Monday, April 4, 2011

Avoid release of toxic substances during home energy retrofits, renovations, experts urge

Lead-based paint in older homes
constitutes a health risk.
Without adequate training and precaution, renovators, energy retrofitters and do-it-yourselfers who disturb lead-based paint, asbestos insulation and other toxic materials in older buildings put the health of all — especially children — living there at risk of serious health impacts.

Lead exposure can lead to lowered intelligence and worse; asbestos exposure can potentially lead to debilitating long term illness, and certain materials used in renovation can increase other health risks, experts warn in a new report by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).

“Many families in Canada struggle with high energy costs and retrofits help ease the financial burden while aiding the fight against climate change,” says CELA Executive Director Theresa McClenaghan.
“Retrofits, done right, will also make these families’ homes healthier and prevent health problems known to result from mould or inadequate heating and ventilation. Unless care is taken to avoid the release of toxic chemicals and ensure proper ventilation, however, such renovations can create serious health risks, especially for children.”

Report outlines greatest dangers in home retrofitting

The report, “Healthy Retrofits: The Case for Better Integration of Children’s Environmental Health Protection into Energy Efficiency Programs,” offers recommendations for improvement in several areas, including the coverage and design of government energy efficiency incentive programs and policies, the training of energy auditors, the education of contractors and public awareness of the issues.

The main concerns in home renovations were:

-    Lead. Lead was widely used in lead paints and can make its way into the air during renovation work.
-    Asbestos. Asbestos is a known carcinogen for which, like lead, there is no safe exposure level. Disturbing asbestos-containing materials can release microscopic fibres into the air.
-    PCBs. Buildings constructed or renovated in Canada between 1950 and 1978 may also have Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)-contaminated caulk around windows and door frames and in other masonry building materials. PCBs cause cancer in animals.

Choosing healthy building materials
The report notes that sealing and tightening a building to improve energy efficiency can reduce air exchange, resulting in more concentrated levels of indoor pollutants and potential health troubles.

New building materials such as such as caulking, sealants, glues and insulation that contain volatile organic compounds can off-gas or release toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde.

Recent studies have shown that the risk of asthma and respiratory diseases increases in infants or children exposed to formaldehyde or particleboard with formaldehyde-based glues, phthalates or plastic materials and paint fumes.

Polystyrene insulation material also carries potential health risks. It is manufactured by combining two carcinogens, ethylene and benzene, to produce ethylbenzene, which then forms styrene. Polystyrene often contains the flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a long-lasting compound associated with decreased fertility and effects on the thyroid gland.

Seek out information before starting renovations
  • The US EPA offers a free handbook, “Renovate Right”
  • The Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment has a Safe Renovations Fact Sheet Series that will be augmented with additional educational materials as the Healthy Retrofits project moves forward. For more information, go to
Editor’s note: This release has been edited. Read the full public release.

Source: EurekAlert Science News

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