Indoor Air Quality, Part 1: Demolition Pollutants

Jim Mallery

Part 1 of a four-part series, Green Renovation: Indoor Air Quality

Remodeling is dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

Lousy air quality is a hidden danger of remodeling. This first of four articles looks at the causes and remedies for indoor air pollution associated with remodeling your old house. Part 2 will look at the specific danger of asbestos contamination. Subsequent articles will examine ways to maintain indoor air quality and special problems presented during the construction phase of your project.

Remodeling is fraught with dangers, many of them short-lived--hammered fingers, slivers, budget excesses, and spousal disagreements among them. But serious hazards also exist, including the sinister danger of indoor air pollution. And as we'll see, an old house can have the most serious problems.

You might be inclined to blow off the concern. Lungs and air passages, after all, are self-cleaning--a little dust now, some clean air later, and all is well. But it's not that simple.

Poor Indoor Air Quality from Remodeling Has Lasting Effects

The effects of indoor air pollution are subtle and cumulative. You may not notice much now--maybe you have a muddy nose in the morning. But asthma, COPD or emphysema--and maybe even cancer--can be around the block. Too often, a person learns the need for a dust mask and other preventative measures after the breathing problems arise.

So, just where are these hidden dangers?

  1. Attic. If you are going to work up there, wear a dust mask, long sleeves and pants, and shower when you're done. Dust builds up through the decades; you may have rodent droppings, which in some cases can carry fatal viruses. Just creeping around the trusses can stir up clouds of dust. If you are removing sections of the ceiling, it's wise to have the insulation professionally removed--if it is blown-in insulation, they will vacuum it out, saving your house from tons of dust. If you are just cutting a hole, say for a skylight, push all insulation well away from the proposed hole, sweeping or vacuuming dirt away from the spot.
  2. Crawl space. What can be said for the attic pretty much goes for the crawl space. It's as undesirable as a space in your house can get.
  3. Carpets. Until you have pulled out old carpets, you don't appreciate how much filth a vacuum cleaner misses. Besides the dirt and decay that filters through to the pad and subfloor, there are the unpleasant spots where Fido and Mittens had accidents.
  4. Lead paint. Before 1978, lead-based paint was widely used. Lead, which disturbs neurological development, is particularly dangerous to children. It also can cause digestive problems and joint pains in adults. Kids can be affected by eating paint chips, and both children and adults can be affected by inhaling dust from sanding.
  5. Wallboard removal. Just ripping out walls creates unbelievable dust that will permeate your home unless you take precautions.
  6. Mold. Be careful if your are working in damp areas, or areas that once were damp. Black mold especially can produce toxic spores that wreak havoc with respiratory systems.

These are some indoor air problem areas for remodelers. Next we look at the most serious concern: asbestos contamination. After that, we will look at remedies and problems involving indoor air quality and your new construction.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing, and rebuilding homes.

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