It seems that everywhere you look, someone is renovating their house. It is especially common to see couples renovating before their first born arrives. Most are trying to do it themselves while living in the very home they are fixing up in an attempt to save money. With increasing mortgage repayments and expected expenses a new baby brings, this seems absolutely reasonable.
DIY home improvements have also been glamourised by popular Home Renovation shows which you can now watch almost on every channel. However, what they are not telling you is how your home improvements may negatively impact on the health of your offspring.
Dust generated during renovations can become a dangerous hazard for all members of the family, especially children. Stripping paint, tearing down walls and ripping up carpet can bring out things like mould, lead, asbestos, silica, wood dust and other particulates and toxicants into indoor air.
Exposure to these pollutants has been associated with a myriad of adverse health effects ranging from mild nose, throat and eye irritation to severe allergic and respiratory symptoms, asthma, dermatitis, bronchitis, silicosis, eczema as well as neurodevelopmental and reproductive disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and many cancers such as leukaemia, liver, lung, breast to name a few (IOM 2004; NIOSH 2002; NIOSH 1989; ATSDR 2007; ATSDR 2016).
Because children are still growing, their nervous systems and brains are more vulnerable to toxics in their environment.
This is particularly important during the first trimester of pregnancy when the nervous system is rapidly developing in your baby (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange n.d). Increasingly, scientists are finding out that short-term exposures during pregnancy to some chemicals mentioned above can cause reproductive system damages, alter body weight, contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders and even increase the risk of cancer not only to the immediate offspring, but also for your grandchildren and perhaps even great-grandchildren (Manikkam et al 2012; Fernandez-Twinn et al 2015; LaSalle 2013).
Pre-1970s lead-based paints have been extensively used in Australian homes (Department for Environment and Heritage 2008). Their use has been restricted since 1965; however many older homes built can still have old lead paint under the layers, which could be disturbed during renovation or simple deterioration of wall surfaces releasing lead particles into the air.
Lead dust is easily absorbed into the body, especially when sufficient calcium is not present. Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning it damages the nervous system and can accumulate in body tissue, such as the brain, kidneys, liver, bones and teeth (ATSDR 2007). It is especially hazardous to pregnant women, their foetuses and small children. Children exposed to even low levels of lead can have irreversible impacts for a lifetime, including behavioural and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, reduced attention span, altered motor development, poor performance and anaemia (Environmental Health Trust 2018; Flora, Gupta & Tiwary 2012).
Skin contact can cause rashes and ulcerations. Breathing of lead dust has been shown to increase risk of respiratory problems and lung cancer (American Cancer Society 2014). Blood tests are available to determine severity of exposure. It is advised that you test all layers of paint in your home before you renovate or re-paint. Please see ‘What can you do?’ section below.
Asbestos is another dangerous hazard that could be lurking in your home especially if it was built prior to 1970. Asbestos fibres are microscopically fine, readily inhaled and can penetrate deeply into the lungs where they become lodged. They cannot be broken down by the body, and thus remain indefinitely. They cause scarring of lung and stomach tissue and lead to cancer of the lung and stomach, and asbestosis - an irreversible scarring of the lung tissue that can be fatal (ATSDR 2016). Whilst asbestos in the wall or ceiling cavity may not necessarily be a health issue providing it remains intact (no loose fibres), you should seek the services of a licensed removalist or a licensed asbestos assessor to identify and manage asbestos removal in your home before you renovate (Bijlsma 2018).
As well as health risks from old materials, exposure to many new building products including paints, varnishes, glues, sealants and insulation products, cabinetry and ceiling materials can also be harmful, especially to pregnant women and children. Freshly painted walls and ceilings will outgas VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into indoor air for months and sometimes years after application. Inhaling paint fumes can exacerbate asthma and sinusitis, lead to headaches and dizziness, and cause eye, nose and throat irritation as well as more serious conditions such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and cancer (Kampa & Castanas 2008; NIH DHHS 2017; NTP 2016).
Amongst many chemicals that can outgas from painted surfaces, formaldehyde which is added as a preservative, along with benzene, toluene and xylene can result in some of the most toxic vapour emissions into indoor air, many of which are known carcinogens, neurotoxins and developmental toxins that can have transgenerational and epigenetic effects meaning that they might not affect you but can be devastating for your offspring (Lunder 2017).
What can you do to minimise your exposure to toxic chemicals while renovating?
With old buildings, it is important to address the issues present in the structure, such as possible long-term water and termite damage, lead and asbestos before renovations begin. As such, you might require the assistance of several professionals to ensure the building’s structure is sound, the site is well-drained and potentially toxic exposures are removed. Address all health hazards prior to renovating or demolishing!
