From the outside the house looks innocuous enough: a typical two-family with a sweet little white porch and stucco siding scribbled with colorful lines of ivy. But wait a second—why is that guy going in the front door wearing a white Tyvek suit? And why is there tightly taped, double-thick plastic sealing off the kitchen from the rest of the interior?
You might not expect the removal of a 1950s vinyl floor—one step in the renovation of This Old House’s East Boston project house to require a crew in spacesuits and dual-filter respirators. But then, most people don’t expect their old floor to be loaded with asbestos.
Along with lead and mold, asbestos is one of three big household health threats that can become even bigger when disturbed or exposed during a renovation. And while having any one of these can be bad for you, so can getting rid of it. “We’ve seen all kinds of materials being used to remove contaminated products, some of which introduce new contaminations,” says Gary Bayne, hazardous materials expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
Responsible abatement pros, and less-toxic chemicals and methods, can help you achieve your goal of a healthier home. Here’s what you should know if you discover any of these problems in your house.
The problem: A mineral valued for its fire resistance and tensile strength, asbestos can cause scarring of the lungs (asbestosis) or cancer when its shardlike fibers are inhaled. Banned from building materials in 1972, it can still turn up in the aforementioned floor tiles, as well as in insulation, plaster, mastic, ceiling tiles, caulk, and dozens of other products.
The best solution: As long as your renovation won’t disturb it, the EPA recommends not tampering with asbestos that isn’t “friable”—meaning it doesn’t crumble when touched and isn’t in material that is cracked, chipped, or flaking. In some jurisdictions, you’re allowed to remove nonfriable asbestos yourself, provided you follow strict guidelines. (That’s not the case at the TOH TV job site, where state law requires that the work be done by a pro.)
Friable asbestos, on the other hand, can never be removed by a homeowner. And it should be dealt with anyplace where it can be easily disturbed—say, around a furnace or ductwork—whether you’re renovating or not.
The typical method is to isolate the area, using double layers of taped and glued plastic, and set up a machine to create a vacuum so that no contaminated air escapes the enclosure. Once abatement pros remove the material, they double-bag it and take it to a landfill licensed to handle asbestos. Cleanup involves HEPA-filtered vacuums, a total scrub-down, and disposal of the top layer of plastic sheeting, after which the space must be retested for asbestos before the job can be considered done. A new option lets you encapsulate friable asbestos with a spray-on silastic elastomer (the same rubbery stuff that coats dishwasher racks), turning it into a stable, nonfriable version, which can then be left in place.
Newer, less toxic solvents are also being used to remove tile mastic or vinyl containing nonfriable asbestos. Cutting through the strong adhesives used to require petroleum-based and acetone solvents. But these products and their residues can send off noxious fumes, which are not filtered by the air machines. They can also damage underlying materials, like wood floors. Many companies, including Dec-Tam, which is handling the job at the project house, now use citrus-based mastic removers derived from oranges and lemons, which are biodegradable, free of chlorofluorocarbons, and nontoxic.
The problem: When inhaled or ingested, lead can cause brain damage, digestive disorders, hearing disabilities, seizures, even death. Children under 6 are most susceptible—and also most likely to chew on “mouthable surfaces,” like the painted moldings around windows or doors. Until it was banned in 1978, lead was added to paint to make it harder, more vibrant, and quick-drying. Even if a house has been painted more recently, underlying layers can chip off or get into the air during sanding, scraping, or stripping. You shouldn’t test for lead yourself; the EPA says home testing kits are unreliable. Instead, contact a licensed professional by calling the National Lead Information Center at 800-424-LEAD.
The best solution: In some states, homeowners can remove lead paint themselves if they follow guidelines, including using HEPA masks and vacuums. Experts recommend liquid strippers, which keep the particles wet and out of the air. (Sanding and dry scraping kick up lead dust.) Use a nontoxic, biodegradable stripper, such as 3M’s Safest Stripper, or one with refined citrus oils and no petroleum distillates. An infrared stripper, such as the Speedheater, heats paint enough to separate it from the wood for easy scraping but not so much as to create harmful vapors.
