Old House Journal - - Restore -

We all take stupid chances when we’re young, and hap­pily short­term ex­po­sure mostly leaves us un­scathed. Still, word about haz­ards should go out, espe­cially those from de­mo­li­tion—a com­mon DIY job. If lungs are al­ready vul­ner­a­ble, even a small re­pair can hurt. I was re­cov­er­ing from a bad bout of bron­chi­tis last win­ter when my hus­band un­der­took a mi­nor plas­ter re­pair with sand­ing. He wore a dust mask, but the in­escapable, fine par­tic­u­late dust in the house left me gasp­ing.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to know what lurks in­side old walls, but a short list of pos­si­bil­i­ties in­cludes lead (paint), as­bestos (in­su­la­tion, floor­ing), and formalde­hyde (par­ti­cle­board, ad­he­sives). When scrap­ing paint, do­ing light demo, or work­ing with prod­ucts that con­tain par­tic­u­lates or aerosols, wear a mask de­signed to fil­ter out pol­lu­tants, such as an N95 mask. They cost less than $1 each for a box of 20 and are widely avail­able.

For heavy de­mo­li­tion or work with paint or chem­i­cals that con­tain high level of VOCs (volatile or­ganic com­pounds), wear a half- or full­face res­pi­ra­tor (about $15 to $35 each). Res­pi­ra­tors seal tightly to the face and come with car­tridges that block the in­hala­tion of gases. We’re thank­ful we took the ad­vice of our neigh­bor (a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer) and used half-face res­pi­ra­tors when we re­fin­ished floors us­ing an oil-based polyurethane con­tain­ing VOCs.

If you are con­sid­er­ing removing vin­tage floor­ing or in­su­la­tion around heat ducts, which could con­tain as­bestos, do not touch it, even to take a sam­ple for test­ing. Dam­aged as­bestos re­leases mi­cro­scopic fibers into the air, which can be in­haled or swal­lowed. Ex­po­sure can cause lung can­cers. Nor­mally a re­sult of long-term in­dus­trial ex­po­sure, mesothe­lioma has a la­tency pe­riod of 20 to 50 years and is in­cur­able.

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