Reality TV- Home renovations to die for
Barry Artiste Op.Ed
Home renovation shows, TV channels have a multitude of them. Viewers and armchair handymen and handywomen watch in shock and awe how with a few simple hand tools, craftsmen can turn a plain Jane home into a modern day palace. These renovation shows even show you the good, the bad and the ugly when projects go sideways, either by the DIY (do it yourself) or an incompetent contractor. Who knew Realtor buzzwords such as “Character home” or “Old World Charm” meant a pre 1980 built home?
Home renovation is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America and usually the first thing home buyers and the DIY look to is saving a few dollars by performing DIY projects themselves, either to improve their home or maketheir home more marketable in order to get top dollar.
With homes in the lower mainland fetching a million dollars plus, is it any wonder home renos can be a lucrative moneymaker? Many homeowners looking for extra cash will partition their home into in-law suites.
Sellers with pre 1980 homes usually rely on the advice of realtors who insist if the homeowner wants top dollar in this competitive market updating the home us the key for a quick sell. The majority of homeowners and buyers, including realtors and contractors have to realize that 90% of all pre 1980 built buildings in North America contain hazardous materials in them, such as asbestos and lead containing paints. Asbestos and Lead paint, if inhaled can have long term dilabating health effects and in some cases early death. The simplest of home improvements such as sanding your asbestos containing products in your walls before painting may be disastrous to your health once this dust enters your respiratory system, paper dust masks don't cut it.
Homeowners have to realize, sanding,or performing even the smallest demolition can release cancerous asbestos containing dusts and fiber particulate into the air, which will also settle throughout the home. Think of asbestos as tiny fish hooks, clinging to the lungs, not a pretty sight. Over time, death will be a slow painful process, not immediate, but then it all depends on the current health of the individual, such as young children.
There are a host of other building products used in all pre 1980 homes besides asbestos and lead paints, mercury thermostats and PCB’s are another example. Below are a list of contaminants used in building materials in pre 1980s homes:
A home with asbestos containing materials is not a concern if in good condition and left alone. Asbestos when impacted upon and becoming airborne is a cause for concern.
Below is just a partial list of many asbestos containing building materials found in pre 1980 homes that homeowners usually perform renovations on:
- drywall taping compounds (called plaster mud to seal the drywall joints)
- ceiling texture, plaster skim coats on plaster/lathe walls
- vinyl floor tile, vinyl sheet flooring paper backing
- electrical insulators
- roof shingles and roof felts
- asbestos stone cladding on the outside of some homes
- bathroom grout
- furnace tape on ductwork
- vermiculite, used as attic and wall insulation (similar to kitty litter or tiny square wood cubes has been known to contain asbestos fibres)
Remember, the above is just a partial list, pipe insulation called aircell is common as well. The internet can provide an invaluable resource and photos to assist you in identifying asbestos containing materials you may find in any home built before 1980. Removal of asbestos in the home is not cheap, with drywall removal running around $5.00 to $10.00 per square foot, with $5.00 per square foot for flooring and a minimum of $10.00 per square foot for vermiculite insulation. The costs vary according to the amount of asbestos content of the materials and risk level to the contractor, most homes are classed as moderate risk, ceilings are usually classed as high risk and therefore more expensive.
Sanding, breaking, tearing or demolishing any asbestos containing product without using the proper methods and personnel protective equipment can spell disaster to you and your families long term health as you and your family breath in microscopic asbestos fibers, not to mention it may render your home unsellable.
Lead, lead piping, lead sheeting and lead caulking, but more importantly lead containing paints were common in the pre 1980 homes, though mostly used as an exterior paint, it can be found on the interior trim. Sanding lead paint without the proper precautions and breathing in lead dust is one way to shorten your life and poison your internal organs.
That cute pre 1980s round or rectangular, usually gold coloured thermostat housings on the wall or control box on your old furnace can hide a glass filled mercury ampoule, break it and watch the fun trying to chase those millions of little silver balls spreading all over the house. Trying to pick up mercury by hand is impossible, unless you use your gold wedding ring, which will attract mercury faster than a homeless person outside your ATM machine.