If your house was built prior to 1970s It is recommended that all layers of painted surfaces (walls, window frames) in your house are tested for lead. Lead test kits are available from hardware stores, paint manufacturers or through The LEAD Group www.leadsafeworld.com. If lead is detected, consider leaving it undisturbed if the paint is in good condition, do not sand or remove it yourself. Otherwise, employ the services of a contractor with lead paint management training to remove lead paint. In addition, seek the services of the Australian Dust Removalists Association (A.D.R.A.) on how to safely remove lead dust.
Similar to lead paint, if your house was built prior to 1980s, engage the services of a licensed asbestos professional to carry out a thorough asbestos survey of your home in order to identify and remove asbestos and other synthetic mineral fibres from your home before you renovate.
It goes without saying that if you are pregnant, you shouldn’t be sanding back window frames, painting walls or ripping up carpet in your home, even with personal protective equipment. Ideally, pregnant women and children should not be living in the house during renovations as it may expose them to harmful substances such as mould, lead, asbestos, silica and wood dust with long-lasting health consequences. If possible, major renovations should be postponed until the baby is born and for several years after. It is strongly recommended that pregnant women stay away from areas being renovated if it is unavoidable.
If you have to stay in the house, you will need to contain areas that are being renovated. Remove personal possessions and control and contain all dust. Work areas need to be physically isolated as much as possible from any occupied areas of the house. Isolate openings to work areas by hanging heavy plastic sheeting and operating a fan or a localised mechanical exhaust in the work area. Close any heating and cooling vents, and seal off air conditioning units.
Builders should never tramp through the house and soiled materials should be removed from the site daily.
Building activities (such as sanding, grinding) should only be carried out while the family is away from the house. The house should be aired out daily after building activities stop for the day.
It is advised that at the end of the day, workers clean up affected areas with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter and dust be disposed of safely. The rest of the interior should also be thoroughly cleaned with a HEPA vacuum and a damp microfibre cloth several times a week during renovations.
Air purifiers will be necessary during renovation, especially in the rooms where family members will spend most of the time, such as bedrooms. To assist in the removal of volatile organic compounds (ordours) common during renovations, ventilate often (by opening windows in every room), and select diffusible (breathable) building materials for the walls, floor and ceilings that act as a sink, e.g. untreated timber.
Other Suggestions to Consider when Renovating and/or Building a Healthy Home*:
Do not install wet materials and allow wet materials to dry, before enclosing them. Timber may get wet during the milling process, or become moist if exposed to rain or dew during construction. Many timbers are commonly contaminated with Tichoderma species, which is why they should be allowed to dry before the building envelope is completed.
Protect the home from rain, dew or surface water whilst the roof or drainage systems are being completed.
Ensure the site is well drained and all surface water is diverted away from the home. The storm water runoff system should divert rain from the roof into the site drainage system.
Concrete floor slabs, masonry and walls should be allowed to cure to enable the un- bound water to evaporate. Waterproof coatings should not be applied until the concrete has cured.
Ensure that sufficient waterproofing of the foundations and damp-proof membranes are installed/fixed and adequate subfloor space ventilation is provided.
Ensure adequate waterproofing is installed in wet areas (bathroom, laundry and kitchen).
Improve insulation and install double glazed windows (metal frame with a thermal break or composite frame). This will help to prevent condensation issues and significantly improve the heating/cooling cycle of the home. In addition, vapour permeable membranes should be installed to help the building self-regulate vapour movement.
Ensure that all wet areas (bathroom, kitchen, laundry) are fitted with exhaust fans vented to the exterior of the building.
Avoid materials that are electrically conductive like metal (steel frame and metal rooves). Metal will deflect external sources of radiation, but will also reflect internal sources from wireless technologies back into the home.
It is recommended that a hard-wired cable connection is installed instead of wireless. Wireless devices including routers, cell phones, cordless phones, baby monitors, printers, extenders and smart meters should not be located in rooms where occupants spend time (bedroom, study, etc).
Avoid vinyl and rubber flooring. Choose locally available products that are derived from natural and renewable raw materials like linseed oil, beeswax, timber, bamboo, hemp, cotton, rock or stone, whose volatility quickly drops off within hours or days, as opposed to semi-VOCs like vinyl and polyurethane floor finishes and composite wood materials that can take years to outgas.
Avoid MDF bedroom furniture and opt for natural wood finished in low VOC finishes. Use furniture made out of solid wood with wood oils. Avoid metal framed beds as these can be problematic in regard to electromagnetic fields.
Opt of low or no VOC emitting paints, sealants and adhesives for both for exterior and interior surfaces. You can find a list of recommended suppliers HERE.
*From Bijlsma, N. 2018, Healthy Home, Healthy Family, 3rd ed., Australian College of Environmental Studies, Melbourne, Australia.
Healthier Home one step at a time!
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