It’s important that you and your contractor know how to keep moisture, pests and contaminants from your house.
Q: We’re doing some major remodeling of our home. What should we be thinking about in terms of not causing health problems during the construction and even making our home healthier?
A: You’re way ahead of most folks by even asking the questions. One excellent resource is the National Center for Healthy Housing (nchh.org). (Full disclosure: I occasionally do work for them.) They’ve developed an approach to thinking about how to make homes healthier organized around seven key principles. If you include these principles into your project, you should make your house healthier. Here are a few of them.
1) Keep it dry. Uncontrolled moisture causes a lot of health problems (mold and other harmful organisms, rot and structural damage). If you’re doing any foundation work, make sure the foundation drainage and damp-proofing are done to the highest standards. This is not a place to save a few bucks. If you have crawl space, be sure the ground is totally covered with plastic sheeting. If you’re having any grading work done, take advantage of having the equipment on site to correct any places where the ground slopes toward the house instead of away from the house. If you’re re-roofing, make sure the gutters and downspouts are in good shape and the drainage is taking water away from the house.
2) Keep it pest-free. Keeping the house dry will help keep lots of critters away. Sealing holes will help keep pests out as well as improve energy efficiency. Large holes in the foundation wall should be blocked with copper mesh and then foamed. Lots of critters (rats, mice, etc.) will eat through the foam if it’s not reinforced.
3) Keep it contaminant-free. One of the first concerns in an older home is lead-based paint. Exposure to lead dust causes a host of health issues, particularly in young children and unborn babies. How old is your house? If it was built before 1978, you should assume there is lead-based paint on the walls, wood trim, doors and windows, etc. If it was built before 1960, you should assume there’s a lot of lead.
Demolition work can create a lot of lead dust, which you and your children can breathe in. It’s very important not to let this happen. By federal law, any contractor doing work that will disturb paint on a home or childcare facility built before 1978 is required to take training in lead-safe practices under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Renovation, Repair and Painting program. Make sure your contractor is certified. If you’re doing the work yourself, you need to educate yourself about how to do it safely. There is a lot of good information on the Internet. Search for “RRP” or “Lead-safe work practices.”
Other issues in older homes might include asbestos, mold, carbon monoxide and other combustion by-products. Sometimes there can be negative health effects from new products you bring into the house. Depending upon the specific product, everything from carpeting to insulation to cabinets to paint might off-gas formaldehyde (a known cancer-causing agent) or other harmful chemicals.
Either educate yourself or hire a contractor who really knows and understands these issues and can talk with you about the costs and potential benefits of various product choices. There is no “right” product or approach for everyone. If you have someone in your family with asthma, for instance, you might want to pay more attention to eliminating the things that are known asthma triggers.
Sometimes, contractors will blow you off when you ask these kinds of questions, often with statements like, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and haven’t killed anyone yet.” There’s a large and growing body of research that shows a connection — and, often, a cause and effect connection — between certain conditions in our homes and health effects. The contractor who doesn’t take this seriously may be the low bidder, but might cost you much more in the end.