Once the paint is gone, you still need to clean off any residue. Some pros use trisodium phosphate (TSP), which neutralizes lead by turning it into lead phosphate. But TSP is poisonous—some states prohibit its use—and lead phosphate is a suspected carcinogen. Instead, try a phosphate-free, biodegradable detergent, like Ledizolv, which attracts and stabilizes lead dust. The removed paint, and any rags you use for cleanup, can be disposed of with the regular trash.
Of course, the safest solution is to not strip lead paint at all. If you don’t need to get to the underlying woodwork, then you can encapsulate lead with a special primer, such as Child Guard, that seals it and gives it a bitter taste to deter kids from chewing.
The problem: Airborne mold spores can aggravate asthma and allergies and cause hay fever symptoms, breathing problems, and, in rare cases, lung infections. Many people believe that Stachybotrys chartarum—aka “toxic mold”—is also responsible for debilitating medical problems, such as memory loss, but the Centers for Disease Control has yet to confirm a link.
Mold will thrive anywhere it has moisture and food (i.e., organic material), a combination found almost anywhere when the relative humidity is above 60 percent. Look for it in attics, basements, and poorly ventilated crawl spaces; in walls (there were small patches of mold in the walls at the TV project, thanks to cracks in the stucco siding); on the outside of houses; in carpets; even growing inside ducts. The best way to detect it is by sight and smell.
The best solution: Isolated mold outbreaks—under 10 square feet—on hard surfaces can be cleaned up by homeowners with a bucket of diluted bleach or soap and water. (Before tackling mold, suit up with gloves and a type N-95 respirator.) On porous surfaces like wood, borates are the best choice, because even after they dry, they continue to inhibit mold growth. Once the mold is gone, you can paint the surface with a mold-resistant primer like Kilz.
When mold affects a large area of wall or framing, is inside ductwork, or has penetrated into carpet or drywall, removal is a job for a pro. (Most companies that do asbestos and lead abatement also deal with mold.) Of course, just as important as cleanup is fixing the source of the moisture that caused the problem in the first place, which could mean adding ventilation in the attic or basement, installing a bathroom fan, or fixing leaks around doors and windows. Luckily, the mold in the TV show house was easily dealt—a little scrubbing with boric acid and a repair to the stucco took care of the problem. And when the plastic is removed and the kitchen restored, the homeowners can take comfort in the knowledge that their place is not just more beautiful but healthier too.
Are You in Danger?
The best way to determine if you have asbestos, lead, or other hazards in your home is with a professional inspection. Many inspectors are now certified to recognize materials that cause health issues and to take samples for analysis. Dan Steward, president of Pillar to Post, a nationwide inspection company, says you can expect to pay around $100 for each sample taken; a house could require just a few samples or a dozen, depending on size and variations in materials.
If toxins are found, a professional known as an industrial hygienist can draw up a comprehensive remediation plan, with digital photos, for about $1,200. Neither the hygienist nor the inspector should be someone who also performs abatement, which could present a conflict of interest.
For the actual abatement, you may need to hire a licensed abatement pro, depending on your local laws. The cost of abatement—averaging between $2,500 and $5,000 for a two-day job, according to Brian Fitzsimons, president of Dec-Tam—may seem high. But keep in mind that the contractor has the added expense of specialized training and insurance for this dangerous work, a small price to pay to maintain your family’s long-term health.
Where to find it:
Hazardous materials resources: TSCA hotline
(For asbestos info)
National Lead Information Center
EPA Drinking Water Hotline:
EPA Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse:
(For mold info)
Fiberlock and Child Guard: Fiberlock Technologies Inc.
North Reading, MA
Covino Environmental Associates
Pillar to Post
Hazardous materials expert:
Gary Bayne, CHST, CAC
University of California at Berkeley
Ledizolv, LSZ Inc.
White Plains, NY
Infrared paint stripper:
+46 31 336 82 40
Safest Stripper Paint and Varnish Remover; 3M
St. Paul, MN
Kilz Primer, Masterchem Industries LLC