Renovation and Other Environmental Risks in Our Homes

Last winter I wrote about home water contamination risks and how to avoid them. Several other home environmental risks, especially for young children, may be worsened when we re-do a room in our houses or bring out old furniture, like heirloom cribs and chairs. I’ll review several of the most important ones in this column.

Lead is not good for any of us, but infants in their first year or two are particularly susceptible to lead, which can cause permanent brain damage. Lead used to be in most paints, helping with gloss and durability. Amounts began to decline in the 1950s, as people began to appreciate the risks; and lead was fully banned from paints by 1978 (although not in some imported toys even now). So the primary risks are with paints older than that. Lead also is found in solder fumes and importantly, in many home pottery glazes, from which it can leach.

Infants and toddlers crawl around on dusty floors where paint chips and dust accumulate; and they put everything in their mouths. Babies’ risk of lead injury is further enhanced when they have low iron levels, because both lead and iron are competitively absorbed by similar mechanisms in the gut; iron deficiency induces enhanced absorption of either.  Iron stores are depleted, unless supplemented, as babies grow quickly and in-utero supplies of iron are used up, by age 9-12 months. Breast fed babies get less iron than do babies fed an iron enriched formula. So, if babies are crawling around in lead dust, they absorb more lead, which can do more damage. And, in higher doses, lead is not good for adults either; it can cause anemia, kidney damage, neuropathy, and psychiatric symptoms.

You can find out if your pottery, toys, heirloom furniture or home (the walls, baby-level window sills or stairs and railings) have lead paint, by doing home testing with kits you can buy on-line or from hardware stores. Swabs, made by several manufacturers (Home Alert, and others), to test 4 places cost $8 or so. If you find lead, then more extensive testing and clean up can be done by with the help of the Maine lead testing service (…). And all babies should have blood tests for lead at least once by age 12 months.

Asbestos is a second common environmental hazard incorporated in many of our houses before 1980. Chronic exposure to asbestos dust causes lung scarring, and, over time, the irritation in the lungs, as well as elsewhere in the body, can induce cancers; lung and lung lining (mesothelioma) cancers are the most common but gut and other cancers are also increased. Asbestos is clearly not good for adults or babies. Shipyard workers and brake grinders used to be the most asbestos exposed patients I saw. And town water supplies have sometimes been contaminated near mining sites. In our homes, suspect asbestos-containing building materials include thermal system 
insulation like fire mats, ceiling tile, exterior siding, rigid panels, attic and wall insulation,
 vinyl floor tile and resilient floor covering (linoleum). Some specific building materials that do
 not require inspection, sampling, and analysis for asbestos include: wood, fiberglass,
glass, plastic, metal, laminates, exterior caulking and glazing, and gypsum board when joint compound was used only
 as a filler and not as a layered component. And some materials in good condition, like flooring and siding, can be left alone or covered, until they will be impacted by renovation or demolition activities. Be careful to document the locations of covered asbestos, because real estate laws require disclosure of all asbestos at the time of sale.

State regulations require you to have expert advice if you undertake any home renovation which might disturb asbestos-containing materials greater than 3 linear or square feet ( State certified contractors are available as well; most use “wet down” techniques to minimize aerosolization of the particles, and stipulated safe disposal of the materials.

Mercury used to be a much bigger problem. As children, we played with liquid mercury! And it was the cause of “mad hatters” disease in workers, who made hats with mercury-containing chemical in the 19th century, because it can cause mental illness as it progresses. Nowadays, industrial water supply, fluorescent light bulbs (enhanced by the recent push for electricity conservation by their use), and our local fish and other food source contaminations are the main risks. If you break an old thermometer or new fluorescent bulb, here are helpful suggestions on how to minimize home contamination (

Other home environmental contaminants are rarer or less lethal. Carbon monoxide can cause headaches and dizziness at low doses, coma at high doses. Most home owners are aware of carbon monoxide risk from incomplete ventilation of exhaust from furnaces, cars, generators, etc. Mold, which grows in damp areas, disperses spores and other allergenic dust.

Finally, second hand smoke presents a serious risk of lung cancer, emphysema and asthma for all of us. Not smoking is the best long term solution; but, if you do, don’t smoke in the house, for the sake of the others who live or visit there.

So, be aware of these risks as you re-do your home, heating systems, or get ready for a new young family member.

Dan Onion
Vienna Health Officer


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