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Cleaning Up Lead, Asbestos, and Other Hazards

When an inspection revealed a handful of household hazards, the owners of this TOH TV project house tackled the cleanup for a healthier home

The Ugly Truth

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Raveen and Allison Sharma thought they knew what they were getting into when they decided to buy and overhaul a handyman's special, circa 1940, in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Given that the house—the subject of This Old House TV's Fall 2010 project—was built at a time when asbestos was still considered a miracle fiber and lead paint was par for the course, they weren't surprised when a home inspection revealed the presence of both. And since termite damage is the bane of existence for many an old-house lover, they weren't exactly shocked to learn the front sill had been devoured.

What the Sharmas weren't prepared for was the extent of these ills. The asbestos turned up all over the house, the lead paint coated the entire exterior, and the termites had already moved on from their appetizer of sill to the main course of studs. "We were just relieved that we didn't have any mold," Allison says.

The Sharmas faced some big decisions about how far they wanted to go—and how much they wanted to spend—to address all these issues. Their story may well help you tackle those decisions at your own old house.

Shown: The 1940s Colonial Revival will undergo major surgery, including the addition of a gabled garage roof, new entry, and an open, family-friendly kitchen.


Photo by Anthony Tieuli

"If you live in a house built before 1978, assume it has lead-based paint," says TOH general contractor Tom Silva. The question for the Sharmas, whose house was built decades before the 1977 ban, was: How much lead was there—and where, exactly? Lead abatement became a budgetary issue for anyone hiring out a renovation last April, when the Environmental Protection Agency introduced its Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rules. These require every contractor who comes into contact with lead paint to complete an eight-hour certification and follow strict new guidelines that make the work more time-consuming, labor-intensive and, as a result, expensive.

Now, even a plumber installing a shower—or any project encompassing more than 6 square feet of lead-painted surface (20 square feet outside)—must wear a HEPA-filtered respirator and meticulously contain and clean up paint debris by sealing off the entire room with plastic and duct tape. The paint removal still has to be done in a way that eliminates dust, and, just to be safe, everything from tools to coveralls must be cleaned before leaving the contaminated space. Ignoring the rules can lead to hefty fines.

Shown: TOH general contractor Tom Silva inspects a window frame for lead paint with homeowner Raveen Sharma at this season's TOH TV project house.

The Dangers

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Of course, lead is far more than just a cost concern for the Sharmas, who have two kids; children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning's effects, which can range from chronic headaches to brain damage. The danger occurs when they ingest paint chips or chew on "mouthable surfaces" containing lead, such as painted moldings, or inhale lead dust embedded in, say, floor cracks. If lead paint is in good repair, and not pulling away from surfaces, the EPA says it's safe and acceptable to encapsulate it with special primers, such as Child Guard, which seal in the toxins and have a bitter taste to deter children. If you choose to undertake lead abatement yourself, be sure to follow the same precautions as the pros. (Check out for more information.)

Shown: Cutting into the wood allows him to see whether lead is present in deeper layers of paint.

Finding More Lead

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Since the Sharmas were tackling a major renovation, encapsulation wasn't a viable option. To minimize the RRP work inside, they called in Covino Environmental Associates, which used a type of X-ray machine to scan the walls. As in many old houses, which were often wallpapered, lead paint was discovered only in the kitchen and bathrooms, where moisture was a concern.

Once Tom and crew removed that paint, the renovation could continue unimpeded. Outside, Tom identified lead paint on the windows and wood shingles with Lead Check, a DIY testing kit. That meant they were going to need an awful lot of plastic and duct tape to replace the windows and repaint the house. "In the old days, guys would go up there in shorts and T-shirts and start sanding away," says Ron Peik, owner of Alpine Environmental, which helped with the Sharmas' abatement. "Lead is the new asbestos."

Shown: Tom uses a chemically activated swab, called LeadCheck, to test for lead on the house's old windows.


Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The Sharmas knew they had asbestos to contend with after their home inspector found it in the insulation of the boiler as well as some 9-by-9-inch basement floor tiles. But it was only after Covino completed a full test that they began to fret. "There was a lot more than we bargained for," Allison says. Asbestos also turned up in the 12-by-12-inch floor tiles in the kitchen and bath, wall panels surrounding the boiler, and joint compound in the basement drywall. Left undisturbed, asbestos is harmless. The boiler insulation was friable, meaning it would've crumbled if touched, but luckily the whole unit was being removed anyway. For the rest, the Sharmas were told they could just tile over the asbestos flooring and leave the drywall alone.

Shown: After asbestos was found in the basement's resilient tile and wood subfloor, the Sharmas had a choice. They opted to have Tom rip out everything down to the aggregate and pour a new concrete subfloor rather than cover the contaminants.


Largely for peace of mind, however, they wanted the stuff completely eighty-sixed from the house. They called in an army of men decked out in Tyvek suits to seal off the asbestos-contaminated rooms, rig a vacuum system to capture floating fibers, and then scrape it off, double bag it, and haul it to a landfill licensed to handle asbestos. (See for more on asbestos removal.) The Sharmas' entire job took only a couple of days but, together with the inspection, cost more than $8,000. Allison says it was worth it: "The patient was already opened up on the operating table—so why not get all the bad stuff out all at once?"


Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Termites aren't necessarily bad for your health, but they are for your house, causing billions of dollars of damage to American homes each year. By the time the Sharmas moved in, termites had already devoured about 35 feet of the front sill. It was only when Tom started demo work that they saw the pests had worked their way up to the studs, too. Tom had to install a new sill and replace the damaged stud sections. To ward off the pests in the future and safeguard their children's health, the Sharmas decided to go with Green Planet Pest Control, a local company, which applied a borate-based solution to the new sill.

Shown: Tom checks out the replacement for a termite-ravaged sill.

Testing for Termites

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Green Planet also baited the area around the foundation with cylinders containing wood briquettes to guard against renewed attacks. If the wood ever shows signs of nibbling, the company will lace the briquettes with insecticide, serving up a hearty last supper for the little gluttons. (Go to to see a video of Tom Silva taking on termites.)

Shown: A wood stake set 18 inches off the foundation will tell you if termites are present. If they are, "they'll have a party on that," says Tom.


Photo by Anthony Tieuli

One nightmare the Sharmas didn't have to face was mold. "That surprised me," says Tom. He figured moisture found while demolishing the sunporch would lead to more bad news, but he saw none of the telltale signs, such as water stains and deteriorating fascia boards. That's a good thing, considering that mold can feed on the cellulose in wallboard, mineral-fiber or wood ceiling tile, and even wood studs, resulting in significant property damage. Worse, molds reproduce by releasing spores that can provoke allergic reactions ranging from itchy eyes and coughing to severe skin rashes and worsened asthma. It's wise to check your home for mold in basements, attics, and other poorly ventilated areas a few times each year. On hard surfaces, isolated mold outbreaks (less than 10 square feet) can be cleaned up with diluted bleach or soap and water. Anything larger should be handled by a pro. (Check out for more on mold.)

To the Future

It's no coincidence that most firms doing abatement of lead and asbestos also handle mold. These are the three biggest health hazards in older homes. For the Sharmas, now that the toxins and termites are gone, they can start focusing on the fun stuff—with a truly healthy outlook.