clean it thoroughly afterwards. Also, anytime exterior lead-painted surfaces get sanded, the ground must be covered in plastic and the area tented to contain the dust plume.

For more information about finding lead-safe firms and lead-safe procedures to follow on do-it-yourself projects, consult the EPA’s Lead-Safe Certified Guide to Renovate Right.

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