Breathing in mercury fumes, (though most likely this mercury is so small an amount to affect healthy adults) may cause organ damage if ingested by pets or infants who spend time on the floor as so many do. Mercury has a low boiling point, turning into a vapour at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
PCBs can be found in flourescent light ballasts manufactured in the pre 1980 days. The amount of PCB in a ballast’s capacitor is minute, less than a thimble full. Though not hazardous to you if you leave it intact, it is hazardous to the environment when you dispose of them as regular waste into a landfill. Best indicator to know if you have PCB ballasts, is to check the ballast to see if it says NO PCBs. If it does not say this, chances are its PCB containing ballast.
Additional unknown hazards, regardless of the age of the home.
Radon gas, from Radium, (a progeny of uranium) is a radioactive gas which has been found to be present in granite counters which seem to be all the rage and a renovators dream. If you are considering a granite counter it is best to have it tested for radon gas before purchasing it. Either use a lab to come to your home to conduct the test or get the company you purchase the granite counter from to provide a laboratory certificate certifying that it is radon free. To be fair, radon is everywhere, from the air we breathe to our water. For some though, radon is a concern, particularly when buying granite countertops.
Radon in the home
Radon in the home and soils is normally not a concern west of the Rocky Mountains, though it has been questioned that aggregate gravel possibly taken from the North east of British Columbia or the Rockies may have been used in the making of concrete foundations. Chances are if it has, it may only have minute traces of radon in them. In my opinion, not worth testing a foundation for radon gas.
Mold can find its way into home, mold is everywhere, but certain molds are insidious and can be hiding inside your walls. Opening up the walls during a renovation, especially pre war homes can release mould spores into the air, which can cause allergic reactions or respiratory distress to those with environmental sensitivities. Renting an industrial style HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filtered air scrubber to run continuously while you renovate can save you a world of grief by capturing all dust and mold generated during your renovation project.
Global markets who import building materials.
Currently there are thousands of uses for asbestos in thousands of manufactured products on the market and all legally exportable to Canada.
For example, Europe did not ban asbestos until the early to mid 1990s; some flooring from Europe during that time could have found its way to Canadian markets in the 1990s.
One word of advice, if you are not sure if any building material you are going to remove, it is best to take a small sample of it by first wetting it thoroughly and with a sharp x-acto knife take 3 samples from each area in various locations, preferably from the highest upper corner of a wall or ceiling or corner of a floor which is less likely to have been damaged and repaired recently with non asbestos materials. For lead containing paint, take a sample from the highest point if possible.
Ensure each sample is at least 2 inches in diameter and place each sample separately into a plastic sandwich bag and bring it any analytical laboratory in your city. Once you have taken a sample, place masking tape temporarily or caulking over the hole in the wall or building material where you took the sample from to prevent any hazardous release. Take these samples to any local materials testing laboratory in your area. These labs are called ACM (asbestos containing materials) environmental laboratories or analytical laboratories. The cost to analyse per sample is usually around $45.00.
What you can do to protect yourself from these hazards in your neighbourhood?
If you witness a home in the stages of demolition in your neighborhood, ask yourself, has the asbestos been removed from this home before being demolished? Are these people playing Russian roulette with the health in your neighborhood, by demolishing a pre 1980s home. Do these people realise they may be releasing asbestos fibers into the neighborhood, asbestos fibres which can become airborne and drawn into your windows, furnace fresh air intake or nearby children’s playground? Most contractors perform house demolitions on the sly, one signif it is done on the weekend when provincial Worksafe BC inspectors are not working. This is a widely performed practice performed by many a demolition contractor looking to save a buck, particularly in the lower mainland.
If in doubt, ask the Contractor, all contractors engaged in asbestos removal must have a permit called a Notice of Project, even your contractor. If a contractor cannot provide proof, or provide a "Notice of Project" then perhaps something is amiss. By law, contractors must be able to produce permits and documentation as well as post these documents at the site of the home for inspectors. If you do not get a suitable answer, chances are there isn't one.
Will a call to WorkSafeBC 1 888 922-2768 stop this demolition? You can bank on it!!
Remember knowledge is power, ask the pertinent questions of your realtor or contractor, your family’s health and well being depend on it. Do yourself a favour, watch a home renovation show featuring a pre 1980s home renovation and see if they warn the viewers of any of the hidden health dangers?
In ending, if you still wish to tackle home renovations on your own, the yellow pages and internet are full of licensed, bonded, experienced and knowledgeable hazardous materials abatement contractors who can remove these building materials safely and cost effectively from your home so you can be a true DIY and tackle that renovation project like a pro, knowing your home is now a clean slate for you and your family to start on.